Stress – Flight or Fight

By Licia Ginne, LMFT

Stress is a physical response to an undesirable situation. Mild stress can result from missing the bus, standing in a long line at the store or getting a parking ticket. Stress can also be severe. Divorce, family problems, an assault, or the death of a loved one, for instance, can be devastating. One of the most common sources of stress, both mild and severe, is work.

Some of the early research on stress (conducted by Walter Cannon in 1932) established the existence of thefight or flight well-known “fight-or-flight” response. His work showed that when an organism experiences a shock or perceives a threat, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive.

The “fight or flight” response prepares our bodies to either stand and fight or run and get to safety. The stress reaction results from an outpouring of adrenaline, a stimulant hormone, into the blood stream. This, with other stress hormones, produces a number of changes in the body, which are intended to be protective. The result often is called “the fight-or-flight response” because it provides the strength and energy to either fight or run away from danger. The changes include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure (to get more blood to the muscles, brain and heart), faster breathing (to take in more oxygen), tensing of muscles (preparation for action), increased mental alertness and sensitivity of sense organs (to assess the situation and act quickly), increased blood flow to the brain, heart and muscles (the organs that are most important in dealing with danger) and less blood to the skin, digestive tract, kidneys and liver (where it is least needed in times of crisis). In addition, there is an increase in blood sugar, fats and cholesterol (for extra energy) and a rise in platelets and blood clotting factors (to prevent hemorrhage in case of injury.

Our bodies rally in this manner not just for life-threatening experiences but for almost any time we come across something unexpected or when we have intolerance for things. When the incident is small our reaction will be small and we may not notice it the way we do when something big happens and we can feel our heart pounding and threatening to jump out of our chest.

Unfortunately, this mobilization of the body for survival also has negative consequences. In this state, we are excitable, anxious, jumpy and irritable. This actually reduces our ability to work effectively with other people. With trembling and a pounding heart, we can find it difficult to execute precise, controlled skills. The intensity of our focus on survival interferes with our ability to make fine judgments by drawing information from many sources. We find ourselves more accident-prone and less able to make good decisions.

There are very few situations in modern working life where this response is useful. Most situations benefit from a calm, rational, controlled and socially sensitive approach.

Stress can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress is a reaction to an immediate threat — either real or perceived. Chronic stress involves situations that aren’t short-lived, such as relationship problems, workplace pressures, and financial or health worries. You may be able to handle an occasional stressful event, but when it happens repeatedly, as with chronic stress, the effects multiply and compound over time.

How stress affects you.

The following is a partial list of some of the symptoms you may experience when experiencing stress.


Feeling anxious.
Feeling scared.
Feeling irritable.
Feeling moody.


Low self-esteem.
Fear of failure.
Inability to concentrate.
Embarrassing easily.
Worrying about the future.
Preoccupation with thoughts/tasks.


Stuttering and other speech difficulties.
Crying for no apparent reason.
Acting impulsively.
Startling easily.
Laughing in a high pitch and nervous tone of voice.
Grinding your teeth.
Increasing smoking.
Increasing use of drugs and alcohol.
Being accident-prone.
Losing your appetite or overeating.


Perspiration / sweaty hands.
Increased heart beat.
Nervous ticks.
Dryness of throat and mouth.
Tiring easily.
Urinating frequently.
Sleeping problems.
Diarrhea / indigestion / vomiting.
Butterflies in stomach.
Premenstrual tension.
Pain in the neck and or lower back.
Loss of appetite or overeating.
Susceptibility to illness.

Some possible causes of Stress

Both positive and negative events in one’s life can be stressful. However, major life changes are the greatest contributors of stress for most people. They place the greatest demand on resources for coping.

  • Daily hassles: commuting, misplacing keys, mechanical breakdowns
  • Going to college
  • Marriage / Relationship
  • Pregnancy
  • New job / loss of a job
  • Promotion
  • New life style
  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Being fired from your job
  • Interactions with people rudeness, bossiness or aggressiveness on the part of someone else
  • Organizational: rules, regulations, “red tape,” deadlines
  • Physical environment: noise, bright lights, heat, confined space
  • Lifestyle choices: caffeine, not enough sleep, overloaded schedule
  • Negative self-talk: pessimistic thinking, self-criticism, over-analyzing
  • Mind traps: unrealistic expectations, taking things personally, all-or-nothing thinking, exaggerating, rigid thinking
  • Stressful personality traits: Type A, perfectionist, workaholic, pleaser

How to best approach stress management

Finding stress reduction practices that fit into your daily lifestyle would be a good goal. These could include evening walks, meditation, yoga, exercise and other ways of calming yourself from the events of the day. You can often find stress reduction classes or psychotherapy may help you to set stress reduction goals.

The following are some categories that can be helpful in stress management:

Change lifestyle habits.

  • Decrease caffeine (coffee, tea, colas, chocolate).
  • Well-balanced diet.
  • Decrease consumption of junk food.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Regular exercise (at least 30 minutes, three times per week).
  • Adequate sleep (figure out what you need, then get it).
  • Leisure time (do something for yourself everyday).
  • Practice relaxation techniques. For example, whenever you feel tense, slowly breathe in and out for several minutes.
  • Time and money management.
  • Develop assertive behaviors; learning better boundaries.
  • Problem-solving; learn how to resolve problems and not ignore them.
  • Possibly leaving a job or a relationship.
  • Keep a sense of humor.
  • Become aware of your own reactions to stress.
  • Reinforce positive self-statements.
  • Focus on your good qualities and accomplishments.
  • Recognize and accept your limits. Remember that everyone is unique and different.
  • Get a hobby or two. Relax and have fun.
  • Talk with friends or someone you can trust about your worries/problems.
  • Learn to use your time wisely:
  • Evaluate how you are budgeting your time.
  • Plan ahead and avoid procrastination.
  • Make a weekly schedule and try to follow it.
  • Set realistic goals.
  • Set priorities.
  • Take a time-out (anything from a short walk to a vacation) to get away from the things that are bothering you. This will not resolve the problem, but it gives you a break and a chance for your stress levels to decrease. Then, you can return to deal with issues feeling more rested and in a better frame of mind