Stress Awareness Month: The Fight-or-flight Response

Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992 to increase public awareness about both the causes for and management of the modern stress epidemic.

Millions of people around the UK are experiencing high levels of stress and it is damaging to our health. Stress is one of the great public health challenges of the current time, but it still isn’t being taken as seriously as physical health concerns.

Stress is a significant factor in mental health problems including anxiety and depression. It is also linked to physical health problems like heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia and digestive problems.

Estimates suggest that between 60—80% of primary care visits involve a stress-related component. This highlights why it is so important to learn stress management techniques and make healthy lifestyle changes, to protect ourselves from the negative impact of chronic (or long-term) stress.

We each need to understand what is causing us personal stress, and learn what steps we can take to reduce it for ourselves and those around us.

What is Stress?

A Physiological Reaction: The Fight-or-flight Response

The fight-or-flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight the stressor or flee the situation. These responses are evolutionary adaptations to increase chances of survival in threatening situations.

In response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated by the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands, triggering the release of catecholamines (including adrenaline and noradrenaline). This chain of chemical reactions results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels.

Overly frequent, intense, or inappropriate activation of the fight or flight response is implicated in a range of clinical conditions including most anxiety disorders, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A helpful part of treatment for these conditions is an improved understanding of the purpose and function of the fight-or-flight response. 

You can probably think of a time when you experienced the fight-or-flight response. When faced with something frightening, you can feel your heartbeat get quicker, you start breathing faster, and your entire body becomes tense and ready to take action.

The fight-or-flight response can happen in the face of an imminent physical danger (such as encountering a growling dog whilst on a walk around your neighbourhood) or as a result of a psychological threat (such as when preparing to give a presentation at school or work).

Psychological Responses

In addition to physiological reactions there is also a psychological component to the fight-or-flight response. Automatic reactions include faster thoughts and increased attentional focus on important targets such as the source of the threat and potential avenues for escape.

Subsequent psychological responses can include appraisals about the meaning of the body reactions. For example, patients with panic disorder often misinterpret physiological fight or flight responses as signs of an impending catastrophe (“I’m having a heart attack”“I’m going to die”, or “If this carries on I’ll go mad”).

Why the Fight-or-flight Response is Important

The physiological responses associated with fight or flight can play a key role in surviving truly threatening situations. However, many patients suffering from anxiety disorders or other conditions may have threat systems which have become over-active, or which are insufficiently counterbalanced by activity in the parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system controls the body’s ability to relax. It’s sometimes called the “rest and digest” state.

If you have tried self-help strategies and feel that you need more support, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor or therapist about your concerns.

Effective help is available – Get in touch.