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Can calmness happen during the fight-flight response?

Can calmness happen during the fight-flight response?



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In the question How do certain individuals, like Quang Duc, develop the ability to remain calm when enduring significant nociceptive pain?, one answer says that it was the high level of cortisol that numbing his pain. But that's numb, not calm. I don't think calmness can happen during stressful situations.

So to check that answer, can calmness happens during the fight-flight response?


With looking at the possibility of calmness during stress and trauma, you only have to look at the situation with rape victims and soldiers witnessing severe traumatic events who dissociate (Ellert, et al. 2011)(Waller, et al. 2001) during the event.

Dissociation is a psychological defence mechanism (Cardeña, 1994) which helps the person to get through the situation with as little harm as possible. Think about it like throwing a switch on conscious awareness.

Whilst some define dissociation as a combination of 2 distinct psychological mechanisms (Brown, 2006), the psychobiological mechanism of dissociation is little understood; but, when someone is dissociated from the event, the detachment of conscious awareness from the event can make the person appear very calm.

References

Brown, R. J. (2006). Different types of “dissociation” have different psychological mechanisms. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 7(4), 7-28.
DOI: 10.1300/J229v07n04_02

Cardeña, E. (1994) The domain of dissociation. In: Dissociation: Clinical and theoretical aspects, Edited by: Lynn, S. J. and Rhue, J. W. 5-31. New York, NY: Guildford Press.

Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis PhD & Onno van der Hart PhD (2011) Dissociation in Trauma: A New Definition and Comparison with Previous Formulations, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 12(4), 416-445.
DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2011.570592

Waller, G., Hamilton, K., Elliott, P., Lewendon, J., Stopa, L., Waters, A.,… & Hargreaves, I. (2001). Somatoform dissociation, psychological dissociation, and specific forms of trauma. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 1(4), 81-98.
DOI: 10.1300/J229v01n04_05


What's the Purpose of the Fight or Flight Response?

We humans don&rsquot come with an instruction manual. If we did, I suspect we&rsquod do a better job of getting through life with less pain and more joy.

Human behavior has evolved over time. What worked for us humans a few thousand years ago may not be as helpful today. So while our behavior adapts to the changing times and environment, it&rsquos thought that it never completely forgets its evolutionary roots.

One of the driving forces of some human behavior is something called the &ldquofight or flight response&rdquo (also known as the acute stress response). This is the psychology term that describes one of the ways we can react when under stress.

Understanding the purpose of the fight or flight response can lead to greater insights into our own behavior when we&rsquore stressed out.

The fight or flight response is characterized by feeling bodily sensations of stress &mdash for instance, an increased heart rate and faster breathing. You can feel a pressure in your chest as though something is pressing down on you. You may also have heightened sensory sensitivity &mdash you&rsquore more sensitive to sights or sounds around you.

All of this occurs to ready the body for one of two reactions to a perceived threat in our environment &mdash to fight or to run (flight).

The body&rsquos sympathetic nervous system is the thing responsible for readying the body for one of these reactions. It stimulates the adrenal glands, which in turn trigger the release of things like adrenaline and noradrenaline. This is what causes the body to increase its heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate.

When the threat has been removed &mdash either by running away from it, or by defeating it through fighting &mdash it can take up to an hour for the body&rsquos sympathetic nervous system to return to its normal level.

The evolutionary purpose of this response is obvious. In prehistoric times, a person might have found themselves in a situation where a quick choice has to be made. If the person had spent a lot of time thinking about it, they may have become dinner for a lion or other animal. The body&rsquos fight or flight response, it&rsquos theorized, took thinking out of the equation so we could react more quickly &mdash and stay alive.

As our bodies and minds have adapted and evolved to the changing times, the threats have become less obvious &mdash and sometimes they aren&rsquot even real. Today, our body can react to even perceived or imagined threats.

Virtually any phobia can trigger the fight or flight response. People afraid of heights, for instance, will not only feel an overwhelming fear of them &mdash they will feel their body react to being in a high place through increased heart and respiration rates. Standing up in front of a crowd to give a presentation can do the same for some people &mdash triggering the fight or flight response even though there is no real threat.

Recognizing your body&rsquos response to an immediate stressor or threat can help you react accordingly. Through relaxation and meditation exercises, you can actually tell your body, &ldquoHey, this isn&rsquot a real threat, let&rsquos calm down.&rdquo


Simple Steps to Reduce Anxiety in the Moment

Here are some simple things that you can do try to reduce anxiety in the moment.

