Flight or Fight: A Very Human Response

‘Flight or fight’ is one of the most well-researched processes in the human body. This is an evolutionary example of the human stress response. We have all felt the heart-pounding, dry-mouthed and muscle twitching feeling of flight or fight.

In the modern world we no longer live like our ancestors, so why do we still cling on to this prehistoric human process? More importantly, how is it affecting our mental wellbeing in the present day?

Stress response

The source of the stress response is called the HPA (hypo-pituitary-adrenal axis) which drives the hormonal response. When a stimulus is deemed as threatening or stressful the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland which in turn stimulates the adrenal glands to secrete hormones. These include hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. The role of the stress hormone cortisol is to mobilize sugar stores from the liver which means the body has quick access energy to evade the stressor (flight). Whereas adrenaline acts on the organs to shift focus for escape. For example, causing the heart to beat faster, thus delivering more glucose and oxygen to the active muscle. Also, it causes blood vessels to dilate allowing for better blood flow to active muscles and returning deoxygenated blood to the lungs.

Typical Symptoms of Stress

●  Musculoskeletal shakes

●  Irritability

●  Inhibited immune system

●  Feeling overwhelmed

●  Forgetfulness

●  Problems with decision making

●  Foggy mind

●  Headaches

●  Changes in eating behaviours

●  Gastrointestinal distress (diarrhoea or constipation)

●  Sexual impotence

●  Changes in sleep patterns

●  Increased heart rate

Common mood disorders

Acute Stress

Daily stressors include running for the train, an argument with a loved one, a demanding meeting etc. This can cause a mild and sudden increase in stress hormones. Typically, this will not affect a person’s day too much. Although they may experience mild changes in appetite and brain fog, it shouldn’t last much more than a couple of hours.

That being said, a study found that the increased number of daily stressors logged using the DISE score system (daily inventory of stressful events) predicted long term physiological and psychological health problems. Those that reported more daily stressors were more likely to experience mood disorders (46%), and chronic health conditions (33%).

Chronic Stress

Although stress begins as a mental ailment it can soon act as a chronic drain on the physical body too. This is where the body permanently or chronically lives in stimulated stress response for an extended period of time. For example through a divorce, long-term illness, bereavement, or unhappiness in the workplace.

There has been a lot of research into the long term effects of stress, these have found a great risk for thyroid gland deterioration, gastrointestinal ulcers, hypertension, atherosclerosis, memory deterioration, reduced cognitive processes, inhibited immune health, thrombosis and nutrient deficiencies.

Moreover, post-mortem examinations have found that those people who had suffered from a more stressful life had morphological changes to their brain structure including changes in neuronal networking and volume.

Lifestyle factors to improve stress

●  Exercise can release serotonin which inhibits adrenal hormone production.

●  Meditation.

●  Journalling.

●  Removing the stressor from your life.

●  Taking a long bath.

●  Deep breathing techniques.

●  Track your mood in a mood journal to see if it’s connected to certain events.

●  Reduce your responsibilities if you are feeling overwhelmed.

●  Focus on improving your sleep routine.

●  Talk to someone - friends, family or a counseller.

●  Reduce your caffeine intake.



5-HTP is also referred to as 5-hydroxytryptophan. It is found within the human body and made from dietary tryptophan. From tryptophan, the body converts this into 5-HTP then serotonin. Serotonin is known as the ‘happy hormone’. 5-HTP can be taken as a supplement to enhance the body’s natural levels.

Supplements that carry the following claim: contributes to normal psychological function:

●  Vitamin B1

●  Vitamin B3

●  Vitamin B6

●  Vitamin B9

●  Vitamin B12

●  Vitamin C

●  Biotin

●  Magnesium

If you’re stressed about being stressed, give one of these recommendations a go and take some valuable ‘me time’.

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”― Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember



●  https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body


●  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3654031/

●  https://stresscenter.ucsf.edu/measures/daily-stressors

"HansSelye" EncyclopædiaBritannicaEncyclopædiaBritannica,Inc.22July2010.Retrieved8 November 2016.


●  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5137920/