April 24th, 2020

“Stay Home” and Your Fight or Flight Response

Paola Bailey, Psy.D.

Why the safest thing we can do during the COVID-19 pandemic may not feel quite right to some parts of your brain

Your brain has evolved to keep you alive. Whether you notice it or not, it is continuously scanning the environment searching for possible threats and when it detects one, it launches a series of complicated and coordinated steps in order to keep you alive. This elaborate and calculated response is known as the fight or flight response. Basically, your brain almost instantly assesses the situation and tries to determine which option has the highest chance of success: to fight or flee. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to move.

What happens during the fight or flight response?

In a nutshell, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to a sudden release of hormones. The hypothalamus, a small but mighty brain structure in the middle of the well-known limbic system, stimulates the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, including adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. Basically, if there is burglar at your door, your body needs to get into very high, very focused gear and it must do it very quickly. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for this quick and very necessary chain reaction and some of the changes you might experience include:

Increased heart beat: your heart rate and breathing rate increase in order to provide added blood and oxygen to the various body parts involved in fighting or fleeing a threat.

Dilated pupils: as your body prepares to be more aware of it’s surrounding environment so as to plot it’s fight or flight path.

Trembling: as your muscles course with energy, preparing themselves for action.

Chills or feeling cold: veins in your skin constrict to send more blood to major muscle groups needed for large movement.

Nonessential functions halt: all energy is directed at fighting or fleeing the threat so nonessential functions, like digesting your lunch, are temporarily halted. This also explains why you may have GI distress once the threat has passed.

All of these responses, along with a few other internal changes, are designed to help you survive a dangerous situation by preparing you to either run for your life or fight for your life.

What happens when it’s over?

Once you have effectively fought off or fled from the threat, your brain and body slowly turn off this sympathetic arousal allowing your body to return to normal. Once the mission is complete you body returns to homeostasis in the about 30–60 minutes.

What happens if “it” doesn’t end?

The fight or flight response, which you share with all living animals, is designed to both work quickly and also to dissipate quickly once the threat has been avoided/defeated. However, for many of us, threats these days are not as concrete and distinct as being chased by a wild animals. Threats these days are much more amorphous and difficult to flee from: a disappointed boss, a difficult and strained relationship with your partner, the mounting pressure of all of your bills and/or work obligations. And the problem with these less concrete threats is that it is much harder to fight and win or to flee from them. Thus, many of us are walking around in a somewhat constant state of sympathetic nervous system arousal…. we are all walking around with a fight or flight response almost completely activated but with no concrete way to use that energy and allow the stress cycle to be be completed.

The fight or flight response and the coronavirus

As news of COVID-19 continues to evolve, I’ve found myself feeling anxious and on edge. As I take moments of silent mindfulness, I’ve noticed an increased heart rate and tight muscles. My stomach has a dull ache and my sleep is choppy and interrupted. I’m also irritable and on edge. And then it occurred to me that these are all the classic signs of an activated sympathetic nervous system, i.e., a triggered fight or flight response. However, here is the major catch, this virus is not one we can easily fight and the instructions to “stay home” have halted our literal and symbolic capacity to flee it.

The tips and suggestions we’ve been given — mainly wash your hands and stay away from others — seem too easy and simple in the face of a such a threatening and dangerous assailant. And the alternative of running is no longer really an option as orders to “shelter in place” are enacted and airports begin to close. Don’t get me wrong, staying still (and indoors) is absolutely the safest and most socially responsible thing we can do, but our primitive brains, the part of the brain where the fight or flight response originates, isn’t quite convinced. For the limbic system, staying put and doing something as simple as washing our hands does not sound like the response most likely to ensure our survival and so it does what the limbic system is supposed to do, it increases the volume of it’s siren in order to ensure you have heard it and are heading it’s warning.

So, understanding that your mounting anxiety is at least in part due to your limbic system getting louder and louder in order to ensure you’ve heard it. This urgency to move, to act, to do something is driven by your survival instinct and while it makes biological sense, it is not the best course of action in this particular situation. Armed with this new wisdom, I invite you to notice when your sympathetic nervous system is activated and to gently speak to it. Acknowledged that you understand it is trying to keep you alive, and that this time, against all evolutionary trends, the task at hand is not to fight or flee, but rather to stay put. As for that excess nervous system energy, put it towards a work out or a deep clean of your bathroom, its the best we can do right now.

Dr. Paola Bailey is a psychologist practicing in Manhattan & Brooklyn, New York.