Stress Management

by Helen Whitten

The fight-or-flight response

The fight-or-flight response is a survival mechanism inherited from our ancient ancestors. If something happens that is perceived to be dangerous, a neural message is received into the brain through the five senses and a physical response takes place in the body.

If you are in a genuinely dangerous situation – if you are facing a mugging, for example – this physical response may help to save you from injury. Unfortunately, the fight-or-flight response is easily triggered in inappropriate situations. For example, you are standing on the platform at a railway station, waiting for a train to take you to an important meeting. You hear an announcement that the train has been postponed. This message is received through your auditory sense, transmitted to the brain and the degree of stress you experience will be determined by your own mental response to this news.

Sometimes when people are under stress, they hate to think, and it’s the time when they most need to think.

Bill Clinton

The fight-or-flight response takes our energies away from the thinking brain and to those parts of the body needed to fight or run away. Depending on the situation, the neurons work on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and produce either adrenalin, to give immediate energy for a flight response, or noradrenalin to release energy for a fight response. Noradrenalin is therefore more likely to be produced in a situation where there is an opportunity to gain control. In the example we give above, neither fight nor flight are necessarily appropriate responses to the information that a train has been postponed!

In addition, cortisol is released into the body. In the short term, this supports the body’s physical responses and is believed to aid pain relief, but it has been demonstrated that, during long-term stress, cortisol is the factor contributing to lowering the immune system and causing illness.

During stress, the majority of the body’s energy supplies are diverted to activate physical strength. Meanwhile, your upper thinking brain is deprived of the vital energy it needs for clarity of thought.

Key point

The stress response is linked to the most primitive part of our brain; the reaction bypasses the reasoning faculties and prevents our higher, thinking brain from operating – it makes us strong but stupid!

Physical responses

  • Brain perceives threat – Hippocampus activates
  • Brain dulls sense of pain
  • Cortisol released
  • Pupils dilate for better vision
  • Adrenalin or noradrenalin released
  • Lungs take in more oxygen
  • Blood pressure and heart rate soar
  • Digestion halts
  • Liver pours out glucose
  • Circulatory system diverts blood from non-essential functions to muscle and brain
  • Fat reserves processed for energy