Fight or Flight: The Physiological Response

by Rusty Fleischer and Jerry Medol

Fight or flight?

Fight or flight? (Photo credit: Daniele Nicolucci photography)

Anger is the body’s fundamental physiological response to a perceived threat to you, your loved ones, your property, your self-image, your emotional safety or some part of your identity. The “fight or flight” response prepares your body to fight or flee from a perceived threat to your survival. It is a warning bell that tells you that something is wrong.

First described in the 1920s by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, this response is hard-wired into your brain and represents a genetic wisdom designed to protect you from bodily harm. This response corresponds to an area of the brain called the hypothalamus, which—when stimulated—initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemical release that prepares your body for running or fighting.

When the “fight or flight” response is activated, chemicals such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream and cause a series of very dramatic changes. The Medol Model calls these changes mind and body signs. Common mind and body signs include:

• Increased breathing rate and racing heartbeat

• Upset stomach or tightened stomach

• Tension in muscles

• Headache

• Inability to concentrate

• Feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness

• Thoughts of:

– Why me?

– When’s it going to stop?

– What does he/she want?

– It’s his/her fault.

– What’s your problem? When’s it going to end? What do I have to do?

By its very nature, the “fight or flight” system bypasses the rational mind—where more well thought out beliefs exist—and moves you into an “attack” mode. Thinking becomes distorted and fear becomes the lens through which you see the world.

“Fight or flight” is a reaction and is appropriate for life-endangered situations, but most anger situations are not life threating. Instead they have to do with situations that are based upon values and judgments, not danger. When you accept that you are not in danger, you can choose to respond and not react.

Once you learn to recognize the mind and body signals of “fight or flight” activation, you can learn to respond rather than react.

In all Anger Alternatives’ programs, the Medol Model offers tools to develop heightened awareness and mental acuity to:

• Change your emotional environment

• Activate emotional literacy and

• Implement the communication skills that create respect-based relationships

Everyone experiences anger, and it can be healthy. When you listen to the message of anger, anger can motivate you to stand up for yourself. Accepting anger can prompt you to make positive changes in your life and your relationships.


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