Why Do I Feel So Bad? An Introduction to The Fight-or-Flight Response
Hundreds if not thousands of people have written about the fight-or-flight response. Google it. You’ll find enough articles to keep you reading all year. However, I have an overwhelming desire to write about it again. Why? Because in my experience it is one of the main reasons people experience anxiety, distress, overwhelm, lose sleep, snap at others and ultimately seek therapy.
People have usually heard of the fight-or-flight response. Rarely do they know the most important facts that can often ENTIRELY explain how they are feeling physically during times of distress. They also do not understand exactly how this knowledge can help them move forward. This blog post focuses on the physiology of the fight-or-flight response. In other words, what happens in your body when it is triggered. I will not go into the different types of very real and distressing situations that can lead to the fight-or-flight response becoming out of control, as everyone will have their own life experiences. I will focus on what we all have in common instead.
So what is it?
Your brain has evolved to keep you safe above all else. It is constantly on the lookout for danger. Once it finds something potentially dangerous it steps in and initiates the fight-or-flight response. This means it takes away your conscious control of the situation and prepares you to run or fight for your life.
Think for a second what your body would need if it was going to fight or run hard. Let’s imagine you have stumbled into an animal enclosure, a scary animal enclosure…
Your body becomes like a coiled spring. The tension increasing dramatically so that you are ready to respond like a bullet from a gun. How? Your heart beats faster and your breathing gets quicker. You feel your blood flowing faster. It does this so that your body has the oxygen and energy it needs. This energy is sent to your arms and legs as these will be used to fight or run. Your muscles tense in preparation. Your vision changes. You lose peripheral vision so that you can focus on the danger right in front of you. Any area of your body that is not needed in the upcoming fight is shut down so that all energy in the body is diverted to the necessary muscles. You are ready for one single purpose: to fight or run for your life.
If you really are staring into the eyes of a tiger, this is very useful. In fact, If you are in any life-or-death situation you will be grateful to your brain for this. When you step out into the road without looking and suddenly hear a car, your brain takes over and you respond by jumping out of the way without any conscious thought. Once you fight or run and survive, this system shuts off and you go back to having control over your actions.
Unfortunately, your brain cannot tell the difference between life-or-death situations and perceived threats. Therefore this response can occur at times when running or fighting are not necessary.
I am not in physical danger so why is this happening to me?
Our fight-or-flight response can be triggered by social situations, overly stressful working lives and randomly generated thoughts. Our brain cannot always tell the difference between life-or-death threats and relatively minor threats like those to our emotional wellbeing. So a work deadline, public speaking event, bounced cheque, social occasion with strangers, or a rude comment from another can elicit the fight-or-flight response.
Since you are not likely to fight or run in these situations, the system does not switch off. Instead you are left with an increasing fight-or-flight response that makes you feel tense, unable to sleep and in extreme cases, like you are having a heart attack, stomach problems, or that you are going mad. These then cause increased worry and... yep you guessed it… increase your belief that you are in danger, resulting in a vicious circle that increases the fight-or-flight response.
Let’s think about the symptoms you experience when anxious, stressed, insulted, jealous or worried. People usually feel tightness in the chest, muscle tension, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, a feeling of impending doom and sleeplessness.
If we think about what your body needs when it prepares to fight or run a lot of the physical experiences you have when stressed seem understandable, especially the shakiness and muscle tension.
However, to make things worse, the fight-or-flight response has left you feeling like you can’t breathe (because it is trying to get too much oxygen into your body). Also, your mind is churning out all the terrible possible future outcomes and bringing up memories of similar terrible times that resemble this one (this is meant to facilitate problem solving as your brain looks for similar situations from the past that might provide clues to the solution to your current predicament). And what’s more, your stomach feels weird ('butterflies in your stomach' occurs because your stomach isn’t needed when you fight or run, so the blood and oxygen leaves that area to be used elsewhere, causing that weird feeling) and you often suddenly need the toilet (fun fact: your external anal sphincter isn’t needed either when you fight or run so it relaxes). Great, just what you needed!
Even better is the fact that it is hard to rationalise your way out of these feelings because your frontal lobes are not fully engaged. Your automatic pilot has control. This is why it is so hard to “just snap out of it”, which I have heard people suggest to others when they are anxious.
One of the first parts of dealing with the fight-or-flight response is understanding what is happening and how it is causing the feelings in your body. Next you need to learn how to switch the response off. “How do I do that?” I hear you say… Don’t worry… I have written all about it in my post 6 ways to switch off the fight-or-flight response.
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I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.
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