  • Take Deep Breaths and Slow Down Your Breathing: I can remember one time when I used deep and slow breathing to calm my anxiety while I was climbing a face to get over a high pass in the Himalaya. A thunderstorm came, and the lightning was so close that I could hear it sizzle. I was on a face, scared out of my wits and I was hyperventilating and gasping for breath. I got myself in hand by taking control of my breathing. I slowed my breath down and took deep breaths and survived the storm.

Apart from fear exposure, there are other ways to encourage the amygdala to remain calm. These involve decreasing the bodily and mental stressors within your control that contribute to how severely you react to external stressors outside of your control. Taking the steps below can help you to cultivate a healthier body and mind, and to decrease the frequency with which bad life experiences set off the amygdala’s fight or flight response.

  • Get Organized Chaos and disorganization in life can result in a multitude of stressors: being late for work or appointments, not being able to find important things when you need them, criticism from others about your disorganization or simply a feeling of guilt about not being organized can all strain you and put you on edge. Taking the time to sort and store things where you (and others) can find them when you want them will make you feel more confident and more in control of your life.
  • Create Routines Routines can be very important for people with anxiety. It is comforting in the midst of any given day, which is sure to be filled with unknowns, to be able to rely on a few stable factors such as eating meals at particular times, going for a daily walk, or reading every night before you go to bed. The stability of routines can help to counteract the anxious feelings that unexpected events may provoke and reaffirm your ability to live your life the way you want to.
  • Schedule Free Time Free time is a valuable and necessary thing that many people don’t believe they can afford. With work to do, bills to pay and errands to run pressuring you from the moment you wake up to the time you go to sleep, it can be hard to see how you can make any time for yourself. However, it is important to consider free time worth scheduling. Especially if you are someone with anxiety, free time gives you a chance to check in with yourself and see how you are feeling about various aspects of your life. If any of them are bothering you (whether it’s yourself you’d like to work on or external conflicts need to resolve), you can plan on putting energy into addressing them, rather than letting problems stew in the back of your mind and build into obsessive thought patterns.
  • Meditate (or Join a Meditation Group) Like free time, meditation gives you a chance to reflect on your life. It also gives you a chance to put aside your problems for a time and focus on simply “being.” This may sound like ignoring your problems, which it is not: meditation is all about learning disciplined thinking, which can help you to escape the negative thought spirals associated with your triggers that cause the amygdala to set off panic attacks.
  • Sleep Well Sleeping deeply for a healthy amount of time each day (8 to 9 hours for most people) is crucial to maintaining a healthy state of mind and body. Choose a bedtime and stick to it to help your mind learn to shut down at a certain hour. You should also sleep with all lights off (or while wearing a sleep mask) and avoid any caffeinated substances for at least four hours before bed to promote REM sleep. REM sleep and lots of it allows your body to recharge during the night and gives your mind a much-deserved break.
  • Eat Well Eating a regular and healthy diet is necessary to replenish your body when anxiety has sapped its resources. It is a good way to keep your body feeling fit and healthy (when accompanied by appropriate physical exercise: namely, 30 minutes of sustained exercise 3 times a week), which can contribute to how capable you feel of coping with problems in life. It can also help to regulate your heart rate, keeping high heart rates caused by anxiety from endangering your health and even your life.

Even though you can’t see or feel it, there’s a lot you can do to help keep that small, almond shaped bit of your brain in check when you find that it’s working overtime. Taking care of your body and mind is the first step you should take. Once you do this, you will be better prepared to face the stressors in your life and hopefully retrain your amygdala to stop reacting to the non-threatening stimuli that produce anxiety.


What Hormones Are Released by the Parasympathetic Nervous System

When it comes to controlling the heart rate in the body, it is controlled by the two branches of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Hormones released by (SNS) consist of catecholamines, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine which all contribute to an accelerated heart rate. When it comes to the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) it has the opposite effect of (SNS), so instead of increasing the heart rate, it decreases it with the hormone acetylcholine. The parasympathetic nervous system activation is essential for everyone that has gone through the SNS process.

In addition to the things mentioned above (PNS) basically undoes what the (SNS) has caused. Historically and clinically, acetylcholine (ACH) is arguably the most important neurotransmitter known.


Before we discuss what happens in the fight or flight syndrome, it is important to first discuss the difference between fear and anxiety.

