In the recent decade much has been said and written on stress.  It became our unwanted companion at work, in relationships and generally in life. There is enough of general information on how to deal with stress and how to relax. However much less is being said on prolonged or permanent stress, how it compromises human health and how dangerous it can be.

In this article we will address the physiological condition called “fight of flight response” (FOF). Initially, FOF occurs when a person perceives danger and instinctively prepares to defend against it. It may be an external or internal event, such as an accident or fearful thoughts. This response occurs as a natural defense reaction; it is activated by the sympathetic nervous system and is accompanied by: increased levels of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, increased heartbeat and sweat, raised blood pressure, reduced perception of pain, activated muscles, and blood diverted from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs.

During the evolution, this response has helped us survive in the predators’ world. Today, we no longer have to run from a hungry tiger, but we have to face the financial uncertainty, burning deadlines, abusive relationships, threat-inducing managers and other difficulties of the modern hyper connected and accelerated world. These stressors no longer threaten our life, however the trigger the same survival instinct. The FOF response, as indicates its very name, is there to make you fight or escape; however, none of these options are possible today. We cannot hide in the woods from a toxic relationship, hit the boss or escape the exam room. Societal rules prescribe us to “deal” with it, which most often means ignoring our physical responses and suppressing the emotions.

The FOF energy was meant to be released through the physical activity and allow the normal physiological processes to return. But since we could not discharge it, it remains in our bodies intoxicating us.

Short experiences activating FOF are as normal for the human beings as for animals, and may even be beneficial to keep our defense systems in shape. However, when activated too often and for too long, it may take a chronic form. All people have different stress thresholds, but highly sensitive people and people with a fragile nervous system are more susceptible to fall into chronic FOF than others.

And this is when it becomes really dangerous for our long-term physical and emotional health.

In this case, your adrenaline and cortisol levels remain elevated; the brain parts such as amygdala and hippocampus remain activated with no real need, the immune system goes down, the blood pressure and sugar level go up, your digestive system weakens; you remain hypervigilant and your capacity of rational thinking is reduced.

Chronic FOF may occur not only during repetitive elevated stress, but after an accident, a psychic trauma, a strong emotional distress or while going through a disease. If this has been your case you are very likely to have chronically activated FOF which finds expression in the following symptoms:

-      Constant background sensation of threat / unsafety

-      Feeling “generally broken” and damaged

-      Anxiety

-      Increased emotional response to seemingly normal daily challenges

-      Insomnia, headache and fatigue

-      Digestive problems

-      Low appetite and low sexual desire

-      Superficial breath

-      Back pain and general muscle pain.

It is dramatic that we grow up not learning anything about this basicphysiological reaction and that conventional medicine does not recognize the chronic FOF response as a standalone and frequent health problem. Only symptoms described above get treated, but as long as your sympathetic nervous system stays in chronic arousal, the cause remains unaddressed and therefore symptoms will reemerge.

The more time you spend in this condition, the higher becomes your risk to develop a depression or chronic anxiety syndrome, general inflammation, an autoimmune disorder, neurological, cardiovascular and other severe diseases.

Preventing FOF

To protect ourselves from psychological dangers we should learn to consciously pay attention to our internal condition and recognize the FOF response. Some people may feel tense muscles and increased heartbeat; others may not have physical symptoms but anxiety, fear, depression etc. By learning to recognize these signals we can remind ourselves that the situation is not life threatening and better manage negative emotions fueling the physiological response.

One of the most effective ways to manage overwhelming emotions is naming them. For instance, next time you feel scared, simply say “I am scared” in a conscious way, feeling your fear. This will calm the physical response and allow you to stay in the present moment. Another most powerful effective way to manage the FOF response is physical exercise. Through it we can metabolize the toxic hormones and release them from our system.

There are numerous other ways to activate the relaxation response: time in the nature, meditation, prayer, deep breathing, vacation, etc.

Exiting chronic FOF

There is bad news and good news on how you can exit the FOF.

The bad news is that with parasympathetic nervous system activated, conventional techniques for stress relief listed above will be unlikely to help, because your system has gone too much in an alarm state and “forgot” how to relax. It is like you cannot extinguish a big fire with just a few buckets of water.

The good news is that the mere fact of realizing you are in the FOF is already a first step to success. Our brain has a wonderful quality of neuroplasticity and the capacity of self-observation called mindfulness, which are there to help you exit the FOF condition in a matter of hours.  This act requires learning a number of basic concepts of functioning of the brain, physiology of stress as well as simple mindfulness techniques.

If you recognize yourself being stuck in the FOF, you can schedule a one-time consultation involving theoretical knowledge and practical exercises on how to regain balance in your nervous system and return to the condition of calm. For the best results, the consultation has to be face-to-face.

Feel free to contact Neuroptimist for more information.  

References

  1. Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers.
  2. McNally, R. (2003). Remembering trauma.
  3. Cannon, Walter (1932). Wisdom of the Body.
  4. Hans Selye: The Discovery of Stress. Brain Connection https://brainconnection.brainhq.com/2013/04/05/hans-selye-the-discovery-of-stress/
  5. Jansen, A, Nguyen, X, Karpitsky, V, Mettenleiter, M (27 October 1995). "Central Command Neurons of the Sympathetic Nervous System: Basis of the Fight-or-Flight Response". Science Magazine 5236 (270).
  6. What is the "fight or flight response?" http://www.thebodysoulconnection.com/EducationCenter/fight.html
  7. Understanding the stress response. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response