What is Your Stress Response to Fear?
“Fight or flight.” You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard the term. IN the face of fear, humans have a fight or flight reaction. But how much do you know about the way you respond to stress? And do you know that there is much more involved in this response beyond the simplistic terms of fight or flight? There’s a lot more to our stress response than this term implies, so we’re going to break it down a bit for you today.
The HPA Axis
Before you can understand why it’s fight or flight (or one of the other options we’ll unveil below), you need to understand the basic science behind the HPA axis – the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. In the evolution of our incredibly complicated brains, our ancestors had to fight to survive, and we developed a system to react to threats. Our hearts race, we sweat, our breathing quickens, our muscles tense up. It’s all an evolutionary response redirecting the necessary blood flow to our organs and muscles that are essential for outrunning the sabretooth tiger we see in the distance.
Today, we might be facing the fear of being fired when we unexpectedly get called into the boss’ office, but our response is the same. Think back to the last thing that scared you or really aroused your system, from a car horn blasting at you as you step into the street, to walking home through a dark alley, to being amorous with a sexual partner. Your response was in part directed by the HPA axis. A cascade of hormones was released and your body took action, in one way or another.
Your hypothalamus is like a command centre in the brain, directing traffic. When fearful or threatened, the hypothalamus tells your nervous system to release a burst of energy, and then to calm down again. Hormones are released from your pituitary and adrenal glands to motivate you into action and potentially stay in action. There’s more specific science to it than that, but for our purposes, we’re keeping it simple.
Fight or Flight or Freeze or Flop or Friend
Though many of us know of fight or flight, there are actually other reactions that the HPA axis initiate, so let’s talk briefly about each one.
Fight: This is an easy one. You feel threatened and ready to protect yourself or your loved ones. This is the ‘mom lifting the car off her children’ response. Or a partner drawing their fists to protect their loved one who is being threatened. You feel aggression, anger, self-defense, and sometimes, competitiveness.
Flight: There is no shame in running away when you feel scared. This is escaping the threat, though sometimes it might be withdrawing and avoiding stimuli that you fear.
Freeze: You become overwhelmed and feel “paralyzed” with fear, even though you’re not literally paralyzed. It is a scary feeling, akin to the ‘deer in the headlights’. But your body will often move on to flight before things get too dangerous.
Flop: In cases of extreme trauma, and for people living with PTSD, flop is also an outcome. What happens here is that after you mentally or physically freeze up with fear and anxiety related to trauma, you flop; you’re incredibly exhausted, and you just can’t do anything.
Friend: This response is lesser known, but just as important. Historically and evolutionarily, we have sought out others to help us through our tough times. Neanderthals banded together. Today, it might be immediately calling your Mom or a friend when you need to cry, or running to the arms of your partner, just for a hug or to become intimate.
Why is the Stress Response Worth Talking About?
Why is it important to understand the stress response? There’s a simple answer and a complicated answer. The simple answer is that it can save or harm our lives, depending on when and how, and how often, the response is activated. The more complicated answer will be the focus of another article that details the effects of chronic stress on the body. We’ll also discuss how you can battle and better these effects on your body and mind.
Stay connected with Helthe Connect to learn more and to be an early adopter of our web app, which connects wellness providers and clients, and provides you with empowering health information. As always, let us know if you have any questions about the stress response or anything else you read on Helthe Connect.