Stress vs Fight or Flight?

by Hervé Boisdé


While I was on my way to work today I witnessed the perfect example of Fight or Flight. I was walking towards a deli to buy some juice when I heard someone behind me speaking very loudly in a very agitated voice. I looked back and saw a young woman holding hands with her boyfriend and almost screaming as she spoke. I heard something like “I would rather be homeless than be in that situation!”. She was clearly very upset. When I was in the deli she came around the corner facing me and instinctively raised her arm as if to punch. I must have had a stunned expression because she immediately said “excuse me” and walked by. This all happened in less than a second. This woman was obviously in crisis mode and on full alert. Her stress hormones had kicked in producing adrenaline and cortozol and preparing her body to fight or flee at any moment.

Fight or Flight is acute stress and it’s a survival instinct. If you’ve ever experienced a sense of panic or heightened anxiety with rapid breathing or fast heart-rate then you’ve experienced Fight or Flight. It’s almost impossible to go through life without experiencing it at some point since our brains are very sensitive to threats. These can be physical threats to our body or emotional threats to our sense of balance. Even something as innocuous as a sour expression on another person’s face while we are talking to them can be perceived as a threat. “What did I say that was wrong?” “Do they not like me?” or another similar thought can flash through our minds and cause us to feel out of balance. And although we might not go into panic mode we are still experiencing a stress response that can take a while to calm down from.

Fight or Flight isn’t supposed to last a long time. Originally it was designed to allow humans to escape mortal threats like wild animals or a dangerous caveman. So you would flee or fight off the threat and then go back to feeling safe again relatively quickly. But in modern human life things aren’t so simple. Sometime we feel threatened or unsafe by a situation that can’t be resolved quickly and we can get stuck in Fight or Flight for long periods of time. Our ancient nervous systems simply aren’t well adapted to modern living.

That’s why it’s important to manage stress and use techniques to get out of panic mode. Exercise, meditation, breathing techniques, yoga and hypnosis are all great at calming the nervous system and getting back to the ‘safety response’ - the opposite of Fight or Flight. When we do that our body stops producing stress hormones and instead produces feel-good chemicals like serotonin or endorphins. Our body can also regulate our immune, digestive and metabolic systems which get temporarily taken off the priority list when we go into acute stress.

It’s especially important to manage stress when we have a tendency to be anxious since Fight or Flight is a habitual response and we can get triggered more easily if we tend to panic easily. But the good news is like all habits, we can change and develop a healthier response to our environment. Being dedicated to self-care and actually reminding ourselves that we are safe can go a long way to changing these patterns, and being more adapted to the modern world.