Fear is the emotion you experience when you are actually in a dangerous situation. Anxiety is what you experience leading up to a dangerous, stressful, or threatening situation. You may also experience anxiety when you think about something stressful or dangerous that could happen to you. Other words for anxiety may be "dread" or "apprehensiveness."

The difference between anxiety and fear can be illustrated nicely this way. Think about the last time you went on a roller coaster. Anxiety is what you felt when you were in line looking at the hills, steep drops, and loops, as well as hearing the screams of other riders. You also likely felt anxiety when on the roller coaster as you got closer to the top of the first hill. Fear is what you experienced as you went over the peak of the hill and started your fall down the first hill.


Overview

The term "amygdala hijacking" was first used by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, "Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ" to refer to an immediate and intense emotional reaction that's out of proportion to the situation. In other words, it's when someone "loses it" or seriously overreacts to something or someone.  

Goleman's term aims to recognize that we have an ancient structure in our brain, the amygdala, that is designed to respond swiftly to a threat.

While the amygdala is intended to protect us from danger, it can interfere with our functioning in the modern world where threats are often more subtle in nature.


How the Fight or Flight Response Works

The fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response, refers to a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically. The response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety. 1

The term ‘fight-or-flight’ represents the choices that our ancient ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment. They could either fight or flee. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger.

The fight-or-flight response was first described in the 1920s by American physiologist Walter Cannon. Cannon realized that a chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body helped to mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances. Today the fight-or-flight response is recognized as part of the first stage of Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome, a theory describing the stress response. 1

What Happens During the Fight-or-Flight Response

In response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulate the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. 2 After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels.

Some of the physical signs that may indicate that the fight-or-flight response has kicked in include:

  • Rapid Heart Beat and Breathing: The body increases heartbeat and respiration rate in order to provide the energy and oxygen to the body that will be needed to fuel a rapid response to the danger. 2
  • Pale or Flushed Skin: As the stress response starts to take hold, blood flow to the surface areas of the body is reduced and flow to the muscles, brain, legs, and arms are increased. You might become pale as a result, or your face may alternate between pale and flushed as blood rushes to your head and brain. 3 The body’s blood clotting ability also increases in order to prevent excess blood loss in the event of injury.
  • Dilated Pupils: The body also prepares itself to be more aware and observant of the surroundings during times of danger. Another common symptom of the fight-or-flight response is the dilation of the pupils, which allows more light into the eyes and results in a better vision of the surroundings. 4
  • Trembling: In the face of stress or danger, your muscles become tense and primed for action. This tension can result in trembling or shaking. 3

Why It’s Important

The fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in how we deal with stress and danger in our environment. Essentially, the response prepares the body to either fight or flee the threat. It is also important to note that the response can be triggered due to both real and imaginary threats.

By priming your body for action, you are better prepared to perform under pressure. The stress created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat. This type of stress can help you perform better in situations where you are under pressure to do well, such as at work or school. In cases where the threat is life-threatening, the fight-or-flight response can actually play a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response makes it more likely that you will survive the danger.

A person who is terrified of heights might begin to experience the acute stress response when he has to go the top floor of a skyscraper to attend a meeting. His body might go on high alert as his heartbeat and respiration rate increase. When this response becomes severe, it may even lead to a panic attack.


Calming Your Brain During Conflict

Conflict wreaks havoc on our brains. We are groomed by evolution to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat. In our modern context, we don’t fight like a badger with a coyote, or run away like a rabbit from a fox. But our basic impulse to protect ourselves is automatic and unconscious.

We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.” We notice immediate changes like an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. Our breathing becomes more shallow and rapid as we take in more oxygen, preparing to bolt if we have to.

The flood of stress hormones create other sensations like a quivering in our solar plexus, limbs, or our voice. We may notice heat flush our face, our throat constrict, or the back of our neck tighten and jaw set. We are in the grip of a highly efficient, but prehistoric set of physiological responses. These sensations are not exactly pleasant — they’re not meant for relaxation. They’re designed to move us to action.

The active amygdala also immediately shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex so we can become disoriented in a heated conversation. Complex decision-making disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives. As our attention narrows, we find ourselves trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the most safe: “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though we ordinarily see more perspectives.

Further Reading

HBR Guide to Managing Stress at Work

And if that wasn’t enough, our memory becomes untrustworthy. Have you ever been in a fight with your partner or friend, and you literally can’t remember a positive thing about them? It’s as though the brain drops the memory function altogether in an effort to survive the threat. When our memory is compromised like this, we can’t recall something from the past that might help us calm down. In fact, we can’t remember much of anything. Instead, we’re simply filled with the flashing red light of the amygdala indicating “Danger, react. Danger, protect. Danger, attack.”

