The Fight Or Flight Response


As humans, our physical evolution is a much slower process than that of our mental evolution. The human body is developing no faster today than it did a million years ago, yet our minds are evolving rapidly, progressing more in the past couple hundred years than the preceding millions of years combined. As a result, we’re now living with 21st century minds and bodies not dissimilar to those of the stone age. 

Consequently, the body still has some ‘features’ that it no longer requires, such as the 'flight-or-fight response', a term coined by American physiologist Walter Cannon in 1929. Cannon was referring to the body’s immediate mustering of all it’s resources, in preparation for an intense activity such as to fight, or flee from a predator. This is a 'fully integrated' response, meaning nearly all of the bodies organs are involved. It’s also classified as a ‘stereotyped’ response, meaning there are a wide variety of stimuli, both physical or psychological, that will all elicit the same biological response.

"Much of the brain’s control of the body is affected by the discharge of hormones: chemical messages traveling around the body activating or inactivating various organs."

In the event of danger, a rush of hormones such as adrenaline flood the bloodstream, overwhelming the nervous system and temporarily changing the functioning of the whole body. The heart speeds up, blood pressure rises, the lungs take in more oxygen, the muscles become tense, fats and sugars are released into the blood to provide more energy, and the body begins to cool itself through perspiration. Simultaneously, processes that are not immediately required, such as digestion and sexual activity, come to a halt.

Thousands of years ago, when man cohabited with potential predators, this automatic biological response was invaluable, saving lives every day. Today, however, is a different story. The average 21st century human does’t often encounter situations where they’re required to fight or flee in order to save their lives (in fact these reactions are usually frowned upon in today ’s society), so the flight-fight response has lost much of its survival value - today, it’s actually much more of a handicap…

"The average working city-dweller remains in an almost constant flight-fight disposition, resulting in continual physiological tension."

The average 21st century city-dweller’s body elicits the flight-fight response almost every hour: when a car speeds past, a hostile email is received, or in the event of an unexpected noise or an unplanned visitor... And whilst the hormonal changes that caused the response may not last very long (approx 15mins), the body doesn’t return to it’s normal functioning capacity for another hour. This means the average working city-dweller remains in an almost constant flight-fight disposition, resulting in continual physiological tension. 

This permanent imbalance affects our health in a multitude of ways: layers of fat wall the arteries, restricting blood flow, and causing heart failure; the natural balance of acid in the stomach is upset, causing the stomach to essentially digest itself, resulting in ulcers; skin conditions, such as eczema, are caused by abnormal chemical secretions in the skin… the lungs, kidneys, bladder, reproductive organs, muscles, eyes and brain are all in danger of similar types of damage, making us more susceptible to all kinds of infectious diseases and bacteria (there is now even mounting evidence to suggest a person’s stress state affects their susceptibility to diseases such as cancer, as outlined in Arthur Baker’s book “Stress Disease").