Fight or Flight Stress Response
The fight flight response is hardwired to when we were living in caves. It is historically a male response and involves very little communication or social interaction beyond the minimal that allows survival when vanquishing other warriors or stalking large game to feed the tribe. Silent and individual activities are involved in the warrior pursuits and in the stalking of animals. Chatter is not particularly likely to achieve a good outcome.
The fight or flight theory was developed in the early 1900’s by physiologist Walter Cannon but the research involved only male participants [this becomes relevant later in our discussion]. The fight flight response is an acute psychological [mental] and physiological [physical] reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is threatening, either mentally or physically. The body reacts by supercharging itself to either tackle the stressor head-on [fight] or to get away from the situation [flight]. All other systems are put on hold until the threat is resolved or avoided. While this response was historically useful for situations of physical threat [like a bear attacking you], in today’s busy society it is often triggered by non-life-threatening situations such as in traffic or when someone knocks off your favourite pen.
During this reaction, adrenaline and cortisol are released – enhancing the body’s capacity to deal with the threat, giving the body a burst of energy and strength by:-
- increasing heart rate
- increasing blood pressure
- increasing oxygen consumption
- shunting blood flow to major muscle groups [and away from digestion]
- improving hearing and reaction times; &
- decreasing the perception of pain
Once the perceived threat has gone, the body takes between 20-60 minutes to relax and recover. This is where many of us run into problems. In our times of chronic and repetitive perceived stress, recovery often doesn’t happen quickly enough or at all. The body therefore remains in survival mode. Long term exposure to elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline has many negative effects including poor sleep, weight gain, digestive problems, agitation and, eventually, various forms of heart disease.
The fight response is often initiated when you think you can overcome a threat or stressor. Regardless of the type of stressor, your thinking is: “I can beat this thing.” The advantage to this response is that the threat is engaged and dealt with as a challenge. If this works, all good but if it doesn’t then you could be left feeling agitated and overwhelmed and your self-esteem might take a beating. This can negatively impact any future reactions to similar perceived stressors. The fight response is most often not the best way to resolve issues in relationships.
Just a heads up – the flight response is the alternative course of action when we have no chance of winning or if we fight, we could lose life or limb. Often this is the best response to engage in when dealing with conflict in relationships and social interactions. It gives everyone a chance to cooldown and self-sooth. However, if you are using the flight response to avoid and not resolve the situation then this can cause significant negative physiological, psychological and relationship issues. If the threat is going to harm or main you, flight is good. However, if your flight response is because you dislike conflict and don’t know how to resolve the issues then this can be considered to be an avoidance response. This is not being proactive and will likely result in unresolved issues. The flight response to stressors or conflict can be used as a circuit breaker and you are best served if you come back to the conflict issues after cooling down and self-soothing [see our course on safe words to learn more about how a safe word can save your relationships].