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Fight or Flight (FF)

The fight-or-flight response is an acute stress response. The aim of FF is quite simple, to keep us safe. It is a vital part of our most basic survival mechanisms.

The FF response prepares us for action, to either fight when faced with a sudden danger; or to run away when fighting isn't an option.  Granted, in today's generally civilised society we don’t face these kinds of situations often, and in fact most people never find themselves in a situation where this FF response is appropriate. However, a basic understanding of FF is crucial to understanding the stress epidemic that affects society as a whole.  Why is this understanding so vital?

Because the mind triggers the FF response in reaction to both 'real' and 'perceived' dangers in the environment.  This means that it is how we respond to the environmental triggers that is most important, and not necessarily the triggers themselves.

Most of us have heard of the hormone adrenaline, also known as epinephrine. Adrenaline is the "fight or flight" hormone.  When we are faced with an actual or perceived environmental trigger adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands (situated above the kidneys). When adrenaline is secreted into the bloodstream the body is rapidly prepared for action as if in an emergency situation. The actions caused by the release of adrenaline are quite complicated.  However, the basic responses are:

  • the supply of oxygen and energy-giving glucose to the brain and muscles is increased; and
  • some bodily processes not vital to the response are suppressed.

Functions that are suppressed would, for example,  include digestion.

Obviously, the degree to which the FF response is triggered is governed by the nature of the environmental trigger.  A person being chased by a large dog would benefit greatly from the sudden burst of speed that an adrenaline surge, courtesy of the FF response, would give them. The same person working in an office, where they are under fear of redundancy, would still be experiencing FF, but in a non-beneficial manner.  In this case the danger is not 'real' in that there is no physical danger present.  However, as we said above, the mind responds in exactly the same way to 'perceived' as well as 'real' dangers.

In the case of the dog, vigorous physical exercise is undertaken.  This serves a dual purpose.  The additional speed that becomes available is used to escape (hopefully) a physical threat.  The activity undertaken also has the effect of using up the hormone that has been released into the bloodstream. This is exactly the kind of situation that nature intended for its FF hormone adrenaline to be used in. Unfortunately nature did not predict modern living and from a physiological point of view has left us poorly prepared to deal with these new stressors.  In the case of the office worker living under constant 'threat' from redundancy, his body still responds in a similar way to this perceived danger as our caveman ancestors did to being confronted with a sabre toothed tiger.  Our office worker will experience this low level triggering of the FF response as stress.

In a nutshell, we rarely encounter situations that require the emergency response that FF provides. However our mind/body system still provides for it.  It is for this reason that so many people report that they suffer from stress. Although it cannot be denied that FF is vital in some situations, FF can and does take a toll, as our body pays the price of this unnecessary firing of the emergency response.

Points to consider:

Behaviourally, the FF response best describes the male reaction to stressful situations better than women’s. Men are more likely to 'cope' with stress via:

  • social withdrawal
  • substance abuse
  • aggression

Some researchers believe that the listed aspects of the FF response in men play a major role in earlier mortality rates in men when compared to women.

Women are more likely to cope with stress through social support,
ie, by turning to others to both give and receive emotional support. Women are also more likely to discuss problems whereas men are more likely to withdraw from such encounters and actively seek to avoid them.

Staff writer

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