7 Ways The Fight-flight Physiology Is Detrimental To Your Health
Nothing is likely to improve your quality of life more than understanding how the ‘fight-flight’ response affects your physiology, your brain and how you think and behave. This is ‘news you can use’.
So firstly, what is the fight-flight response?
This is a very ancient response that we have in common with even the simplest animals. It is a response that is designed to help save our lives in physically life-threatening situations. How does it do this? By ramping up our heart-rate, blood pressure and breathing pattern to ensure enough oxygenated blood flows to our arms and legs so we can run like crazy or fight like crazy, and live to tell the tale. Along with these three physiological changes there are many other large and small changes that contribute to our survival. This response is designed as a very short-lived response to cope with real, life-threatening situations. Unfortunately this response is activated whenever we sense a ‘threat’ –– whether it is a physical threat or just a worry about whatever issues are going on in our lives. And because there are nearly always issues we can get worried about, many of us are living in a constant low, or even high- grade ‘fight-flight’ physiology.
7 Ways The ‘Fight-flight’ Physiology Is Detrimental To Your Health
Our bodies are not designed to cope with prolonged periods of ‘fight-flight’ physiological arousal. When left unchecked, we can end up experiencing the following:
1. When we are in an already higher than normal state of arousal in terms of the fight-flight response, with our hearts beating faster than normal, our blood-pressure elevated and our breathing faster and shallower than normal, it only takes relatively small additional stressors to lead us to feeling panicky or overwhelmed. And potentially, when the stress level gets to a certain level we can be triggered into a full-blown panic attack, perhaps ending up in the Emergency department at the hospital feeling like we are having a heart attack or can’t breathe.
2. When we are in the fight-flight response, a more ancient part of the brain, the Limbic system or Emotion brain becomes more highly activated and the logical, rational, creative, perspective-giving, problem-solving part of the brain becomes less activated. Why? We survive best in emergencies if we don’t stop to ponder, strategise or philosophise. Instead our impulse to run or fight kicks in and takes over. Which is perfect when we are in a physical emergency situation, but not so great when in a conflict with our boss or partner, for example. So if you have noticed that you can’t think very clearly, or that you become more emotional than usual when you are stressed, now you know why! And when ‘Emotion Brain’ is in the driver’s seat of our lives, we tend to make poor health choices – to grab that chocolate bar or alcohol to drown our sorrows, or to decide ‘to heck with it, why should I bother going to the gym’.
3. Bodily functions that are not immediately needed for our survival partially close down. This includes our digestive systems. You don’t need to digest your most recent meal to fight the tiger. In modern times, this may help to explain why there is a very high incidence of digestive system disorders such as heartburn or reflux and irritable bowel syndrome. Of course things like not eating enough natural healthy foods and not getting enough exercise are also a part of this – and often these things occur because we feel too busy or stressed to fit in exercise and cook healthy meals.
4. Our immune systems also undergo significant change during the fight-flight response. To begin with, they become ‘ramped up’ which puts us in a good position if we were wounded in the process of fighting and fleeing. But when we remain in the fight-flight physiology for longer periods of time than is healthy, our immune system then becomes less effective, leading to a diverse range of problems which suggest an underactive immune system (eg getting every cold or flu that is going around) or an overactive immune system (e.g. hayfever or other allergies).
5. Our muscles tighten, ready for action when we are in the fight-flight physiology. Whether it’s our arms and shoulders tensing, preparing us for a fight, or whether we are ‘bracing’ our core muscles, it is not good for us! The fight-flight response is designed to be of short duration. Our bodies are not designed to stay in this ‘stress mode’ for longer periods of time. People often notice this effect as tight or even rock-hard shoulder muscles. This can lead to shoulder, neck, and back pain, and in particular, to headaches. And if you do a job that requires repetitive arm or hand movements, this creates the perfect situation to develop Occupational Overuse Syndrome.
6. Our eyes focus in a way that changes the rate of our blinking. This can lead to eye discomfort.
7. And perhaps one of the most important physical effects of being chronically caught in fight-flight physiology, with high levels of circulating stress chemicals (e.g. adrenalin and cortisol), a racing heart and fast breathing is that it is very difficult to get good quality, refreshing sleep. And poor quality sleep makes every aspect of life harder to cope with, which increases our stress, which makes it harder to sleep … And given that sleep is when healing occurs – both physical healing and refreshing our brains – this further impacts on our health.
And these are just the most obvious physical affects. The affects of the fight-flight response on our mood and thinking patterns also take a heavy toll.
If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have looked after myself better…
You may be thinking, well, I know I’m stressed, but none of these apply to me. YET. I would suggest that if you experience a relatively high level of stress and have done so for a relatively long period, and do not have effective ways of lowering your base-line of arousal or stress each day, then it is a matter of YET. Our bodies are a bit like Planet Earth. For decades the human occupants have been burning fossil fuels, pouring toxic waste into the air or soil, felling large forests, over-fishing and de-spoiling the oceans and waterways etc. And for a long time we had almost no awareness of the consequences of this. Until relatively recently. And now we are so far down that path that saving our planet is not going to be an easy task. Our bodies are like that. We can be, without realizing it, swimming in a sea of stress chemicals, until, perhaps in our forties or fifties, or sometimes sooner with some symptoms, we find that we have some ‘disorders’’ or ‘syndromes’ that are having a significant effect on our quality of life.
So, whatever your age, now is a good time to gain mastery over your stress physiology.
The sooner the better. And a good place to start is to learn Diaphragmatic Breathing.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you):
I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences: Please add your comment/s below.
Am I being a bit over-dramatic here? Or do you think there is some truth in my ‘doomsday’ comment that if you are in a constant state of stress and are not experiencing any symptoms yet, it is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ unless you make some changes? If you’ve already heard your own ‘wake-up call’ what was that defining moment, or insight or stress symptom that moved you to action? If you’ve helped some-one else make important changes related to reducing their stress, what do you think convinced them to start on their journey of change? (Please respect their confidentiality and do not include any details of their situation, just what the ‘light-bulb moment’ was for them, the key thing that helped them to start making some changes).
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.