Jennifer Wright, Clinical Psychologist

Anxiety and the Fight/Flight Model

In primitive days, the biggest stressors we had in our lives were physical dangers such as enemies from other tribes, snakes, lions, and bears. We are biologically adapted to manage these physical dangers generally by running from them, or fighting them.

The fight/flight theory of stress suggests that anxiety, in its true form, enhances our physical strength so that we are more able to deal with the dangers around us.

It works like this:

  • We see a stressor (in the form of a physical threat) and our brain tells our body to release powerful chemicals, which help us to become stronger and more able to defend ourselves. Our brain sends signals to the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland, releasing chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
  • We begin to go into a state of high alert - our heart rate increases, our blood pressure increases and we begin to shake due to muscle tension. We sweat, we can get diarrhoea, and sometimes we vomit, as we don't need to digest a meal when we are about to fight a bear!.
  • We then beat the bear, run from the bear or the bear has us for breakfast. And in the process of the fight or flight, our bodies have used up the chemicals that have been enhancing our strength.

The Bear Is In Your Head

In our modern lives, it's relatively rare to come across physical dangers. However, the old mechanisms are still in place to help us survive. Now, the bear is in our head. An overflowing in-tray, a nasty relative, an upsetting phone call or perceived failure are now our bears. We still receive the signal that there's a danger out there, but the dangers are usually related to dangers we cannot physically fight or run from. But our brains signal our glands to release chemicals that will take us into the same powerful state.

Our bodies go into a heightened state of awareness, leading to symptoms like shaking, sweating, and heart palpitations, or as one of my clients described the experience: "it's as if a truck has hit me".

The chemicals racing around our body are preparing us for a physical danger that will not eventuate. The only danger now is that we will wear ourselves out, physically as well as mentally, through tension, agitation and sleepless nights.

How to Beat the Mind Bear

  • We can reduce the effects of anxiety by exercising, which uses up those chemicals that are flowing in our bodies, in anticipation of a physical danger. We can help the body to believe we are fighting a bear, or fleeing from it, by running, walking or other physical exercise.
  • We can meditate, a practice incompatible with stress. Our bodies can't be in a heightened state of awareness and in a state of relaxation at the same time.
  • We can change the way we perceive the world, so that we no longer see those bears in our heads as dangerous. We can interrupt the fight/flight process before it begins by changing our beliefs about our lives. Our overflowing in-tray is not going to hurt us. We need to know how to change our beliefs to keep ourselves calm, so our bodies do not go into the automatic stress response.