In the throes of amygdala hijack, we can’t choose how we want to react because the old protective mechanism in the nervous system does it for us — even before we glimpse that there could be a choice. It is ridiculous.

Practicing Mindfulness in Conflict

Mindfulness is the perfect awareness technique to employ when a conflict arises — whether it’s at work or home. It allows us to override the conditioned nervous system with conscious awareness. Instead of attacking or recoiling, and later justifying our reactions, we can learn to stay present, participate in regulating our own nervous system, and eventually, develop new, more free and helpful ways of interacting.

Practicing mindfulness in the middle of a conflict demands a willingness to stay present, to feel intensely, to override our negative thoughts, and to engage our breath to maintain presence with the body. Like any skill, it takes practice.

There are different approaches to working with a provoked nervous system and intense emotions, but they all have some elements in common. Here are four simple steps (which I also describe in my book, Everything is Workable) that I try to use when I find myself with an overloaded nervous system and a body racing with a fight or flight impulse.

Step 1: Stay present.

The first step in practicing mindfulness when triggered is to notice we are provoked. We may notice a change in our tone of voice, gripping sensations in the belly, or a sudden desire to withdraw. Each of us has particular bodily and behavioral cues that alert us to the reality that we feel threatened, and are therefore running on automatic pilot.

We have to decide to stay put and present, to be curious and explore our experience. For me, it helps to remind myself to relax. I have a visual cue that I use that involves my son. When I’m worked up, he has the habit of looking at me, raising and lowering his hands in a calming fashion, and saying “Easy Windmill.” I try to reflect on this and it helps me calm down because he’s so charming when he does it.

Step 2: Let go of the story.

This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, just for a minute, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far more clear in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.

Step 3: Focus on the body.

Now simply focus on feeling and exploring whatever sensations arise in the body. We feel them naturally, just as they are, not trying to control or change them. We allow the mind to be as open as possible, noticing the different places in the body where sensations occur, what is tight, shaky, rushing, or hurts. We pay attention to the different qualities and textures of the sensations, and the way things change and shift. We can also notice how biased we are against unpleasant or more intense sensations.

Step 4: Finally, breathe.

Everybody knows that it helps to breathe. There are many different qualities of the breath, but we only need to learn about two: Rhythm and smoothness. As Alan Watkins explains in his book Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership, if we focus on these two dimensions, even for a few short minutes, the production of the cortisol and adrenaline will stop.

To breath rhythmically means that the in-breath and out-breath occur repeatedly at the same intervals. So if we inhale, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, then inhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 this establishes rhythm.

At the same time, we should invite the breath to be even or smooth, meaning that the volume of the breath stays consistent as it moves in and out, like sipping liquid through a narrow straw. If we manage those two qualities for just a few minutes, the breath assists us in remaining present, making it possible to stay with intense sensation in the body.

Paying attention to our body re-establishes equilibrium faster, restoring our ability to think, to listen, and relate. This takes practice, but eventually, we retrain ourselves to respond rather than to react. Anger becomes clarity and resolve, sadness leads to compassion, jealousy becomes fuel for change.

There will also be certain moments when we fail. Becoming more intimate with our body’s response to a hijacked nervous system is challenging, to say the least. This is because the sensations are very uncomfortable, our emotions are volatile, and our mind is usually filling with unsupportive thoughts like “Get me outta here,” or “How can they be saying that?” or “This is a waste of my time.”

Each time we succeed in being mindful of our body in moments of distress, we develop our capacity. Even more, we may observe something new when it occurs. A moment of pause, an unexpected question when it appears or a laugh that erupts. When anything new happens, taking note of it helps to free us of the pattern to our old way of doing things. Before we know it, our old habit of fight or flight is changing, and the world is a safer place.


What Flushing Means

Fight or flight is a primal reaction that has been with us since we were coming face to face with saber-toothed tigers. Though we have fewer tigers to contend with now, our responses to fear stimuli have remained remarkably similar.

During the fight or flight response, the body prepares itself to either escape or combat the object of our fear or anxiety even though it is often the case with anxiety that there is no physical object to combat or run away from.

Flushing is a reaction to stress that turns the face red, and sometimes also other areas of the body such as the arms and chest. It is more severe than blushing, which is subtler, limited to the face and ears, and usually only indicates embarrassment.

