The Fight-or-Flight Response

Anxiety is actually an automatic, "built-in" response to perceived threats that allows us to do what is necessary to protect ourselves whenever we encounter danger. Often called "fight-or-flight arousal", this response involves a series of changes in our bodies that prepare us to take immediate action to deal with a threat or crisis.

The origins of the fight-or-flight response go back to a time when people lived closer to natural predators in densely forested settings. At that time, daily life was filled with very real and immediate threats that called for quick responses. Consider what a typical day might have looked like ten thousand years ago:

It's a sunny primeval morning, and you're strolling through your jungle neighborhood in search of coffee and a newspaper. The air is filled with sounds and smells that are very familiar to you. All of these carry their own meanings and associations, some comforting, and others threatening. Suddenly, you hear a rustling sound behind you! You turn to see a flurry of movement in the brush. Then, out of the greenery emerges a flash of orange, the dreaded saber-toothed tiger! Almost as soon as your eyes register movement, your brain interprets the flash of orange as "danger" and sends a message of alarm to the rest of your body.

This "alarm", carried by chemical messengers like adrenalin, causes several changes to occur in your body. Your heart begins to beat faster and stronger, resulting in increased blood pressure. This moves blood into the large muscles of your arms (preparation to "fight") and legs (preparation for "flight"). Many of your muscle groups will tense up in anticipation of the action. Meanwhile, blood flow is diverted away from your skin's surface and from your fingers and toes, which can result in paleness, tingling sensations and "cold feet." This way, should you actually have a close encounter with those saber-teeth, you are less likely to bleed to death. Your breathing also changes, from slow breaths that originate near your abdomen, to rapid breathing high in your chest. While this works to get more oxygen to your muscles, this type of breathing can also lead to dizziness and hot flashes, especially if you don't actually run anywhere. As the alarm continues to sound, your pupils will widen to let in more light so that you can more easily see your escape route. You will also begin to sweat, which in addition to keeping you from overheating, will make you slippery and harder to catch. Finally, just in case you were thinking of having a snack before starting to run, your whole digestive system will shut down, from the saliva glands (resulting in dry mouth) to the stomach (producing nausea or constipation).

All of these physical changes are aimed at helping you to either fight the tiger or to run for your life. If you do either of these, and the threat is real, the fight-or-flight response will have served you well. If the flash of orange turns out to be a harmless kitten rather than a tiger, however, the fight-or-flight response will just leave you a tense, pale, constipated, sweaty mess.

Today, our bodies still respond in the same way to perceived threats. However, when was the last time you had to physically fend off an attacker or run for your life? Rather than saber-toothed tigers, modern threats include things like looming work deadlines, letters from the IRS, and being stuck in traffic. While the fight-or-flight response is still helpful if you need to escape from a burning building, it's anything but helpful when you are trying to respond coherently to a complex question, answering your e-mail, or remaining on the line for the next available customer service representative.

Since so many of the perceived threats that we encounter in modern life do not call for either fight-or-flight, we are often left in a state of persistent arousal with limited opportunities to release the built-up tension. If our bodies react this way often, or stay in this state for extended periods of time, a variety of problems develop. Muscle aches and pains, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, persistent fatigue, sleep problems, and irritability are just a few of the problems associated with this sort of chronic over-arousal.

A crucial thing to understand about the fight-or-flight response is that it is there to help us to "take control" of a situation. When we are responding to an immediate physical threat, taking control is helpful. At other times, however, particularly when the problem is anxiety itself, the increased fight-or-flight arousal that comes with trying to "take control" is more of a problem than a solution. This is the control paradox.