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Understanding the Fight or Flight Response: What You Need to Know

How do you respond in stressful situations? Understanding a little about the fight or flight response can help you notice how it affects your body. Once you know the effect that it has on you, you can work out the best steps for you to be able to cope with it more effectively.

What is the fight or flight response?

  • The body’s natural physiological reaction to stressful, frightening, or dangerous events.

  • It is activated by the perception of threat, quickly igniting the sympathetic nervous system and releasing hormones.

  • It is the body's way of preparing to face a threat or run to safety.

The well known historical example that we often use is facing a hungry saber-tooth tiger, you could only run or fight.

Whereas many of the high-arousal situations we face in the modern world are more psychological in nature (e.g., a school exam, learning a new challenging skill).

The underlying goal of springing into fight, flight, or freeze, is to decrease, end, or evade the danger to return to a state of calm and control.

What to look out for with the different types of responses:

Fight Response

When you feel in danger and believe you can overpower the threat, you are in fight mode. Your brain sends signals throughout your body to rapidly prepare for the physical demands of fighting.

Most signs to tell you are in a fight response include:

  • Tight jaw or grinding of the teeth

  • Urge to punch something

  • Feeling intense anger

  • Desire to stomp or kick

  • Crying

  • Glaring at people, conserving angrily

  • Upset stomach, feels like knots or burning

  • Attacking the source of the danger

Flight Response

This is believing you can defeat the danger by running away. In some cases, running away is the best decision. Take a burning building as an example. Unless you are a firefighter, it is best to get out of there as fast as you can.

These emotional and physical responses signify you are in flight mode:

  • Excessively exercising

  • Feeling fidgety or tense or trapped

  • Constantly moving legs, feet, and arms

  • Restless body that will not stop moving

  • Sensation of numbness

  • Dilated / darting eyes

Freeze Response

When one feels neither like fighting nor flighting, freezing is an option. This list of responses lets you know you are in freeze mode:

  • Sense of dread

  • Feeling stiff, heavy, cold, numb

  • Loud, pounding heart

  • Sensing tolerated stress

How can the fight-or-flight response help you?

  • We know it plays a critical role in how we deal with stress and danger.

  • The response prepares the body to either fight or flee.

  • By priming your body for action, you are better prepared to perform under pressure.

  • The stress created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat.

  • This type of stress can help you perform better in situations where you are under pressure to do well, such as at work, school or competitions.

  • And of course cases where the threat is life-threatening, the fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response makes it more likely that you will survive the danger.

The unhelpful side of this stress response

While the fight-or-flight response happens automatically, that doesn't mean that it is always accurate. Sometimes we respond in this way even when there is no real threat. This is because the fight-or-flight response can be triggered by both real and imaginary threats.

Phobias are good examples of how the fight-or-flight response might be falsely triggered in the face of a perceived threat rather than an actual threat.

Constantly being in a state of fight-or-flight, such as when facing repeated stressors, can also be harmful to your health. So knowing how to calm the response is really beneficial.

How to Calm a Fight-or-Flight Response

Understanding the body's natural fight-or-flight response is one way to help cope with such situations. When you notice that you are becoming tense, you can start looking for ways to calm down and relax your body.


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