You may already be familiar with the fight or flight response—a simplified term for how humans and many other animals respond to threat. However, you may be less familiar with how this natural response becomes less helpful when activated too regularly. Below, we will discuss how the fight or flight response is an evolutionary adaptation that helps us deal with immediate threats, but that is not as well-suited to present-day chronic stressors.
What Is The Fight or Flight Response?
The fight or flight response is a “response to an acute threat to survival that is marked by physical changes, including nervous and endocrine changes, that prepare a human or an animal to react or to retreat” (Britannica, 2019). In other words, it is what our body does when encountering a threat.
Evolutionarily, it makes sense that we would have a fight or flight response. If you think back to early humans who lived outdoors in largely untouched nature, they were much more likely to encounter threats from predators. Our fight or flight response is a great adaptation for these types of threats: if a lion is going to attack you, you want your breathing and heart rate to increase so that your limbs have more oxygen and can either fight or run away as quickly and effectively as possible.
How Do We Experience Fight or Flight in The Modern World?
Many of the perceived threats we encounter these days are not physical but rather cognitive - there are plenty of things we worry or stress out about that do not require a physical escape or fight. However, our bodies have still evolved to react to stress in this very physical way, leading to heightened sympathetic nervous system activity and many symptoms of anxiety. For example, if you are about to give a speech in front of a room full of people, you may feel nervous. Your heart rate and breathing are likely increasing, and you are unlikely to want food (as your digestive system has slowed down). Your body is ready to fight or run if needed—even though this is not really appropriate in this situation.
6 Ways to Calm Your Fight or Flight Response
1. Deep breathing. Methods for counteracting the fight or flight response generally involve actively doing the opposite of what your sympathetic nervous system automatically triggers. For example, while the sympathetic nervous system increases respiratory rate and breathing becomes shallow in times of stress, researchers have found that we can actively counteract the fight or flight response by taking slow, deep abdominal breaths (Perciavalle et al., 2017).
2. Notice your patterns. It can be helpful to pay attention to when your fight or flight response is more active. For example, maybe you notice that you are more likely to be on edge and jittery if you have consumed too much coffee. Noticing this pattern can help you change your behaviors in ways that calm your fight or flight response.
3. Acceptance. Worrying about your fight or flight response while it is happening might send more signals to the brain that you are in danger, with the result of increasing or prolonging the response. This can be seen in the case of panic attacks, where people think that their panic attack will harm them and as a result, the attack continues. Perhaps counterintuitively, accepting the sensations of the fight or flight response as normal can go a long way towards reducing them (Levitt et al., 2004).
4. Exercise. Researchers have found links between exercise and reduced anxiety (Salmon, 2001). While the reasons for this association are still being explored, one idea is that the mild stress of exercise improves resilience to stress more generally. Other theories focus on the ability of exercise to decrease sympathetic nervous system hyperactivity (Curtis &O'Keefe, 2002).
5. Cognitive-behavioral approaches. Recognizing when your fight or flight response kicks in and reflecting on whether or not it is helpful could help reduce this response in instances where it is not helpful. For example, if you feel yourself getting extremely anxious before a date and are considering canceling, notice this fight or flight response—are you trying to “escape” a perceived “threat”? In reality, you are not in physical danger, even though this is what your body is preparing you for. Reframing how you see the situation and your bodily responses can help calm the sympathetic nervous system.
6. Speak with a professional. In addition to potential mental health issues that a professional might be able to help you with, medical issues could also be playing a role in an overactive fight or flight response. For example, a heart arrhythmia can create a sense of panic. Additionally, beta-agonist medication, often prescribed for asthma, can activate the HPA axis and incite a sense of panic.
Our fight or flight response is a natural reaction that has evolved to keep us safe from potential danger. Despite the clear benefits of having such a response, many of us struggle with an overactive fight or flight response that can contribute to mental and physical health problems. By understanding why you have this response and how to manage it, you can move towards greater mental and physical well-being.