Anxiety and the Fight/Flight Response

Now is the time to make up your mind

And find out what is real

Fight or flight You can’t run

You can’t run from yourself – from the song ‘Arrow of Time’ by Queensrÿche


A lot has been said and written about the Fight/Flight response and how the allostatic load of stress makes us lose sleep, lose our balance and leads to psychosomatic disorders and lifestyle illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure and migraines and headaches.

Sedentary lifestyle and lack of outdoor activity coupled with high calorie diets leads to obesity, high stress general apathy. This is when Life coaches, Yoga Gurus, Dieticians, Nutritionists and of course Psychiatrists, Counsellors and Psychologists have become even in demand and it seems that ‘the age of mental health’ is upon us.

John MacLean in 1960 propounded the ‘Triune Brain Model’ and presented a paper on it. He further worked on it for three decades and published his book ‘The Triune brain in Evolution’ in 1990. Neuroscience took this and elaborated upon it in order to analyse and hence predict human behaviour. Through Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) first and then after reading into neuroscience in depth, I realised that the way the ‘Flight/Fight Response’ is spoken about is not entirely correct.

The animal instinct

The first response before the Fight/Flight response, is the Freeze response. As soon as the input is received, the first instinct is ‘don’t get detected’ by the threatening bigger animal coming to devour you. And so as not to get detected, the person ‘freezes’ – and as a Coach or Counsellor or Therapist this is the first input that you will gather. The person will stop breathing at the mention of the threat. I have seen, in my sessions, not only people stop breathing, but also sway back or take a small step backwards.

Once this is over, the person decides whether the threat (animal) in front is a bigger animal with whom fighting means death. In case that is so, the person will get into flight mode saving his life. If however, there is a chance that the animal can be subdued, he will choose to fight.

What happens in the brain

As soon as there is a threat to the person (real like a speeding car coming towards your child) or perceived (you have to send an email to a client at 1700 and suddenly you see its 1630 and you haven’t started work on it), the threat is recorded at the thalamus. The thalamus responds by sending out two messages:-

The first signal is sent for instant analysis by the mammalian brain or the limbic system. Lightning-fast messages go between the amygdala and hippocampus, climaxing at the hypothalamus. The Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (HPA Axis) prepares the body for the perceived emergency. In this, the endocrine and the sympathetic nervous systems swing into action. An avalanche of physiological changes begins, including increased muscle tension, breathing, brain wave frequency, blood pressure, heart rate, and decreased skin temperature. Adrenal glands begin secreting the corticoids (adrenaline, epinephrine, and norepinephrine), which inhibit basic bodily functions such as digestion, tissue repair, and the immune system.

The second signal from the thalamus reaches the frontal lobes of the neocortex(the executive part of the brain) for rational assessment. By this time, the ‘Flight/Fight Response’ has already commenced. Now, if the frontal lobes make the decision to shut down the fight-or-flight response, it may take as long as 3 mins to reverse the process.
However, if the frontal lobes are in agreement, the process continues. If neither fight nor flight can effect a solution—for example, a serious auto accident—then the next stage begins. Once completely overwhelmed, the energy created by the stress response is abruptly halted. The result is a shock to the system. The parasympathetic nervous system goes into action and releases neurohormones.

Pain may no longer be experienced as adrenaline and endorphins flood the system – you may have cut yourself while playing and only come to know the bleeding once someone points it out to you. I have seen this even in case of gunshot wounds. However, once it is brought into awareness, suddenly the person experiences the full quantum of pain.


Anxiety is simulation of the future by the brain with a negative outcome. The pattern is the same as that of excitement – which is the same simulation but with a positive outcome. If you think the evening will be fun with friends, you feel excited and upbeat the whole day. If you know that the evening would mean entertaining stupid people who will trigger the hell out of you, you will be anxious the whole day. I know people who remain anxious for days and months before in impending simulated gloom. So what the clients who complain of anxiety are doing, is thinking over and over again about a negative outcome (the occurrence of which they have no clue about) and thereby triggering their fight or flight system consequently causing their muscles to be unreasonably tense (body ache, spondylitis, lower back problems), suffering from problems linked to the breathing mechanism, elevated blood pressure and heart disease.

Some clients suffering from anxiety activate the fight-or-flight response too often, as if there were a hair trigger in their limbic system which gets sprung by even the minutest input. By staying in this state continuously the person suffers from problems related to digestion, recovering from disease and rejuvenation and has issues connected to the reproductive system – irregular periods in women is a classic symptom. However the most lethal aspect of this is the shutting down of the auto immune system increasing the susceptibility to any and every kind of disease. Remember, your own auto immune system gets you back on your feet. Not the medicines given by the friendly Doctor.

Get out of the cycle

Anxiety can be significantly reduced ( in intensity, in periodicity and in lowering the time to setback to normal) if prefrontal lobes are strengthened. That is what we do in our sessions and our trainings. When the executive portion of the brain works well, the second signal coming from the thalamus is received in a rational manner. Or, better yet, when the executive portion of the brain is working well, life is just not as frightening and we can deal with all threats easily, powerfully and resourcefully.

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