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Fight or Flight Response to Stress


In 1932, Walter Cannon offered some of the earliest research on stress and established the theory of the “fight-or-flight” response. His work proved that when an organism experiences a shock or perceives a threat, it reacts instantly by releasing hormones that help it to survive.



In human beings and other animals, these hormones allow for greater speed and strength. Heart rate and blood pressure increases, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to support major muscles.  


Sweating increases to better cool the muscles and allowing them to remain efficient. Blood is regulated to reduce blood loss if there is any damaged. Hormones focus our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else. All of this commands a heightened ability to survive life-threatening events. 


We can also trigger this same reaction when faced with something unexpected or something that frustrates our goals. If the threat is small, our response will be likewise, we may not notice the stressor among the many other distractions of a stressful day. 


This mobilization of the body to spring into survival mode also has negative consequences. We become excitable, anxious, jumpy and irritable. This state can reduce our ability to be most effective. With shakiness and a pounding heart, we can find it difficult to carry out controlled skills.  


The intensity of our focus on survival takes from our ability to draw information from many sources. We can find that we are more accident-prone and less able to make good decisions. 


To be most productive, our day-by-day lives require a calm, rational, controlled and socially sensitive approach. 


We need to be able to control our fight-or-flight response; otherwise, we can have problems later on such as poor health and burnout. 

Many people go through their days not aware of the stress in their lives.  They might think, “Well, how serious can it be if I don’t even know it exists?”  


Regardless of how little or how much stress you have in your life, being able to identify it will be a big help to you.  Once you are able to identify the stress in your life for what it is, you can then go about the business of dealing with it more effectively.   


Make no mistake about it – if there is stress in your life, chances are you are reacting negatively to at least some of it.

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