Anxiety Triggers Fight Or Flight Response

Perceived threats trigger the 'fight or flight' response—that sequential process that prepares you either to put up a fight to defend your life—the fight part, of course—or to scramble and get away as quickly as possible, also in defense of your life—the flight part.

In popular culture the fight or flight response has taken the form of something entirely innate in the organism, meaning we all come with this response built in as part of the package, but this isn't entirely true. Some of what happens in a fight or flight scenario is a product of our culture and how we have learned to interpret and deal with a perceived threat.

According to PsychCentral.com's Ben Martin, part of the threat response is innate; he notes that it was physiologist Walter Canon who back in the 1920s demonstrated that "a threat stimulates a sequence of activities in an organism’s nerves and glands." Martin clarifies this by adding that, "the hypothalamus controls this response by initiating a cascade of events in the autonomic nervous system (ANS), in the endocrine system and in the immune system."

The physical consequences of this cascade are both remarkable and startling. They include, among others:

  • Our pupils dilate, allowing us better vision
  • Some blood vessels constrict, allowing more blood to go to major muscle groups (which explains why we feel cold, as there is less blood in the veins in the skin)
  • Some smooth muscles relax, permitting more oxygen to go to the lungs (which helps explain why we often have a sudden need to use the toilet)
  • Non-essential systems like the digestive system and the immune system shut down to a minimum to allow for resources to be better allocated elsewhere (this also helps explain the above)

This is great for when you're facing a fight or flight situation, but since this kind of panic or high anxiety has the tendency to compromise the immune system and flood the body with stress hormones, it is regarded as something of a health risk if it becomes a chronic response. It's why staying vigilant and prepared for a threat is so exhausting, and why it can over time begin to cause health problems.

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