Read on to find out what bodily actions cause flushing, and the reasons why they happen.


Imagine you live in a world surrounded by predators. You're walking along and suddenly an angry tiger is directly in your path. What do you do?

Without your fight or flight system, you'd probably do nothing. You'd be unable to fear the tiger, so you wouldn't know that you need to run away. Even if you did, you'd have nothing helping you. It would be like getting into a fight but being unable to use much strength or respond very quickly.

That's why you have a fight or flight response. That response is a flood of changes to your hormones, neurotransmitters, and body to prepare you to immediately run away or fight. It's designed to cover all of the bases: improving blood flow to the areas that need it, keeping your body cool, providing you with more energy, helping you see and respond more quickly, improving your mindset, etc.

Thanks to the fight or flight system, you'd immediately know to feel fear when you see the tiger, you'd have the energy to run away, and you wouldn't hurt your body in the process.


What's the Purpose of the Fight or Flight Response?

We humans don&rsquot come with an instruction manual. If we did, I suspect we&rsquod do a better job of getting through life with less pain and more joy.

Human behavior has evolved over time. What worked for us humans a few thousand years ago may not be as helpful today. So while our behavior adapts to the changing times and environment, it&rsquos thought that it never completely forgets its evolutionary roots.

One of the driving forces of some human behavior is something called the &ldquofight or flight response&rdquo (also known as the acute stress response). This is the psychology term that describes one of the ways we can react when under stress.

Understanding the purpose of the fight or flight response can lead to greater insights into our own behavior when we&rsquore stressed out.

The fight or flight response is characterized by feeling bodily sensations of stress &mdash for instance, an increased heart rate and faster breathing. You can feel a pressure in your chest as though something is pressing down on you. You may also have heightened sensory sensitivity &mdash you&rsquore more sensitive to sights or sounds around you.

All of this occurs to ready the body for one of two reactions to a perceived threat in our environment &mdash to fight or to run (flight).

The body&rsquos sympathetic nervous system is the thing responsible for readying the body for one of these reactions. It stimulates the adrenal glands, which in turn trigger the release of things like adrenaline and noradrenaline. This is what causes the body to increase its heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate.

When the threat has been removed &mdash either by running away from it, or by defeating it through fighting &mdash it can take up to an hour for the body&rsquos sympathetic nervous system to return to its normal level.

The evolutionary purpose of this response is obvious. In prehistoric times, a person might have found themselves in a situation where a quick choice has to be made. If the person had spent a lot of time thinking about it, they may have become dinner for a lion or other animal. The body&rsquos fight or flight response, it&rsquos theorized, took thinking out of the equation so we could react more quickly &mdash and stay alive.

As our bodies and minds have adapted and evolved to the changing times, the threats have become less obvious &mdash and sometimes they aren&rsquot even real. Today, our body can react to even perceived or imagined threats.

Virtually any phobia can trigger the fight or flight response. People afraid of heights, for instance, will not only feel an overwhelming fear of them &mdash they will feel their body react to being in a high place through increased heart and respiration rates. Standing up in front of a crowd to give a presentation can do the same for some people &mdash triggering the fight or flight response even though there is no real threat.

Recognizing your body&rsquos response to an immediate stressor or threat can help you react accordingly. Through relaxation and meditation exercises, you can actually tell your body, &ldquoHey, this isn&rsquot a real threat, let&rsquos calm down.&rdquo


Simple Steps to Reduce Anxiety in the Moment

Here are some simple things that you can do try to reduce anxiety in the moment.

  • Take Deep Breaths and Slow Down Your Breathing: I can remember one time when I used deep and slow breathing to calm my anxiety while I was climbing a face to get over a high pass in the Himalaya. A thunderstorm came, and the lightning was so close that I could hear it sizzle. I was on a face, scared out of my wits and I was hyperventilating and gasping for breath. I got myself in hand by taking control of my breathing. I slowed my breath down and took deep breaths and survived the storm.

Apart from fear exposure, there are other ways to encourage the amygdala to remain calm. These involve decreasing the bodily and mental stressors within your control that contribute to how severely you react to external stressors outside of your control. Taking the steps below can help you to cultivate a healthier body and mind, and to decrease the frequency with which bad life experiences set off the amygdala’s fight or flight response.

