Also know as an "acute stress response," the fight-or-flight response is caused by the triggering of stress hormones caused by a stressful situation. Your heart rate and breathing will speed up, and you may sweat profusely.
It's called a fight-or-flight response because originally, it evolved as a survival mechanism, prompting animals to make the choice as to whether they would fight or flee a threat to their lives. Now, people may have this acue stress response to less dramatic stressors.
When the brain perceives a "threat" or stressful situation, the amygdala interprets the danger and alerts the hypothalamus, which acts as a command center, alerting the rest of the body to the danger through the autonomic nervous system. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system to send signals to the adrenal glands through autonomic nerves. The adrenal glands release the hormone epinephrine, or adrenaline. Adrenaline flowing through your body triggers the physical response to stress: rapid heart rate, soaring blood pressure, quickened breathing, and heightened awareness. Meanwhile, the hypothalamus activates the HPA axis, consisting of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands, and releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH, in turn, travels to the pituitary gland, which releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then heads to the adrenal glands, which release cortisol.
These hormones and chemicals are what keep the body on high alert. Once the stressors dissipate, cortisol levels drop, and the parasympathetic nervous system acts as a brake to the response to stress.
Consequences to the fight-or-flight reaction
If you've experienced a fight-or-flight reaction to stress and anxiety in your life, you know how unpleasant the sensation is. Beyond the physical discomfort, though, chronic stress and a frequent acute stress response can have detrimental effects on both your physical and mental health. Chronic stress is associated with an increased risk for the following conditions:
• Heart disease (especially in post-menopausal women; pre-menopausal women are better protected)
• Hypertension, heart attack, or stroke
• Ulcers or severe stomach pain
• Diarrhea or constipation
• Menstruation complications: absent or irregular menstrual cycles, painful periods, and cycle changes
• More extreme PMS symptoms and side effects
• More extreme menopausal symptoms and side effects
• Reduced sexual desire
• Panic attacks
• Muscle tension or muscle atrophy
Chronic stress can also cause complications in people who suffer from other conditions. For instance, people who are already vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes, such as obese people and certain races and ethnicities, may be all the more susceptible to the condition, because the liver produces more glucose during a fight-or-flight response. The extra blood sugar is reabsorbed in most people, but can cause diabetes in the vulnerable population.
So, what can you do about it?
Fortunately, there are some ways to calm your body's reaction to stress—and reduce stress altogether. If you practice some or all of these techniques routinely, you may find that you are more able to cope with anxiety and stressful situations and feel calmer and less anxious overall.
1. Practice relaxation exercises.
Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are exercises that can calm you both physically and psychologically. Practicing these exercises can help you relax when you experience an anxiety attack or fight-or-flight reaction to stressors and can make you less susceptible to extreme reactions to fear and anxiety in the future, if you perform them routinely. You might incorporate them into your daily routine, practicing as soon as you get up in the morning or before you go to sleep.
2. Perform mindfulness or meditation.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation that asks you to turn your awareness to a repeated action, such as your breathing. You might also visualize a peaceful scene.
Mindfulness can help you turn your focus away from and let go of negative thoughts. If you are having trouble getting started or can't seem to let go of persistent thoughts, try a guided meditation or attend a class to help you hone your practice.
While some meditations involve sitting or lying down, you can perform other mindfulness exercises while walking, exercising, or doing activities that don't require you to think about things.
Exercise has numerous health benefits. In addition to helping you lose weight, increasing your energy levels, reducing pain, and improving your skin health, regular exercise can improve your sleep quality, make you happier overall, and help you relax.
You don't need to go for a long run or bike ride to reap the benefits of exercise, either. Even less rigorous forms of exercise and those that focus more on repeated movements or poses, such as yoga or a brisk walk, can allow you to relax and experience these health and psychological benefits.
4. Make small lifestyle changes.
Some actions you are taking—such as ignoring your sleep needs and eating an unhealthy diet—may be making you more susceptible to stress.
Fish, avocados, nuts, fruits with vitamin C (such as oranges and grapefruits), dark chocolate, oatmeal, berries, and green, leagy vegatables (such as kale) can help you fight stress.
Meanwhile, you should avoid foods that are high in refined sugar (like ice cream, cookies, and cake), sodium, and caffeine. Alcohol is another substance you should try to limit.
Getting enough sleep is also important for your physical and psychological health. Of course, improving your sleep hygiene is easier said than done. If you're having trouble sleeping, check out our 10 strategies for getting a good night's rest.