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What is the Fight-or-Flight Response?

The Stress Reaction and Panic Disorder

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Updated June 20, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The fight-or-flight response, also referred to as the stress reaction, can play a significant role in anxiety disorders, including panic disorder and agoraphobia. Unexpected panic attacks, fear, and anxiety are all symptoms of panic disorder, but what is the fight-or-flight response and how does it contribute to panic disorder?

What is the Fight-or-Flight Response?

The term fight-or-flight response is used to describe how a person reacts to a perceived or actual threat in the environment. The concept was first developed in the early 20th century by American physiologist Walter Cannon. Through Cannon’s research, it was determined that humans prepare to either ward off or flee from threatening, fear-inducing, or dangerous situations.

The fight-or-flight response is typically experienced through a combination of physical, mental, and emotional reactions. When it is triggered, the sympathetic nervous system comes into action by releasing stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. This reaction causes other symptoms to occur, including increased heart rate, rapid breathing, excessive sweating, vision changes, slowed digestion, trembling, and shaking. A person may also experience distressing thoughts and feelings of extreme terror.

The fight-or-flight response initiates these reactions as a way to assist the body in building strength and power. Energy, vigor, and force will be needed to prepare one to attack or run from a threat. Symptoms will lose intensity once the threat is gone. However, anxious feelings may linger and it can take hours before one feels back to normal again.

How Does the Fight-or-Flight Response Relate to Panic Disorder?

The fight-or-flight response played an important role in the survival of our ancestors, who needed to protect themselves from adverse weather conditions and natural predators, such as lions and tigers. However, this reaction is no longer as necessary today. In modern day living, the fight-or-flight response is activated due to common stressors and anxiety-inducing situations. For example, the fight-or-flight response may be triggered by issues such as a disagreement with a loved one, a stressful day at work, or difficult morning commute.

For people with panic disorder, the fight-or-flight response is thought to occur more frequently and without reason, making one continuously feel that something is wrong. When having a panic attack, a person becomes overwhelmed with feelings of fear and dread. Additionally, panic attacks bring on many physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, accelerated heart rate, and chest pain. Instead of sensing a threat in the environment, a person having a panic attack will become afraid of their symptoms, fearing that they are at risk of losing control or dying.

Many people with panic disorder learn to manage their panic attacks through various treatment options. For some, the fear of having future panic attacks becomes so great that avoidance behaviors develop. Steering clear of places or situations may initially calm the person, but will only serve to strengthen their fears in the long run.

Avoidance behaviors can become so intense that agoraphobia develops. Agoraphobia is a separate condition that can occur with panic disorder and involves an intense fear of having a panic attack in places or situations that would be difficult and/or humiliating to flee from. Common avoidances include crowds, means of transportation, and large open spaces. The fears associated with panic attacks can be so intense that one may become homebound with agoraphobia.

How Can I Tame the Fight-or-Flight Response?

It is possible to learn how to more effectively cope with the flight-or-fight response. Relaxation techniques are activities that can assist in reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. Unlike the fight-or-flight response, relaxation techniques have the opposite effect on the body. These activities activate the relaxation response, helping one feel calmer and more peaceful. Relaxation techniques can also help to improve one’s stress reaction by lowering heart rate, reducing bodily tensions, boosting self-esteem, and enhancing problem-solving skills.

Some of the most common relaxation techniques include breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), yoga, and meditation. To benefit the most out of these activities, it is important to practice them often and at times when you are not feeling anxious. Through regular practice, you may be able to calm your nerves when the fight-or-flight response strikes.

Sources:

Bourne, E. J. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 5th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2011.

Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., & McKay, M. (2008). The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 6th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

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