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What is the Fight or Flight Response? And how does it contribute to your anxiety?

In this blog I would like to focus on the fight or flight response and why people who have difficulty managing their anxiety may experience this response more often than others.

The first thing I do as counsellor who specialises in working with anxiety, is to explain to my clients, what the fight or flight response is and what this might feel like for them.

This is often a light bulb moment for people who have been struggling with anxiety or panic attacks.

Either because they were unaware of this response or because it helps them understand why anxiety is accompanied by so many uncomfortable physical symptoms.

Understanding your fight or flight also helps you gain clarity on how you may be able to reduce this response, despite it being an automatic response.

Let me help you start to gain a better understanding through this blog today.

Fight or flight response to something scary
What scares you?


Your fight or flight response has evolved to help you deal with the range of threats and challenges you experience and helps you to deal with anything that you label as threatening or dangerous.

If, for whatever reason, you perceive something as potentially threatening, you will trigger your fight or flight response, and experience anxiety as the accompanying emotion, helping you deal with that perceived threat and be more alert and focused on the threat.

This means the more things you perceive as threatening the more often your fight or flight response will be triggered

So, let me explain what the fight or flight response is and why it is normally helpful to you, but also why your anxiety may be increasing because of how often your fight or flight response is triggered.

So, as I said, your fight or flight response is an automatic survival response that we all have, it is our alarm system for danger

Your mind and body will recognise danger and react so that you can either

  • Fight -defend yourself against the threat

  • Flight-run away from the threat

  • Freeze- draw the attention away from yourself so the threat passes you by

A fear response from you will set off your alarm system in your brain ,known as your limbic system

fight or flight response
the limbic system in the brain


  • Your limbic system is two small areas of your brain, the hippocampus and the amygdala.

  • The amygdala receives your message of danger either through a noise, something you observe, something you touch, possibly a taste, or perhaps something you smell or it could be an image or thought in your head.

  • Within a split second your amygdala will decide whether this is dangerous to you.

  • This then triggers the release of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol which send messages to your nervous system

  • Your sympathetic nervous system triggers your fight or flight response by getting your body ready through speeding up your bodily functions, things like increasing your heart rate or breathing or other ways to get your body ready to run away or fight back

  • Or your parasympathetic nervous system may be switched on to trigger your freeze response, by slowing all your bodily functions down so you can stand very still or not respond ie freeze.

  • Your body is now ready for action.

  • This is why there are so many physical symptoms that accompany anxiety, your body is getting ready to fight, flight or freeze.

  • Are you familiar with the feeling of your heart pounding, or breathing more quickly, or tingling feelings in your limbs, perhaps that butterfly feeling in your stomach or you may feel like you are having an outer body experience or are frozen to the spot.

  • This is all happening automatically and out of your control and is happening within a split second of acknowledging your fear.

  • Meanwhile your hippocampus is analysing the danger through memories, prior knowledge of this event, rational and logic.

  • It is trying to work out if you are really in danger.

  • If the danger is perceived as real, that is a threat to your life, then it will continue the fight or flight response.

  • If, however the hippocampus sends back messages that everything is fine there is no real danger, and you are not at threat, then it will deactivate the response and you will start to calm down

the fight or flight anxiety response
Memories stored by the hippocampus

Why is it then that sometimes you feel afraid, you experience those physical symptoms and are overcome with anxiety even when you are not in danger?

That is because it is down to what you perceive as threatening, not about whether the threat is real or not.

Your limbic system is wired for your survival, so if it has received a message of danger, it will react instantaneously because it feels your life is at threat. It is doing a great job at keeping you alive and away from danger.

It therefore makes sense that if you often perceive things as dangerous or are fearful of things then you are going to trigger this automatic response more often.

Meanwhile if your hippocampus is recalling memories of a situation or event when this or something similar happened and you were in danger or at threat, then it is going to recall these memories and keep up the fight or flight response to protect you

Understanding this may help you to identify the things that could trigger your fight or flight response, those things you have perceived as threatening to you, and what past experiences might be contributing to your belief that this perceived threat may be real, contributing to the fight or flight response continuing.

