Fight or Flight: Why Certain Types of Stress Can Get in Your Way

August 11, 2017 4 min read
Fight or Flight: Why Certain Types of Stress Can Get in Your Way

Although humans, and the environments we find ourselves in, have evolved tremendously in the past few hundred years, we still carry some primal instincts with us, such as the fight-or-flight (FoF) response. At first consideration, such behavior may seem outdated and potentially paralyzing or damaging to mental health, but it can also lead to increased self-awareness if handled properly.

Our fight-or-flight response (also called the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response [in PTSD], the acute stress response, or hyperarousal) is a physiological reaction that was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon, a past chairman of the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School:

It is a reaction to a perceived harmful event or threat to survival: an “all systems go” reaction designed to improve your chances of survival by releasing a large burst of energy.

The fact that Cannon identified perception as the determinant of what is harmful is very important. This means that everyone responds differently, as we all perceive differently.

type of stress for fight or flight response

You’re not alone. It’s a natural response.

It is a primal response that everyone experiences, happening so swiftly that it outpaces conscious processing of what is happening. Your nervous system instinctively activates innate mechanisms designed to protect you, helping to ensure survival.

Our FoF response, originally meant for efficiently dealing with life and death situations, has evolved drastically due to changes in modern living conditions in developed countries. The events that are required to trigger the response in present times are comparatively much more mundane and less dangerous. This being said, individuals still vary in how they respond to different stimuli. For example, someone’s FoF response might be triggered by the fact that they must give a presentation at work (a major contributor towards workplace anxiety) or school , while another’s might only kick in as they are confronted with the prospect of skydiving.

Typical reactions usually fall into the following three broad categories:

  • Freeze - behavior such as avoiding a task or breaking down in tears
  • Flight - evasiveness: task switching or the denial of a problem
  • Fight - standing your ground: defensiveness, becoming argumentative

Perhaps you’ve experienced such feelings yourself, or have witnessed other who have. These are the surface-level identifiers, but there are many underlying physiological processes that prompt our decision making in such situations. You can probably imagine each of these responses in the context of having to give a presentation in front of a bunch of people. For more on workplace stress, take a look at the following articles: reduce stress at work or a therapist's techniques for stress at work.

Your brain is actually enabling your body to operate at its peak ability.

The Amygdala is the area of the brain primarily responsible for decision making and emotional responses, and therefore orchestrates our fight-or-flight behavior. When a threat is perceived, whether it be real or imagined, it conducts your nervous system, immune system, and endocrine system. In such a situation, the Amygdala orders your nerves onto high alert, your heart starts to pound more rapidly to provide your large muscle groups with more blood, your breathing get faster, and stress hormones overwhelm your system to give you the massive amounts of energy you may need to survive.

fight or flight response

Sometimes we get stuck in stressful situations. That’s OK, you can get unstuck!

It is possible, and relatively common, that people get stuck in this defensive position. When stuck with a particular type of stress we are unable to perform at our best. To make matters worse, this state of inferior performance likely becomes our new 'normal', with any additional stresses (in particular stresses in the workplace) and challenges only making matters worse. Everyone has differing combinations of physiological reflexes, but some of the more common symptoms include the following:

  • reduced mental performance and concentration
  • problems sleeping
  • feeling anxious, overwhelmed or depressed
  • difficulty handling stress
  • trouble with everyday tasks, especially when stressed or multi-tasking
  • being more reactive, sensitive or defensive
  • being less receptive to, or capable of, change
  • feeling frustrated, angry, irritable or stuck

Even though it’s not often that you’re in a life and death situation, the FoF response is still helpful.

In today’s world the physiological reactions can probably be considered overreactions, unless you’re dealing with an actual survival scenario. However, that does not mean your fight or flight reaction is not useful. The response can bring a lot of clarity as to how certain events or situations make you feel. As has been discussed in other blog posts (i.e. manage stress in the workplace), such self-awareness is critical to making positive changes in your life.

If you’re dealing with fight or flight related stress or other stress issues that feel unmanageable consider talking to a therapist or a workplace counselling. If you're in Singapore and want to know what mental health options are available see our blog post on 7 Avenues to Get Help in Singapore For Mental Health Issues. Therapists are professionals that know how to help you recognise what is behind your stress. They will work with you to come up with a personalized plan to improve your well being. If you think you're ready to talk to one, click the button below.