Fight or Flight Choice Now May Mean Suffering Later

a caveman is fighting against a tiger
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In the days of cavemen, anyone faced with danger didn’t have much time to ponder a list of options or form a committee to study the problem. When face-to-face with a tiger, it’s important to do something other than stand around and hope it goes away.

Because our ancestors wanted to live and avoid becoming food for other carnivores, humanity developed a “fight or flight” response. It’s a response to stress that diverts all non-essential resources in the body towards the areas that are needed to overcome the situation—an internal version of a crisis response team.

Inside our bodies, heart rate and blood pressure increase in response to stress, as the brain tells the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system to kick into overdrive. The surge of adrenaline helps the human body to exceed its ordinary limits.

But there’s a cost to this reaction; it affects our ability to focus on smaller tasks. What’s more, exposure to constant real and perceived stress has negative health effects over time.

This is particularly true given our primate-like ability to show these symptoms at the anticipation of stress, long before the actual event or non-event.

Fight or flight is an especially interesting topic in the context of evolutionary medicine. This is a way of studying health in relation to human evolution, and how the body has adapted to its surroundings. It also considers how pathogens have changed in turn.

In particular, the adaptation of cavemen to their particular environment has led to a very different role and effect on humanity today. For example, it could impact those suffering from panic disorders.

Being in a large open space can trigger a fight or flight response because the body senses it is vulnerable to attack. Others can find the same threat in a claustrophobic space—a crowded room or an elevator. Even without an identifiable danger, the body reacts as though a threat is imminent.

Renowned American physiologist Walter B. Cannon theorized that these reactions were a departure from the homeostasis state that the body naturally strove to maintain in the interest of short-term survival.

Though some of his observations have been challenged since, it would explain both why this response would be useful in those situations and why it would be harmful if this translated into a constant high-alert state.

Extended departures from the norm are certainly not desirable. Those of us in a continual state of stress might start wishing we could evolve a little bit faster!

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