Fight or flight: How the brain responds to stress, fear and anxiety
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When swimming in the ocean, a young surfer sees a dorsal fin slowly coming toward him. He immediately feels panic and internally debates whether it would be best to attempt to outswim the shark or face it head-on. Just as he decides he cannot outswim the creature in its own habitat, the animal leaps into the air; it was just a dolphin. He feels immediate relief, as the stimulus that caused the stress, fear and anxiety that resulted in his “fight or flight” response ended up not being a threat.

Fear and anxiety are often closely related and both play a role in the body’s natural physiological response to stress. The term “fight or flight” was first coined in the 1920s by Walter Cannon, professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School. Cannon recognized the effect stress has on the body, activating the sympathetic nervous system and leading to increased heart rate, altered breathing patterns and heavy sweating. These physical reactions might seem counterproductive, since they can be distracting and get in the way of fighting off a potential threat. However, this fight or flight response pumps stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine through the body, helping people make quick decisions based on instinct when faced with a threat.

A threat does not have to be real for an individual to experience a fight or flight response. As in the aforementioned example, the impending shark attack ended up being a simple dolphin sighting. However, perceived threats, both physical and psychological, can have an intense effect on the human body. Severe anxiety can take the form of panic attacks, which typically occur when the fight or flight response is triggered by a psychological stimulus that comes with no true threat to the individual. This can be debilitating, to the point where many people with panic disorder fear having panic attacks more than anything else. Similarly, those with irrational phobias can have fight or flight responses when faced with their triggers.

Though the fight or flight response is instinctive in most of the population, many leaders in the psychology field feel there are alternative responses equally prevalent. As Dr. Mary C. Lamia, clinical psychologist based out of Marin County, California, explains, “…a person or animal might… just ‘freeze’ in response to being threatened; yell or scream as a fighting response rather than get physical; or, isolate as a flight response.” These are all potentially harmful responses to threatening stimuli, so psychologists recommend implementing relaxation techniques in the face of fear, as well as ceasing negative self-talk and reframing unwanted physical reactions to stress or anxiety to see how they can be beneficial or serve their purpose.

If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, panic attacks or any other mental health issues, help is available. Sovereign Health Group specializes in treating individuals struggling with mental health disorders, substance abuse issues and dual diagnosis. Call to speak with a professional today.

Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer

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