At the core of everything we do is the desire to survive. Fortunately, there are certain processes built into our bodies that help ensure this. One of these is the stress response also known as the fight or flight response (ff). This is basically how your body responds to stress. In this article, I will explain the stress/ff processes in as simple terms as I can. I would hate for you to feel stressed by the time you’re done reading because this article was too technical to understand. But if you do, check out this article on how to deal with (prolonged) stress.
Fight or Flight?
Back in the day when humans lived mainly in the wild and in caves, trying to survive wild animals was not uncommon. We needed a fighting chance if ever faced with one of these creatures. The ff response was programmed into our functions so that we have a chance of survival in a life-threatening situation. It is activated when we face any stressful situation. Although the likelihood that you will ever have to escape a lion is low, there are still situations that we face that trigger the ff response. So what is this fight or flight response? From a strictly physiological standpoint, the fight or flight response is a response that the brain and body use to be able to deal with life-threatening or highly stressful situations. When triggered, some very useful processes take place. I will explain what these are the FF response using a very relatable example.
To better understand how your body responds to stress, let’s work with a scenario. Imagine walking down your street, minding your own business. As you pass one of the houses, a very big, very wild dog manages to jump over the gate. Yes imagine! The mind is such a powerful thing. The very thought of this on its own can be anxiety-provoking! You may have even experienced a similar situation before so this is like a flashback for you. Thank God you made it and are reading this today. If you haven’t, just imagine it. One thing to keep in mind is that the process I’m about to explain happens in a split second.
After you realize what your situation is, your mind says this is it! It may be the end of your life as you know it. When this happens, an alarm sounds off in your brain and warning lights go on like those on a police car. Okay maybe not exactly like that, but you get my point. This is the beginning of the ff or stress response. Your brain sends signals to different parts of your body to prepare you for your survival mission. It’s do, or die… literally! The signals your brain sends trigger the release of various chemicals. Examples of these chemicals have names you’ve probably heard adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Others have weird names like acetylcholine. One other familiar one is glucose. Glucose is released to provide energy to the muscles and the parts of your body. All these chemicals cause different organs to work in different ways.
Below are some of the things that happen in your body during the ff response. Your
- Heart rate increases so that blood can pump faster to different parts of your body, especially your muscles. This facilitates movement in your case, running & jumping.
- Pupils dilate to let in more light. This improves vision. You see more and over longer distances, and are likely to see escape routes that you never noticed before. You may notice a wall in the distance that you might be able to jump over.
- Breathing becomes more rapid to let in more oxygen. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain to improve your strategizing. You start to analyze and calculate faster than you ever have. Should I go back to my house? Will I be able to open my gate fast enough? Should I find the shortest wall to jump over? Should I just lie down and pretend to be dead?
- Sensitivity to pain may reduce. So as you’re running, if your foot hits a stone, you may not feel the pain till after you have calmed down. This is why we’ve seen and heard of situations where people are able to keep running on a broken foot, or people don’t realize they are hurt until they see blood flowing.
Isn’t it amazing how your body responds to stress? These reactions in our bodies help us to engage in problem-solving and find solutions to the challenging situations we face. So the next time you find yourself in a situation that triggers your ff response, be grateful that your body is the real MVP!