4 - How the fight or flight
response is designed to work

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Let's imagine you're a caveman out picking berries for lunch. You are looking at the berry bush but your survival instinct notices a large hairy mammoth in the distance out of the corner of your eye. It alerts you with a startle warning - as it does so you feel that brief, sharp jerk in your chest that we all get when suddenly alerted. Your heart is beating faster as your turn your attention to the mammoth....

The fight or flight response is what naturally and automatically follows when your survival instinct is triggered. It also causes various systems in your body to respond as they prepare for action because when there's life threatening danger you must either kill it before it kills you (fight) or run away from it so it can't get you (flight).

caveman picking berries
caveman noticing mammoth
caveman aware of danger
caveman taking flight

Your heart starts to beat faster so as to pump extra oxygen to your muscles so you can run. Chemicals like adrenalin are produced all to help your body work efficiently at helping you take action.

The survival instinct will also take charge of your brain. So that you don't get distracted by anything when you are needing to save your life it locks your attention on whatever it believes is the danger.

What happens next depends on whether you buy into the warning or not

This is where you become aware that you are getting a warning and decide whether it is really dangerous or not.

With the caveman, when his attention is drawn to the mammoth he obviously decides it IS dangerous and he needs to take action to save himself.

If, on the other hand, he realised it was only a sheep his instinct was warning him about he might decide instead to turn off the alarm and go back to his berry picking (more about that later).

What if you join in with the warning?

If at this point do buy into the warning and allow the fight or flight response to develop, your body's reactions will continue and your body will help you act. Your continued arousal also causes your survival instinct to lock your awareness on whatever is causing the fear. It does this to prevent you from being distracted by anything else because to take your focus away from the danger could cause you to be killed.

So you now kill it before it gets you or, more likely, you R…U…N… just as the caveman does.

The natural antidote to the adrenalin and fast beating heart is action. You fight or flee, then you feel relief. That is how the survival instinct is designed to work. And when it operates as a reaction to real danger, it works very well indeed.

All this is easy to understand when the danger is real.


The problem with anxiety sufferers, however, is that, without meaning to, they have developed a habit of getting warnings about things that aren't life threatening and when their survival instincts respond they get even more scared.

The problem for anxiety sufferers is not in managing the real danger warnings when the threat is real. The problem is in how to unlearn all the danger warnings that are not really about danger at all, but which have been learnt by mistake.

The key to managing ongoing anxieties of any kind is about how you deal with the seemingly harmless little startle warnings which we all get often and which can wreak havoc until you learn to handle them. To find out more about the startle warning, click the image below...

  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Anxiety Causes
  3. Fight or Flight