June 11, 2004
Stress and Anxiety
“Fight or Flight”
For most of us, anxiety is an inevitable part of
life. We all encounter everyday, real situations to which anxiety
is a reasonable response. These situations can be as major as death,
divorce, or job loss, or as seemingly minor as going to the doctor
or meeting new people at a social event.
Although anxiety is a very common emotional response,
its expression can take different forms. It varies in intensity
from being an appropriate response to stressful or difficult situations
to being an actual psychiatric disorder. Disorders can occur when
symptoms persist or are severe in nature. Some women have anxiety
symptoms so intense that the symptoms interfere with their ability
to function on a day-to-day basis.
While most women experience anxiety as upset and
distress, we also react to these upsetting feelings on a physical
level. What actually happens to our body when we are feeling anxious,
nervous, or even panicky? Anxiety feelings normally set off an alarm
reaction in our body called the “fight or flight” response.
This response occurs to any perceived threat, whether it is physically
real, psychologically upsetting, or even imaginary. The “fight
or flight” response is a powerful, protective mechanism that
allows our body to mobilize energy quickly and either confront or
escape from danger.
The “fight or flight” response begins
in our nervous system, which consists of the brain, spinal cord,
and the peripheral nerves. It is divided by function into two parts:
the voluntary nervous system and the involuntary (or autonomic)
The voluntary nervous system manages activity in
the conscious domain. For example, if you place your hand on a hot
stove, pain fibers will trigger a response that is sent to the brain.
The brain then sends back an immediate response telling you to move
your hand away before you burn yourself. You respond quickly to
the message, pulling your hand away.
The autonomic nervous system regulates functions
of which the average person is usually unaware, such as muscle tension,
pulse rate, respiration, glandular function, and the circulation
of the blood. This system is divided into two parts that oppose
and complement each other: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous
systems. These control the upper and lower limits of your physiology,
respectively. For example, if excitement speeds up the heart rate
too much, the parasympathetic nervous system’s job is to act as
a control circuit and slow it down. If the heart slows down too
much, then the sympathetic nervous system’s job is to speed it up.
A “fight or flight” response stimulates
the sympathetic nervous system, triggering several different physical
responses. Our adrenal glands increase their output of adrenaline
and cortisone as body chemistry adjusts to meet the crisis. The
outpouring of these hormones causes the heart and pulse rate to
speed up, the breathing to become shallow and rapid, and the hands
and feet to become icy cold. In addition, muscles tighten up and
become tense and contracted. The sympathetic nervous system also
triggers the release of stored sugar in the liver, an increase in
the metabolic rate of the body, inhibition of digestion, and an
excess secretion of acid in the stomachall in response to
feelings of anxiety and stress.
Read More on Anxiety and Stress:
with a Stress-Reducing Diet
Stress with Stress-Reducing Supplements