by Kimberly Allen, RN
Most of us have felt some degree of fear, but how about outright bone chilling terror like if someone was trying to kill you? Many of us that have experienced fear in turn also experienced the “fight or flight” response that is our built in alarm system.
The fight or flight response is one of the main reasons humans have been able to survive on earth. So what is the “fight or flight” response? It is a built in alarm system that is triggered anytime we perceive that we are in danger, either physically or psychologically. The thing with the fight or flight response is that it’s automatic. In other words as soon as our brain receives a signal from one of our senses, like our eyes and ears, that they have detected a potential danger the brain then triggers the fight or flight response before we even consciously realize it has been triggered. Once the brain has received the signal of potential danger it releases an avalanche of more than 30 different stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline as well as cortisol, along with a rush of electrical impulses, in all there are over 1400 separate biochemical and physiological changes that take place simultaneously in your body. All this has an intense and wide ranging effect on our body’s physiology and biochemistry as well as our psychology.
Though our fight or flight response is crucial to our survival it does have some draw backs. When the area of the brain that triggers the fight or flight response receives the signal it is automatic whether the threat is real or imagined. The area of the brain that receives the signal from our senses is called the amygdala and the amygdala can not ascertain whether or not the threat is a real threat or a perceived threat. The truth is most of the time the amygdala gets it wrong and when the fight or flight response is activated it’s a false alarm.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the fight or flight response was designed for occasional short term use to handle emergency situations like a wild animal suddenly in our path, you’re either going to kill or be killed. However, life today is incredibly more complicated than it was just a hundred years ago. There are significantly more stressors today that can trigger the fight or flight response. Most of the stressors today are psychological in origin like worries over finances, health, work and home to name a few. Unfortunately these stressors tend to last for anywhere from days to years. These modern stressors continually trigger the fight or flight response making it over active. This means there are more stress hormones running around in your blood stream than you should have. The increase in the stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can lead to a variety of health related issues. This situation is then compounded by a “typical Western diet”, high in fat and sugar. This type of diet leads to increased blood clotting and blood pressure as well as even more stress hormones running through you blood stream.
Despite it’s draw backs the fight or flight response continues to be a crucial part of our body’s defense system. You may not run the risk of being attacked by a wild animal but it is the fight or flight response that will help you find your way of a burning building or respond to a burglar in your house.
The best way to keep your fight or flight response and the level of stress hormones with in normal limits is exercise. exercise help to counter act the stress response because it reduces your blood pressure and blood clotting, boosts the immune system and relaxes muscles as well as increasing metabolism which in turn burns up those extra stress hormones which makes the sympathetic nervous system less sensitive.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.