  • Get Organized Chaos and disorganization in life can result in a multitude of stressors: being late for work or appointments, not being able to find important things when you need them, criticism from others about your disorganization or simply a feeling of guilt about not being organized can all strain you and put you on edge. Taking the time to sort and store things where you (and others) can find them when you want them will make you feel more confident and more in control of your life.
  • Create Routines Routines can be very important for people with anxiety. It is comforting in the midst of any given day, which is sure to be filled with unknowns, to be able to rely on a few stable factors such as eating meals at particular times, going for a daily walk, or reading every night before you go to bed. The stability of routines can help to counteract the anxious feelings that unexpected events may provoke and reaffirm your ability to live your life the way you want to.
  • Schedule Free Time Free time is a valuable and necessary thing that many people don’t believe they can afford. With work to do, bills to pay and errands to run pressuring you from the moment you wake up to the time you go to sleep, it can be hard to see how you can make any time for yourself. However, it is important to consider free time worth scheduling. Especially if you are someone with anxiety, free time gives you a chance to check in with yourself and see how you are feeling about various aspects of your life. If any of them are bothering you (whether it’s yourself you’d like to work on or external conflicts need to resolve), you can plan on putting energy into addressing them, rather than letting problems stew in the back of your mind and build into obsessive thought patterns.
  • Meditate (or Join a Meditation Group) Like free time, meditation gives you a chance to reflect on your life. It also gives you a chance to put aside your problems for a time and focus on simply “being.” This may sound like ignoring your problems, which it is not: meditation is all about learning disciplined thinking, which can help you to escape the negative thought spirals associated with your triggers that cause the amygdala to set off panic attacks.
  • Sleep Well Sleeping deeply for a healthy amount of time each day (8 to 9 hours for most people) is crucial to maintaining a healthy state of mind and body. Choose a bedtime and stick to it to help your mind learn to shut down at a certain hour. You should also sleep with all lights off (or while wearing a sleep mask) and avoid any caffeinated substances for at least four hours before bed to promote REM sleep. REM sleep and lots of it allows your body to recharge during the night and gives your mind a much-deserved break.
  • Eat Well Eating a regular and healthy diet is necessary to replenish your body when anxiety has sapped its resources. It is a good way to keep your body feeling fit and healthy (when accompanied by appropriate physical exercise: namely, 30 minutes of sustained exercise 3 times a week), which can contribute to how capable you feel of coping with problems in life. It can also help to regulate your heart rate, keeping high heart rates caused by anxiety from endangering your health and even your life.

Even though you can’t see or feel it, there’s a lot you can do to help keep that small, almond shaped bit of your brain in check when you find that it’s working overtime. Taking care of your body and mind is the first step you should take. Once you do this, you will be better prepared to face the stressors in your life and hopefully retrain your amygdala to stop reacting to the non-threatening stimuli that produce anxiety.


Before we discuss what happens in the fight or flight syndrome, it is important to first discuss the difference between fear and anxiety.

Fear is the emotion you experience when you are actually in a dangerous situation. Anxiety is what you experience leading up to a dangerous, stressful, or threatening situation. You may also experience anxiety when you think about something stressful or dangerous that could happen to you. Other words for anxiety may be "dread" or "apprehensiveness."

The difference between anxiety and fear can be illustrated nicely this way. Think about the last time you went on a roller coaster. Anxiety is what you felt when you were in line looking at the hills, steep drops, and loops, as well as hearing the screams of other riders. You also likely felt anxiety when on the roller coaster as you got closer to the top of the first hill. Fear is what you experienced as you went over the peak of the hill and started your fall down the first hill.


Overview

The term "amygdala hijacking" was first used by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, "Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ" to refer to an immediate and intense emotional reaction that's out of proportion to the situation. In other words, it's when someone "loses it" or seriously overreacts to something or someone.  

Goleman's term aims to recognize that we have an ancient structure in our brain, the amygdala, that is designed to respond swiftly to a threat.

While the amygdala is intended to protect us from danger, it can interfere with our functioning in the modern world where threats are often more subtle in nature.


What Hormones Are Released by the Parasympathetic Nervous System

When it comes to controlling the heart rate in the body, it is controlled by the two branches of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Hormones released by (SNS) consist of catecholamines, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine which all contribute to an accelerated heart rate. When it comes to the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) it has the opposite effect of (SNS), so instead of increasing the heart rate, it decreases it with the hormone acetylcholine. The parasympathetic nervous system activation is essential for everyone that has gone through the SNS process.

