What Is The Fight Or Flight Response & How Does It Work?

When we talk about anger management, one of the first things to come up is the fight or flight response. This is also known in formal terms as the acute stress response. I’m a huge self awareness advocate. I believe we should learn as much as possible about ourselves in order to live life to its fullest. As I researched this article, there was something that surprised me. What surprised me is the dangers of frequently being triggered. For more information on optimal health as it relates to fight or flight, check out this article explaining that it’s best to avoid being triggered too often.

What Is The Fight or Flight Response?

When we talk about anger management, one of the first things to come up is the fight or flight response (also known in formal terms as the acute stress response). Fight or flight can be defined as “the instinctive physiological response to a threatening situation, which readies one either to resist forcibly or to run away.” Or, in simpler terms, the fight-flight response is our body’s built-in defense system.

Essentially, when animals are scared the body responds in an instinctual way. When this instinct is triggered, the body prepares for one of two scenarios. You might instinctively prepare for a physical fight or to run for your life.

man boxing


What Happens To The Body During A Fight Or Flight Response?

First noted by Walter Bradford Cannon, the fight and flight response to stress occurs in the nervous system. Specifically, the sympathetic nervous system is “the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations.” As part of a stress reaction, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear and prepares the body. The result is a release of hormones that instantly spikes alertness and increases your heart rate. The muscles are flooded with the increased blood flow and the results can be incredible.

Why Do Our Bodies Behave This Way?

This response evolved out of our need for survival. When we face a real threat, we want and need to protect ourselves effectively. As the heart rate speeds up and more blood flows to the muscles, you become more  able to tap into your resources for survival. You may feel stronger and move faster. 

In this state, you are capable of protecting yourself in ways that are not possible under normal conditions. And, for good reason. The body cannot maintain such an intense level of performance on a regular basis. We need this ability to fight or run successfully so we can be instantly capable of surviving the unexpected. The acute stress response is responsible for our peak performance and is literally the key to human survival.

red moon

Fight, Flight or Freeze?

While fight or flight is the common phrase that most often comes up, it is somewhat inaccurate. In the face of a real threat, it’s possible not to jump to fight or flight at all. In fact, when we are in an intense state of fear we may freeze. The freeze response might come before or after the fight or flight response, or simply replace the fight or flight response altogether.

Of course, if you freeze when you’re in danger, you are at the mercy of whatever threatens you. It is our ability to graduate from fear (and freezing) to anger (and fighting or fleeing) that gives us power over our own fate.

You can freeze as a mode of survival as well. If you believe that hiding will leave you undetected, you might choose to literally “freeze.” Moreso, though, the freeze response is attached to the fear experience. Freezing comes immediately before (or after) the fight-flight response.

Physiological signs of the freeze response include crouching, shallow breathing, sweating, and changes in heart rate and blood pressure.

Fight or Flight History

According to verywellmind.com, “[t]he fight-or-flight response was first described in the 1920s by American physiologist Walter Bradford 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.”

Physiological Responses & Behaviours

Perhaps the most incredible thing about the acute stress response is the way that our bodies immediately know how to transition into response mode.

Some physical responses include:

Heartbeat: Your heartbeat quickens to increase blood flow for muscles and improve alertness.
Breathing: A rapid respiration rate gives your body more oxygen for increased muscle use.
Posturing: You may instinctively stand up taller and make yourself seem larger.

Some behavioural responses include:

Tension: It is common to tense up muscles, clench your jaw or make a fist in response to a threat.
Focus: You may become singular in your focus, possibly staring down the threat.

Some mental & emotional responses include:

Thoughts: Automatic thoughts begin playing in your mind that align with your choice to fight or flee.
Emotions: Your fear in response to an initial threat develops into other secondary emotions such as anger.

boy hiding under pillows

What Threats Trigger The Fight Or Flight Response?

The fight-flight response may have developed in response to life-threatening circumstances. But it can be triggered by many other scenarios as well. It makes sense that you will go into survival mode if, for example, you’re walking your dog and come face to face with a coyote or cougar. In this case, you may be facing the ultimate threat—death. But do we overreact too? 

It’s very common for the stress reaction to take over in less dangerous situations. For example, a response might be triggered when speaking in front of a crowd, receiving a verbal insult, or getting cut off in traffic. In fact, depending on your life experience and personal triggers, you might even be triggered by someone’s body language. Chronic stress can also be responsible for triggering the fight or flight response. 

What To Do?

A Proactive Response to Fight or Flight Instincts

We live in a (mostly) civilized world. Going around and having fight and flight responses to threats that aren’t all that dangerous can be problematic. Ideally, you want to be in control of your triggers and your reactions. While the sympathetic nervous system serves as a command centre that we cannot fully control, there are some things we can do.

First, let’s consider the source of the problem and discuss stress management. It is valuable to invest in stress management as a skill set. Whether we work on improving our personal response to stress or preemptively planning to mitigate stress levels, we have it within our power to manage stress (at least some of the time).

In addition to stress, relationships and phobias can be a huge trigger for the stress response. In relationships, for example with parenting issues, courses and therapy can play a valuable role in stress management. Focusing on the treatment of phobias prepares the body to manage fear triggers in a way that is proportionate to the threat.

Secondly, let’s consider alternative responses to stress. We can work on developing a relaxation response in order to more intentionally control our reactions to triggers. Deep breathing exercises and choice postures (or body language) can teach us to slow the respiration rate and resort to a calmer physiological state. This is critical when our instincts are initiating a response that is out of sync with what we reasonably know to be a safe situation.

How Can Anger Management Help You?

Learn about our Anger Management Classes here.