We have amazing bodies. Actually we have both amazing brains AND amazing bodies. We have the capacity to respond to danger/physical risk in highly effective and FAST ways. The secret of that first-response system to danger is the Flight or Fight Reflex (what I call the Flight or Fight Response.)

Why is that so amazing? It is amazing because it is completely hard-wired into us. This system developed to do ONE THING – get us the heck away from danger. Period.

I said in my last post that we can literally sit back and relax when it comes to sudden, dangerous situations, because we have a brilliant, automatic response to danger already built into us.

We will literally do the best we can as quickly as possible when presented with physical danger. Nice, eh? I’m not saying we’re guaranteed safety in the presence of risk. I’m saying we’re as equipped as we can be (short of driving around in an armored car) for the dangers of the physical world.

The Basics of the Flight or Fight Response

Here’s the summary of Flight or Fight: We have in our bodies two remarkable hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. These are the workhorses of Flight or Fight. When we are faced with danger that puts us at risk for immediate injury or death our brain fires up both of these chemicals, and an amazing host of physical, emotional and mental responses follows.

These two substances race through our body, getting us ready RIGHT NOW to deal with the danger. It makes for interesting reading, seeing just how FAST this process takes place. After all, we don’t usually have a lot of time to gear up when we’re being stalked by a hungry tiger, right?

The primary purpose is to GET US AWAY from the danger. Running is our first, best strategy. Why run? Because if we get away then we’re in a sweet place – we avoided getting hurt and we live to eat and play another day. Nice, yes?

If we have to fight (and sometimes in the physical world you can’t get away without a fight) then we can do that too – but preferably until we can get clear and RUN!

Our Bodies/Physical Responses

Wow – where to start just this part of the discussion of the Flight or Fight Response? Adrenaline and cortisol start their race, and in our bodies a cluster of things happen in seconds.

The body starts to shut down blood flow to the “unnecessary” body parts for the duration of the crisis (i.e., the parts we won’t need to run or fight right now, like our stomachs or our sex organs or our immune system.)

It also restricts blood flow to places that are more likely to get bit or cut in our efforts to run or fight, like our fingers and toes – those parts of us that are flapping out there away from the center of our body.

Remember, the whole mission is to GET CLEAR of the danger and live to have pizza another day… and that works better if we don’t lose a lot of blood in injuries!

And of course our heart beat goes up, often way up, as we start pumping the body full of oxygen to get ready for that sprint we’re about to make. Respiration goes up to match that need for oxygen, and so we’re breathing faster and more shallowly.

We usually start to sweat too – all that energy coursing through our body heats things up, and we need to start dumping that heat, which is what sweating does. We also become more sensitive to stimuli around us – our hearing and vision and even our sense of smell can improve/sharpen, as we get VERY alert for what’s happening around us during this moment of danger.

(This is why it sometimes feels like things are suddenly moving slowly in the midst of a traumatic event like a car accident.)

Impressive, yes? Why tell you all this? I’m doing this because it is crucial in our fight to deal with anxiety and fear that we understand that there is NOTHING WEIRD OR STRANGE about any of these physical responses. They all make perfect sense in light of what is happening during the experience of Flight or Fight.

These responses don’t mean that we’re about to die – they just mean our bodies are gearing up for dealing with danger. Period. End of story.

I’ll refer back to this list in a little bit – but for the moment just note these interesting responses in your body as you deal with Flight or Fight…

Our Feelings/Emotional Responses

Our emotions also get fired up by Flight or Fight to help get us moving during this tiger attack we’re experiencing. This is a complex and subtle dance of hormones and nerves in our brain and body, and we don’t really need to explain all that here.

(And, frankly, science is still coming to understand exactly how all that works in the brain – it is a pretty impressively complex set of activities.)

The bottom-line here is, again, the need to GET MOVING. And what could be better than scaring the CRAP out of you? 🙂 When you have that surge of worry/fear/anxiety/terror flood through your body you GET MOVING – or you freeze in place (which is another way of running from the danger – if they can’t see us they can’t eat us, right?)

Same thing for anger/rage/upset – these get us ready to fight! Both sets of emotions supply us with both motivation and energy, and so we’re ready to deal with whatever we need to do in that moment – make like the wind, or find a handy tree branch and get ready to fight this danger to a standstill.

Let me say it again – the rush of fearful and anxious and angry feelings all are gearing us to deal with whatever needs to happen in that moment. So there’s nothing mysterious in that rush of feelings – it is a completely natural, normal response to danger.

