Several years ago, while on a routine neighborhood walk near his home in Greenville, Tommy Lewis Neal came upon a large mastiff at the edge of an unfenced front yard. The dog was standing motionless and silent among a crowd of people, and Neal had the sudden urge both to flee and to stay put because “I was a stranger and this dog looked almost as big as me.”
“My first thought was to run, but I knew he would chase me,” Neal recalled. “So I walked right by him, pretending not to notice, as if I belonged with the crowd and the neighborhood. Luckily the dog never moved, growled or acted in any way aggressive – but in my mind I was running from him as hard as I could.”
Neal’s experience is what psychologists call fight or flight – the immediate impulse that happens when someone comes upon a potentially threatening encounter or situation.
“The body is an incredible system; anxiety is our body’s most primitive way to tell us that something is wrong,” Bon Secours St. Francis psychiatrist Dr. Lee Blackmon explained. “Our heart rate picks up, our stomach is in knots, the body gets tight. Our body warns us.”
Dr. Blackmon, who specializes in management of anxiety, panic, depressive, and trauma and stressor-related disorders, offers this comparison to best explain the toll that fight or flight symptoms have on health: “We are often told not to rev a car engine for a long time because it is not sustainable; the engine will break down. Imagine the human body with fight or flight engaged a lot. The body is not designed to be in that heightened state.”
In a society like ours, being in survival mode is not hard to understand, Dr. Blackmon said. Day in and day out, people go to stressful jobs to make ends meet. In addition to work stress, there often is stress at home.
“So many people feel like they have to white knuckle through long hours or home stress because they have no other options,” Dr. Blackmon added. “Their body is so used to being in that state, they don’t realize it is happening.”
However, humans are animals at the core, their bodies respond via instincts and fight or flight responses are instinctual.
People who spend months assuring everyone that they are fine when they are not will probably hear from their body eventually – maybe through a racing, shingles or eye twitches. The manifestations are many.
“I don’t know if people are more stressed now than they ever were before,” said Dr. Daniel Greenberg, associate professor and chair of the Psychology Department at the College of Charleston. “Certainly there are stressors now that weren’t around a hundred years ago, but there were stressors back then that aren’t around today. In the long run, chronic fight-or-flight responses typically have more of an effect than one or two extreme events – such as encountering the proverbial tiger in a dark forest and somehow managing to escape.”
So where then is the proverbial tiger in the dark forest or Tommy Neal’s real-life encounter with the mastiff? Dr. Greenberg pointed out that while extreme incidents sometimes happen to people, the everyday fight-or-flight stresses affect our health more than all the dogs and tigers put together.
“Actually, a brief fight-or-flight response is a good thing. It kicks your sympathetic nervous system into high gear to help you defend against a threat. And, normally, you escape the danger with little or no harm,” he said. “The real problem is chronic stress, which has all sorts of negative effects.”
Chronic stress can come from family upheavals, money problems, personal relationships, illness and death and even dealing with traffic. When these conditions happen too often, or even in one or two life-changing moments, they can affect your health in many ways:
- Cardiovascular disease and hypertension;
- A weakened immune system, which can make you more vulnerable to infection and hamper your body’s ability to heal;
- Brain atrophy, particularly in areas for learning and memory;
- Higher risk for depression and anxiety;
- Gastrointestinal/metabolic illnesses.
A precise timeline for when fight-or-flight manifestations will affect health negatively is difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint.
“It is very individualized,” Dr. Blackmon explained. “Some people are predisposed to it having a large impact; others have more resiliency. A lot of studies after Sept. 11, for example, revealed that some people have PTSD and others don’t.”
Solutions range from deep breathing to exercise to professional counseling. But Greenberg advised that regardless of the size or frequency of the fight-or-flight stresses, finding your own way to handle them is the best you can do – especially if you are a student.
“My colleagues and I worry that students now don’t have the skills to cope with these stresses,” he said. “These skills are called ‘grit,’ ‘resiliency’ and other things, but they allow you to pick yourself up when you fail, take a deep breath and move on. And while you could dismiss this as older folks grumbling about ‘kids these days,’ the increase in demand for mental health services suggests otherwise.”
Chronic Fight-or-Flight Stresses By Era
- Continual threat of armed war – confirmed by the Korean War and World War II;
- Global spread of communism;
- Social pressure for wives to keep a spotless home;
- Physical bullying in school;
- Making a living.
- Sudden threat of armed war – confirmed by the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis;
- Doubled-digit inflation and interest rates;
- Physical bullying in school – made worse by use of illegal drugs;
- Prevalence of sexual diseases – AIDS and herpes;
- Finding work to make a living.
- Illness and death from COVID;
- Constant political unrest and division in the United States;
- Physical bullying in school, made worse by social media and use of illegal drugs;
- Business failures, short-staffing, supply chain issues;
- Job insecurity, which often includes no health insurance, no benefits and inflated salaries to pay for inflated consumer prices.
By L. C. Leach III