The fight or flight response (also called hyperarousal, or the acute stress response) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. It was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon.
It is impossible to read for very long about anxiety without coming across the words “fight or flight.” What is it? And how is it associated with anxiety?
The fight or flight response is an involuntary, spontaneous reaction to an impending danger. Imagine walking through the woods. You come face to face with a wolf. Your heart starts beating fast, your muscles tense, you are intensely alert. For a split second, you are paralyzed with fear. Then you make a decision. You decide to either defend yourself or run. This is the fight or flight response.
The fight or flight response was a well-needed response when we were faced with physical danger on a daily basis. But in today’s world, many of our dangers are more psychological and can’t always be addressed the moment they come up. The longer your fight or flight response remains active, the more draining, physically and emotionally.
Suppose on Saturday afternoon you go to the grocery store. You have a cart full of food and when you go to pay with your ATM card, it is declined. You don’t understand, you made a deposit just yesterday and there should be money in your account. Your heart starts beating wildly, you are stunned. Your fight or flight has been activated. You decide to run (by walking out of the store embarrassed), but you haven’t solved the problem. You can fight but with who? The cashier only knows your card has been declined, she has no way of checking the balance or activity on the account.
The bank is closed until Monday. Instead you are left with a feeling of apprehension for two days. Your fight or flight response remains, you stay on high alert for two days. When your fight or flight response has been activated, everything in your surroundings becomes a potential threat. You spend the weekend jumpy and agitated. Since the fight or flight response diverts blood and resources away from your digestive tract, you don’t eat much (which is good since you couldn’t buy food). Your adrenaline is pumping, so you don’t sleep much. By Monday morning, you are angry and go to the bank ready to fight.
Some experts believe people with anxiety have a hypersensitive fight or flight response. That is, it activates without much provocation or with no provocation at all. Even a perceived danger can make you go into full blown fight or flight. Once you do, everything around you becomes a possible danger and you become overly anxious. You see the world as a fearful place. You are stuck in “survival mode.”