Our Thinking/Psychological Responses

Something to note here in this discussion – Flight or Fight came before big brains in the chronology of our becoming human. Brains are great, and they sure are useful sometimes, but it is important to know that this Flight or Right Response we have is hard-wired into us – it happens and it happens FAST. And it has some very specific ways it affects our thinking –

Like, for instance, shutting down (or at least impairing) some of our higher-order thinking abilities. After all, if you’re faced with a tiger suddenly you don’t need to calmly analyze why the tiger is here, or what would have been smarter to do so you can avoid the tiger next time – nope, no time for that. You need to be IN MOTION – NOW!

So we’re not really thinking very clearly (or even sometimes at all) when we’re in the middle of Flight or Fight. Let me say that again: we are not at our best, usually, when we’re in the grip of adrenaline and cortisol. So we can feel disoriented, confused mentally, during the surge of Flight or Fight.

Other things happen to us mentally in this context. One is that we find ourselves summoning up past experience when we were in danger – what did we do then? This is happening VERY fast – we need that information NOW. What happened the last time we saw a tiger? What worked?

We’re also trying to find ways out of the danger that we’re in – essentially looking for possible escape routes, scanning and evaluating them very quickly. Should I run this way or this way? Realize you’re doing all this unconsciously – you’re just in it.

And by the way, language probably isn’t working so well for you either – you don’t need to be having a conversation, really, when you’re running. So we can find ourselves stammering and stuttering too – doesn’t that make sense?

Again, nothing weird or mysterious in this rush of experiences during Flight or Fight – it is all part of what happens, and is to be expected to a greater or lesser degree.

Thank You Flight or Fight!

Take a moment here and appreciate your body – you have one heck of a danger response system, on guard for you 24/7/365. This system has been in field tests for roughly 500 million years – you’ve got a solid system here.

And wouldn’t it be great if we were just dealing with physical danger in our lives? That might sound crazy – but think about it. If you’re a gazelle on the plains of Africa, making your way through your gazelle day, you really don’t have any worries, except for when you catch the scent of a pride of lions moseying past, or if you’re keeping watch over that baby gazelle when a pack of hyenas drops by to say hello –

otherwise your gazelle life is pretty much worry-free. Why worry-free? Because a gazelle isn’t worrying about tomorrow or even five minutes from now. Just like us it has a first-rate emergency response system hard-wired into its brain and body, and it will deal with danger when it shows up.

The Problem Isn’t Physical Danger…

If only we just had to deal with the risks of living in the physical world! No, we human beings have a second level of concerns to manage, unlike the rest of the creatures in the natural world. We have the blessings AND challenges of intelligence to manage as well, and that’s where anxiety and fear can become a problem.

This is a problem for a very simple reason: some of the concerns and problems we face in our lives can frighten us. Not all of them – even those of us who have been mired in panic attacks and deep depression still have issues that don’t rock our worlds – but some of them can and do.

The bottom-line here is simple: we have one system to deal with physical danger – Flight or Fight – but we have two sources of fear (as I mentioned in the last blog post.) Our miraculous system to deal with real, physical danger doesn’t recognize the difference between real, physical danger and danger to our thinking; it treats them exactly the same.

What’s The Bottom Line Erik?

I have reviewed all this about Flight or Fight for three reasons:

1) EVERY sensation and response we experience in our Flight or Fight Response is COMPLETELY NORMAL. There is nothing wrong with us, absolutely nothing wrong with us, when we have ANY of these reactions.

2) We trigger Flight or Fight when we PERCEIVE danger – real or in our thinking.

3) We learn to start thinking of Flight or Fight Responses as scary things all by themselves – when they are NOT.

Let me say that again: your body, emotions and mind are all impacted in a big way by the triggering of Flight or Fight. That’s crucial if you’re facing saber tooth tigers. It is anything but useful if you’re having scary thoughts (conscious or otherwise).

Your take away – there is nothing scary in our bodies, feelings or mental responses per se. They FEEL scary. They SCARE us. But they don’t carry any special information, and they don’t MEAN anything, except that you are scared!

I will discuss this more in the next post on Flight or Fight. In the meantime – however unnerving or frightening those responses can feel to you – practice thinking that they don’t mean anything except that you are scared.

That isn’t something that will usually change things overnight for any of us. But it is a vital foundation tool, with practice and a little time, in unlearning and calming down one of the hardest parts of anxiety/panic/depression.

And anyone can do it. It FEELS hard – it is exhausting – but it is completely achievable.

More on this next post…