In addition to the things mentioned above (PNS) basically undoes what the (SNS) has caused. Historically and clinically, acetylcholine (ACH) is arguably the most important neurotransmitter known.


How the Fight or Flight Response Works

The fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response, refers to a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically. The response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety. 1

The term ‘fight-or-flight’ represents the choices that our ancient ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment. They could either fight or flee. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger.

The fight-or-flight response was first described in the 1920s by American physiologist Walter Cannon. Cannon realized that a chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body helped to mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances. Today the fight-or-flight response is recognized as part of the first stage of Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome, a theory describing the stress response. 1

What Happens During the Fight-or-Flight Response

In response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulate the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. 2 After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels.

Some of the physical signs that may indicate that the fight-or-flight response has kicked in include:

  • Rapid Heart Beat and Breathing: The body increases heartbeat and respiration rate in order to provide the energy and oxygen to the body that will be needed to fuel a rapid response to the danger. 2
  • Pale or Flushed Skin: As the stress response starts to take hold, blood flow to the surface areas of the body is reduced and flow to the muscles, brain, legs, and arms are increased. You might become pale as a result, or your face may alternate between pale and flushed as blood rushes to your head and brain. 3 The body’s blood clotting ability also increases in order to prevent excess blood loss in the event of injury.
  • Dilated Pupils: The body also prepares itself to be more aware and observant of the surroundings during times of danger. Another common symptom of the fight-or-flight response is the dilation of the pupils, which allows more light into the eyes and results in a better vision of the surroundings. 4
  • Trembling: In the face of stress or danger, your muscles become tense and primed for action. This tension can result in trembling or shaking. 3

Why It’s Important

The fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in how we deal with stress and danger in our environment. Essentially, the response prepares the body to either fight or flee the threat. It is also important to note that the response can be triggered due to both real and imaginary threats.

By priming your body for action, you are better prepared to perform under pressure. The stress created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat. This type of stress can help you perform better in situations where you are under pressure to do well, such as at work or school. In cases where the threat is life-threatening, the fight-or-flight response can actually play a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response makes it more likely that you will survive the danger.

A person who is terrified of heights might begin to experience the acute stress response when he has to go the top floor of a skyscraper to attend a meeting. His body might go on high alert as his heartbeat and respiration rate increase. When this response becomes severe, it may even lead to a panic attack.


Calming Your Brain During Conflict

Conflict wreaks havoc on our brains. We are groomed by evolution to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat. In our modern context, we don’t fight like a badger with a coyote, or run away like a rabbit from a fox. But our basic impulse to protect ourselves is automatic and unconscious.

We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.” We notice immediate changes like an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. Our breathing becomes more shallow and rapid as we take in more oxygen, preparing to bolt if we have to.

The flood of stress hormones create other sensations like a quivering in our solar plexus, limbs, or our voice. We may notice heat flush our face, our throat constrict, or the back of our neck tighten and jaw set. We are in the grip of a highly efficient, but prehistoric set of physiological responses. These sensations are not exactly pleasant — they’re not meant for relaxation. They’re designed to move us to action.

The active amygdala also immediately shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex so we can become disoriented in a heated conversation. Complex decision-making disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives. As our attention narrows, we find ourselves trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the most safe: “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though we ordinarily see more perspectives.

Further Reading

HBR Guide to Managing Stress at Work

And if that wasn’t enough, our memory becomes untrustworthy. Have you ever been in a fight with your partner or friend, and you literally can’t remember a positive thing about them? It’s as though the brain drops the memory function altogether in an effort to survive the threat. When our memory is compromised like this, we can’t recall something from the past that might help us calm down. In fact, we can’t remember much of anything. Instead, we’re simply filled with the flashing red light of the amygdala indicating “Danger, react. Danger, protect. Danger, attack.”

In the throes of amygdala hijack, we can’t choose how we want to react because the old protective mechanism in the nervous system does it for us — even before we glimpse that there could be a choice. It is ridiculous.

Practicing Mindfulness in Conflict

Mindfulness is the perfect awareness technique to employ when a conflict arises — whether it’s at work or home. It allows us to override the conditioned nervous system with conscious awareness. Instead of attacking or recoiling, and later justifying our reactions, we can learn to stay present, participate in regulating our own nervous system, and eventually, develop new, more free and helpful ways of interacting.

Practicing mindfulness in the middle of a conflict demands a willingness to stay present, to feel intensely, to override our negative thoughts, and to engage our breath to maintain presence with the body. Like any skill, it takes practice.

