Fight or flight – Part 2

As I mentioned last week, the fight/flight system has its place – we will all find ourselves in situations where this primitive survival system is called for and may even save our lives. Yet in modern life, this system is activated all too readily. The 24 hour news cycle, advertising, over-crowding, insecurity at work, family stress, the political climate – all these can make us fearful and reactive over and over again. Sometimes this is exploited by others – for example click-bait, which are stories designed to have us clicking on to online news, helping them to sell advertising. Politicians may want to make us feel insecure so they can promise us security if we vote for them. The advertising industry often works on our fear – buy this product to keep you and your family safe – and who would not want their family to be safe? So we quickly buy the product or insurance.

Because it is a primal survival response, the flight or flight mode activates the more primitive parts of the brain, in particular the brain stem and the limbic system. This system encourages us to react quickly, without over-thinking. Fortunately, we can learn over time to switch off this primitive reactiveness when it’s not called for, and to instead engage the whole of our brain – including those parts which make us mature, wise, reflective and considerate. In mindfulness, we are in effect asking – ‘what is really going on right now?’ And also, once we’ve become clearer about the current situation, we can also ask, ‘how can I best respond?’ Over time, if we practise mindfulness regularly, we find that our level of arousal in stressful situations is not as high, and we can recover more quickly. This is a major advantage in times when we’re under considerable stress, but need to negotiate our challenges with wisdom and restraint.

These kind of effects are often noticed after only a few weeks of regular mindfulness meditation. Participants in the eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course often report in weeks three or four that they were able to deal with a stressful situation more effectively than they would have in the past. Whether it’s our relationship with our family or work, our neighbours or our cravings, we can learn to pause, reflect, and make conscious choices on how to act. Over time, this feels very empowering, as we are no longer so much at the mercy of our primitive fight/flight response.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of a situation where you have recently found yourself in fight/flight mode although there was no imminent physical danger. Imagine yourself in this situation being able to calm yourself down, be reflective, act with restraint. Could this have changed the outcome?

Anja Tanhane

Fight or flight Part 1

Most of us are pretty familiar with fight or flight, which is the first of Paul Gilbert’s three emotional systems I mentioned in last week’s reflection. Fight or flight is a remarkable system designed to keep us alive. It’s a primitive but effective emergency response to a perceived danger, and it mobilises our body for immediate action. In fact, in emergency situations, we often find ourselves reacting before we have time to think. This is great when a snake is coming at you and you have to jump out of the way; not so good when your boss says something you find upsetting and you find yourself screaming abuse at her.

During fight or flight, our body systems go into overdrive – the blood pressure goes up, as does the heart rate, breathing becomes fast and shallow, your body is flooded with stress hormones, peripheral circulation decreases as the blood rushes to the major muscle groups ready for action, and your digestion slows down. Your focus is narrow, fixated on the perceived danger, and you lose sight of the bigger picture. Parts of the brain such as the central pre-frontal cortex, which are designed to restrain your action, reflect on the situation and bring empathy and atunement to another person, go offline. Again, we can see how these responses are great in a survival situation, but less useful in a complex office or family environment.

Unfortunately for us, fight or flight is activated quite easily – after the old adage, better safe than sorry. It is activated just as readily by a real danger, such as a tiger attacking you, as by imagined danger, such as an email from management announcing a major restructure at work. Some people live in dangerous situations, such as a war zone or in a domestic violence relationship, but for many of us the actual physical dangers are rare – and yet we can spend a great deal of our lives in fight or flight mode. And if your stress is chronic, the fight/flight response may not be de-activated between stressors. Because it’s such an extreme emergency response, being often in fight/flight mode is like driving the car down the freeway in first gear – eventually the system will wear out and start to break down. Next week, we will look how mindfulness can be helpful for regulating the fight or flight response a bit better.

Weekly practice idea:

Try to become more conscious of situations where your fight/flight response is being activated. What happens in your body? In your mind?

Anja Tanhane