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Fight or Flight Is Just One Part of Stress Reactivity

Taking the stress out of stress.

Key points

  • Stress reactivity is a complicated evolutionary psychophysiological process that is multi-dimensional.
  • “Fight or flight” most accurately describes the initial stress reactive process for emergency stressors.
  • Other responses to stressors more accurately describe the complicated stress reactive process cross-situationally.
  • Fully considering stress responses helps therapists to better comprehend clients and treat habituated responses and associated triggers.
Tara Winstead/Pexels
Source: Tara Winstead/Pexels

It seems like every day I am bombarded with the phrase “fight or flight.” I come across it in newspapers, talk shows, yoga classes, social media posts, talking to clients, and many other sources. There is nothing inherently wrong with referring to stress as “fight or flight,” particularly in lay formats, but as a psychoneuroimmunologist, I do admit that it bothers me a bit, as “fight or flight” is an oversimplified way of describing the stress reactive process and not always accurate. If a person is faced with a life-or-death imminent threat, then yes, that person must choose “fight or flight.” If that choice is not made (rapidly), then the person may die or suffer severe injury.

However, most of us are not faced with true life-ending scenarios of this magnitude as our distant ancestors were. Today, most of us encounter situations that can increase our heart rate but won’t kill us (for example, public speaking). Categories of stressors can include the following:

  • Emergent
  • Symbolic
  • Psychological
  • Physiological
  • Philosophical
  • Spiritual
  • Environmental
  • Sociocultural
  • Guilt-laden
  • Temporal
  • Financial
  • Relational
  • Developmental
  • Evolutionary

Although society has rapidly evolved and become advanced in many ways, the human brain has not evolved concurrently. In many regards, our brain still operates as if we were on the grasslands of Africa, fighting for our survival every day from predators and competing clans. So, “fight or flight” accurately describes a human’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) response to emergent stressors, but there are additional responses that can occur either consciously through choice or unconsciously through psychophysiological processes and habituated patterns.

Many of our responses to stressors are a result of psychoneuroimmunological factors, involving interactions among hormones, neurotransmitters, and inflammatory molecules, that have over the course of our lives become unconscious habituated responses. In other words, we have biochemical reactions that over time produce the same behavioral responses, leading to repeated, automatic patterns. These habituated patterns can be adaptive and effective responses or maladaptive and detrimental responses. But like any patterned response, changes to more adaptive ways of handling stressors can occur.

Identifying stress reactive responses

Stress Responses
Dr. Jeff Comer
Source: Stress Responses

Some examples of stress reactive responses include the following:

  1. Fight or flight—As discussed, this accurately describes the reaction to a truly dangerous situation and can be at times the initial response to non-emergent stressors.
  2. Freeze—This occurs when our mind and body are so completely paralyzed by fear that we simply become stuck, unable to take any action—mentally or physically. This is the “deer-in-the-headlight” scenario.
  3. Grin and bear it—This is a very common response when we are faced with a stressor and we “suck it up” and consciously suppress our feelings. When a stressor presents itself, you choose to not say or do anything, nor do you reflect on the situation, try to deal with it proactively, or learn from it—you just accept the stressor and file it away in the back of your mind. Unfortunately, the stress and emotions are still there stored psychosomatically. They have now become chronic and can lead to many psychophysiological disorders and somatic conditions. Furthermore, if the stressor presents itself again in the future, you can have an overreaction as all of the previously stored stress comes rushing out.
  4. Tend, mend, and befriend—This approach to dealing with stress applies more commonly to women. From an evolutionary psychological perspective, women’s hormones are directed at helping them to maintain the peace of the tribe and clan. Estrogen and oxytocin blood levels increase dramatically when women’s hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal and gonadal axes are engaged through SNS activation during stress. From one context, oxytocin produces a bonding drive in women, causing what is called the “tend, mend, and befriend response” (oxytocin’s impact on men differs considerably as it interacts with testosterone). So, in stressful situations, women can at times move in opposition to a “fight or flight” response and seek to calm the situation down by attempting to connect with others. This response is often counterintuitive to conventional thinking about stress being “fight or flight,” and has profound impacts women’s psychophysiological drivers and well-being as this response can often be maladaptive.
  5. Treat and repeat—This approach is like “grin and bear it,” except that the person does not suppress the situation. With “treat and repeat” he or she does try to make changes to his/her thoughts, emotions, or behaviors in response to the stressor. However, the changes made tend to be non-effective “band aid” approaches that do not address the underlying stress etiology and triggers. As meaningful change has not occurred, the situation can become repeated over and over each time the stressor presents itself. This can lead to considerable cognitive dissonance as the person becomes frustrated that his/her good efforts to deal with the stressor do not work.
  6. Trained and prepped—This is a proactive, ideal response when a person has taken the time to understand his/her stressors and triggers and developed plans to respond in adaptive ways when they occur again in the future. Of course, this is frequently the goal of therapy, coaching, mindfulness exercises, and stress management programs.
  7. Rest and digest—Once stress has run its course, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) engages, secreting the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This causes the sympathetic nervous system to begin to relax, allowing the psychophysiological return to homeostasis. It is important to note, that even though the mind and body have calmed down, if the stress was not adequately released due to a maladaptive response to the stressor (for example, with “grin and bear it”) then the chronic stress condition remains, possibly leading to a multitude of psychophysiological disorders, somatic dysregulation, nodal point sensitivity, and sensory motor amnesia.

Understanding stress reactive responses in a broader format than the concept of “fight or flight” can help therapists and coaches to work more effectively with clients to understand and break maladaptive habituated patterns. This leads to the concept of being “trained and prepped” to deal with stressors and the related triggers much more effectively.

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