Taming the Fight or Flight Response

Woman wearing athletic wear lying on back with hands placed on lower abdomen
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When faced with a situation that causes extreme anxiety or fear, our bodies will respond with a sudden display of physiological symptoms including a racing heart, tensed muscles, balled fists, pupil dilation, and shallow, rapid breathing.


These physical reactions are what we call the fight or flight response (also known as hyperarousal or acute stress response). This is when the perception of a threat triggers a cascade of physiological changes as the brain sets off an alarm throughout the central nervous system.

As a result, the adrenal glands will start pumping out hormones, called adrenalin and noradrenalin, which place the body on high alert to either confront the threat ("fight") or leave as quickly as possible ("flight"). These physiological changes are not incidental but rather serve specific, important functions:

  • Rapid pulse and respiration increase oxygen intake for rapid or prolonged action.
  • The conversion of the body's fuel source (glycogen) to fuel (glucose) allows for a burst of energy in muscles.
  • The dilation of the pupils is considered an evolutionary response meant to allow more light into the eye to see better at night.

The fight or flight response is reflexive, allowing us to act before thinking (such as slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident).

When It's Abnormal

While the fight or flight response is a vital self-defense mechanism, some people have an overly sensitive response. For these individuals, the physiological features occur either far too frequently or inappropriately. There may be several reasons for this:

  • An imbalance in brain hormones such as anxiety and bipolar disorders
  • Post-traumatic distress
  • A history of verbal or physical abuse

It is not only exhausting to spend so much time in a state of high alert, but it can also be physically damaging. The physical consequences of acute stress can include high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and the exacerbation of fibromyalgia, chronic gastritis, and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) symptoms.


In those with an abnormal fight or flight response, treatment more often involves counseling and psychotherapy to better identify the psychological or psychiatric roots. In some cases, pharmaceutical treatment may be indicated, particularly if related to severe anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In other cases, self-help techniques may help alleviate the involuntary physiological symptoms associated with the fight or flight response. One such technique involves a three-part breathing exercise which allows a person to voluntarily slow the breathing, the action of which can also bring down both the heart rate and adrenaline response.

The exercise, which incorporates some of the technique of pranayama breathing in yoga, involves six basic steps:

  1. Find a place that's quiet. Turn off the phone and close doors and curtains.
  2. Sit in a straight-back chair with both feet on the ground, or lie on the floor.
  3. Place your right hand on your stomach and your left hand on your rib cage so that you can physically feel your inhalation and exhalation.
  4. Start inhaling by expanding the belly outward, allowing it to inflate like a balloon.
  5. Next, move your breath into the rib cage and all the way into the upper chest.
  6. Exhale by reversing this action, contracting your abdominal muscles as you finish.

You can practice this in one-minute intervals with the aim of gradually increasing to five minutes.

The practice may not only help alleviate acute attacks but can be used as a means of "de-stressing" as part of a daily routine.

Other non-prescription treatment options include valerian and passionflower (herbal supplements commonly used as non-addictive relaxants) and B-complex which may help regulate stress chemical produced by the brain. The avoidance of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine is also recommended.

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Additional Reading
  • Reynaud, E. and Guedj, E. "Acute Stress Disorder Modifies Cerebral Activity of Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex." Cognitive Neuroscience. 2015; 6(1):39-43.
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