Fight or Flight… What is it?

Written by Lisa Ann de Garcia

Lisa Ann is passionate about equipping mothers and educators with the necessary tools to help children recover from cognitive disorders such as ADHD, anxiety, and dyslexia.

April 18, 2024

To watch my YouTube version of this, click here:

The brain’s main job is to keep us safe.  If that is so, then what is the safety feature of being in a state of fight or flight?   That is what we will be looking at today.

The fight or flight response is a complex physiological reaction to a perceived threat or stressor. Triggered by a release of hormones, it prepares the body to either confront the danger (fight) or escape from it (flight).

You may recognize some of these symptoms associated with the fight or flight response:

  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Rapid Breathing
  • Pale & Flushed Skin
  • Dilated Pupils
  • Muscle Tension
  • Sweating
  • Increased Blood Pressure
  • Tunnel Vision
  • Heightened Awareness
  • Feelings of Anxiety & Fear
  • Impaired Cognitive Function
  • Severe Sensitivity to Light or Sound

This response is meant to help out in catastrophic events, such as being chased by a bear, after which the system should be able to return to normal. 

However today, many people seem to be “stuck” in this state, which causes many problems such as debilitating pain, uncontrollable rage, organ trouble, sleep disorders, sleep issues, anxiety, obesity, hypersensitivities, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Being in a constant state of fight or flight can also lead to chronic muscle tensions, especially in the neck, back, and back of the legs. The combination of these tensions can be what’s behind toe-walking in children.

When the body is more focused on the environment, it can’t be focused on close-up details. Therefore making school work and learning hard.

It is also difficult to regulate emotions, and every time we are triggered by something, connectivity is lost to the frontal (rational) cortex, thus causing us to react from the brain stem, which is our survival area

The Autonomic Nervous System is in charge of the things that are automatic for the body, such as breathing and heart beat. Fortunately, we don’t have to remember to do such tasks all day long, though some can be voluntary as well.

There are two main branches: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The flight or flight is the sympathetic branch. Parasympathetic, on the contrary, is our rest and digest branch. Homeostasis would be the ease of going back and forth between the two.

The Vagus nerve, which is the 10th cranial nerve, helps us to be in a parasympathetic state. When stuck in a sympathetic (fight or flight) state, the vagus nerve is not functioning as it should.

In the womb, the first reflex to develop is the freeze response. In functional medicine it is known as the Cell Danger Response, and in other circles it is known as the Fear Paralysis Reflex. Essentially, what is happening is that the cell walls close up in the presence of toxins as a way to prevent them from entering the cell. As a consequence, the active transport of nutrients into the cells is also prevented.

This is a withdraw response and if still active at birth, can be a contributing factor to SIDS, or have psychological consequences such as severe phobias.

Towards the end of the gestation period, the sympathetic system should start to develop, causing the integration of this freeze response. After birth is when the parasympathetic tone should develop.

The sympathetic response you can see in babies is called the Moro reflex. You will recognize it as their startle response. It should integrate a few months after birth into a mature startle. Know of anyone who jumps right out of their skin if you sneak up on them? That would be an unintegrated moro reflex.

The amygdala is an almond shaped structure deep inside the brain. It is quite small, but is responsible for all the havoc experienced during the fight or flight, or freeze responses.

The amygdala is part of a larger network in your brain called the limbic system, which is the emotional center. These are parts of your brain that automatically detect danger.

It processes things you see or hear and uses that input to learn what’s dangerous. If you encounter something similar in the future, your amygdala will cause you to feel fear or similar emotions.

The amygdala modulates the hypothalamus, whose job is to keep homeostasis, or balance, in our bodies. It is also in constant communication with other brain areas such as the cortex, brainstem, and hippocampus (memory center).

During a stressful experience, there is possible dysfunction in the medial prefrontal cortex-amygdala circuit, which essentially shuts off the rational thinking during stress and leads someone to become reactive rather than responsive.

In order to help rebalance the system once in fight or flight or when experiencing sympathetic dominance, it is helpful to engage in downregulating activities, which I am going to show you in just a second.

The amygdala detects a variety of physical & emotional stressors and decides if a stress signal is necessary. If so, the amygdala sends signals to stimulate the hypothalamus and release a hormone called CRH, which in turn stimulates the pituitary gland to release ACTH. ACTH stimulates the adrenals to release cortisol. Cortisol loops back to the hypothalamus. When enough cortisol is sensed, and the stress is reduced or removed, it will cut back on the release of the stress hormones. This is known as the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) Axis.

(this is important:) When under chronic stress, the hypothalamus and pituitary can loose sensitivity to the cortisol and not recognize that cortisol is high and they might keep producing CRH and ACTH, thus creating Hypothalamus-pituitary axis dysfunction and burn out the adrenals.

Constant stress creates an elevated cortisol to DHEA ratio, leading to energy production issues, body chemistry issues, and problems with the immune system, in general causing metabolic chaos™, a term coined by Functional Diagnostic Nutrition®.

Being in metabolic chaos puts a person in a catabolic state and it cascades throughout the body causing a potential laundry-list of symptoms that may seem like they have nothing to do with each other.

Environmental toxins are one of the main stressors of the body, though there are others, such as our own imbalance gut bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens. To see a list of these toxins, be sure to download my ebook using the link I will provide in the description below. 

So a couple of things that you can do in order to downregulate the amygdala:  Focused Breathing and focus activities.  For another surprising tip is in my ebook, so make sure you read that.  

When focusing, we are engaging the prefrontal cortex, and that seems to have an inhibitory effect on the amygdala.  In fact they seem to have an inverse relationship on each other.  So when one is more active the other is not.  

Focused breathing will not only have an effect on the amygdala, but because of the increased oxygen and increased CO2 tolerance, it will provide general health benefits as well.  There are many breathing techniques, including breathing in for 4, hold 6 and out 8.  

Other focus / cognitive-type activities, also have an effect since it is stimulating the prefrontal cortex.  You can engage in working memory tasks where you try to manipulate pieces of information in your mind (for example, try reciting your phone number backwards).  

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