What is "Fight or Flight" and How Does it Relate to Anxiety?

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

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 adrenalin is pumping, so you don't sleep much. By Monday morning, you are angry and go to the bank ready to fight.

In the past, when we were confronted with fears like lions and tigers and bears (oh,my), the danger was immediate and usually passed relatively quickly. Our fight and flight was activated, helped us and then was deactivated. In today's world, it doesn't always deactivate as you can see from the above example.

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."

In an article in Scientific American, Psychologist David H. Barlow of Boston University indicates that once the fight or flight response is activated in a certain situation, it becomes learned and can be triggered when we face the same situation later.

For example, if you become afraid when in a crowd of people and trigger your fight or flight response, the next time you are in a crowd, even if you don't feel danger, the response can activate again, causing panic attacks.

Understanding what causes your anxiety in certain situations can help you to overcome it. It is difficult to live with anxiety and panic attacks, especially since many times it seems to come from nowhere; you don't perceive danger or feel you are being threatened.

Knowing that it is a learned response, something in your past has triggered the fight or flight response can make it easier to cope with and help you overcome your panic attacks or severe anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which slowly exposes an individual to a stressful situation until it no longer feels stressful has been shown to be more effective than medication in many cases.


"Being Afraid", Date Unknown, Staff Writer, KidsHealth.org

"The Fight or Flight Response", Date Unknown, Neil F. Neimark, M.D., TheBodySoulConnection.com

"Why Do We Panic?", 2008, October, Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld, Scientific American

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.