There are different approaches to working with a provoked nervous system and intense emotions, but they all have some elements in common. Here are four simple steps (which I also describe in my book, Everything is Workable) that I try to use when I find myself with an overloaded nervous system and a body racing with a fight or flight impulse.

Step 1: Stay present.

The first step in practicing mindfulness when triggered is to notice we are provoked. We may notice a change in our tone of voice, gripping sensations in the belly, or a sudden desire to withdraw. Each of us has particular bodily and behavioral cues that alert us to the reality that we feel threatened, and are therefore running on automatic pilot.

We have to decide to stay put and present, to be curious and explore our experience. For me, it helps to remind myself to relax. I have a visual cue that I use that involves my son. When I’m worked up, he has the habit of looking at me, raising and lowering his hands in a calming fashion, and saying “Easy Windmill.” I try to reflect on this and it helps me calm down because he’s so charming when he does it.

Step 2: Let go of the story.

This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, just for a minute, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far more clear in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.

Step 3: Focus on the body.

Now simply focus on feeling and exploring whatever sensations arise in the body. We feel them naturally, just as they are, not trying to control or change them. We allow the mind to be as open as possible, noticing the different places in the body where sensations occur, what is tight, shaky, rushing, or hurts. We pay attention to the different qualities and textures of the sensations, and the way things change and shift. We can also notice how biased we are against unpleasant or more intense sensations.

Step 4: Finally, breathe.

Everybody knows that it helps to breathe. There are many different qualities of the breath, but we only need to learn about two: Rhythm and smoothness. As Alan Watkins explains in his book Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership, if we focus on these two dimensions, even for a few short minutes, the production of the cortisol and adrenaline will stop.

To breath rhythmically means that the in-breath and out-breath occur repeatedly at the same intervals. So if we inhale, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, then inhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 this establishes rhythm.

At the same time, we should invite the breath to be even or smooth, meaning that the volume of the breath stays consistent as it moves in and out, like sipping liquid through a narrow straw. If we manage those two qualities for just a few minutes, the breath assists us in remaining present, making it possible to stay with intense sensation in the body.

Paying attention to our body re-establishes equilibrium faster, restoring our ability to think, to listen, and relate. This takes practice, but eventually, we retrain ourselves to respond rather than to react. Anger becomes clarity and resolve, sadness leads to compassion, jealousy becomes fuel for change.

There will also be certain moments when we fail. Becoming more intimate with our body’s response to a hijacked nervous system is challenging, to say the least. This is because the sensations are very uncomfortable, our emotions are volatile, and our mind is usually filling with unsupportive thoughts like “Get me outta here,” or “How can they be saying that?” or “This is a waste of my time.”

Each time we succeed in being mindful of our body in moments of distress, we develop our capacity. Even more, we may observe something new when it occurs. A moment of pause, an unexpected question when it appears or a laugh that erupts. When anything new happens, taking note of it helps to free us of the pattern to our old way of doing things. Before we know it, our old habit of fight or flight is changing, and the world is a safer place.


What Flushing Means

Fight or flight is a primal reaction that has been with us since we were coming face to face with saber-toothed tigers. Though we have fewer tigers to contend with now, our responses to fear stimuli have remained remarkably similar.

During the fight or flight response, the body prepares itself to either escape or combat the object of our fear or anxiety even though it is often the case with anxiety that there is no physical object to combat or run away from.

Flushing is a reaction to stress that turns the face red, and sometimes also other areas of the body such as the arms and chest. It is more severe than blushing, which is subtler, limited to the face and ears, and usually only indicates embarrassment.

Read on to find out what bodily actions cause flushing, and the reasons why they happen.


Imagine you live in a world surrounded by predators. You're walking along and suddenly an angry tiger is directly in your path. What do you do?

Without your fight or flight system, you'd probably do nothing. You'd be unable to fear the tiger, so you wouldn't know that you need to run away. Even if you did, you'd have nothing helping you. It would be like getting into a fight but being unable to use much strength or respond very quickly.

That's why you have a fight or flight response. That response is a flood of changes to your hormones, neurotransmitters, and body to prepare you to immediately run away or fight. It's designed to cover all of the bases: improving blood flow to the areas that need it, keeping your body cool, providing you with more energy, helping you see and respond more quickly, improving your mindset, etc.

Thanks to the fight or flight system, you'd immediately know to feel fear when you see the tiger, you'd have the energy to run away, and you wouldn't hurt your body in the process.