Car can trigger fight or flight response
Fight or flight triggers

We will all have experienced our fight or flight response at some point, but these examples will help you understand how your fight or flight is triggered and maintained

Imagine you are about to cross the road, and just as you step off the curb, you see a car driving towards you, without even thinking, you jump back onto the curb out of the way of the oncoming car.

As you stand on the pavement afterwards you likely feel your heart beating faster, your palms may be a little sweaty and you feel fear of what may have happened, you might even imagine what would have happened if you hadn't jumped back in time.

But now you know you are safe and after a little while your heart rate starts to slow down you breathe more naturally and you feel calmer.

This is a normal and natural response to the threat of the oncoming car.

In a split second you sensed the danger, possibly without even being consciously aware of this, and triggered your fight or flight response.

Your experience of life has taught your this is a dangerous situation, but once you were safely back on the pavement you knew the threat had gone, your hippocampus recognised you were now safe and your fight or flight response is switched off.

You naturally experienced some anxiety in the moment, but you were able to be in control of that anxiety by reassuring yourself you were safe and no longer at threat and so your anxiety naturally went away.

Target for fight or flight response
Gunshot type sounds can trigger the fight or flight response

However, let us think of another situation where your fight or flight response could be experienced differently

You are walking down the street and suddenly you hear this very loud bang, you are startled by the noise and instantly your heart starts beating faster because you are scared by the sound and afraid of what this might be.

Your fight or flight has been triggered because you may be under threat and so you experience the fear and physical symptoms associated with that fear.

You look around and realise it was a car backfiring, your hippocampus processes this and realises this is not dangerous to you and so you start to calm down.

However, what if your past experiences of life, or memories that you have, associate that noise with something more sinister that could be a threat to you.

Maybe as an ex-soldier you have been to war and experienced terrifying situations where gunshots were fired, people were dying around you, and your life was in danger.

Your hippocampus will recall these memories and experiences and may confuse the backfiring car for a gunshot, it alerts your amygdala to that danger, thereby increasing the fight or flight response.

In this instance you are unable to calm down as your automatic alarm system is alert for further danger around you,

If this is the case you will be experiencing high anxiety and may well be fearful for your life in that moment, even though the danger, in that moment, is not real

a dog could trigger your fight or flight response
a running dog could trigger your fight or flight response

Here is another example where a stored memory may increase your anxiety in a situation that others will not feel anxious about.

You are at the park and a dog suddenly comes running towards you, he seems like a friendly dog and he just wants a little pat on the head and to say hello.

Most people will be happy to oblige, pet the dog and walk on.

However, what if you had a scary experience with a dog, maybe one bit you once, or perhaps your Mum was afraid of dogs and whenever a dog came near to you, when you were young, she would pull you away and tell you the dog was dangerous.

If either of these were the case, when you are at the park now and the dog comes running towards you, you become scared, unconscious thoughts recall those times and send signals to the amygdala that you are in danger and your fight or flight response is triggered.

Your hippocampus meanwhile is recalling those memories and experiences also and it continues to send messages that you are in danger.

Until your hippocampus receives messages that the dog is friendly, that the same thing is not going to happen, that you are not in the same situation as you were previously then it will not switch off your fight or flight response.

You will remain anxious until you are away from the danger and your fight or flight can be switched off.

This is how anxiety continues, because you never learn that sometimes a situation is not as dangerous as you perceive it to be and so your fight or flight is continually triggered even in situations when you are not in danger.

If this is something that is happening for you then counselling will be able to help you find ways to manage your triggers and reduce the amount of time you trigger your fight or flight response enabling you to reduce how often you feel anxious.

I hope this has helped you understand your fight or flight response better and led to you understanding why your feelings of anxiety may be overwhelming for you

Laura Knight is a qualified and experienced Counsellor and a registered member of BACP (The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy)

She is an approved Anxiety UK Therapist and has her own private practice SeeClear Counselling, in Poole Dorset.

She can offer face to face, telephone and video counselling sessions

Laura now focuses on working with adults who struggle with Anxiety within her private practice, working with them to reduce the scary physical and emotional symptoms they experience and help them change their negative thinking patterns so they can lead a calmer life.

For more information about Laura please visit her website

Or visit her Facebook page

or Facebook Anxiety support group https://www,

e-mail Tel 07975733029

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