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Sabre Tooth Tiger Syndrome: Fight or Flight Response Gone Awry

The fight or flight response is our body's innate and automatic response that prepares us to either 'fight' or 'flee' from a perceived threatening or harmful situation.

Simply, it is a primitive survival instinct. It was designed to protect us.

This was a very critical response during cave man days. When the proverbial sabre tooth tiger attacks, you get out your club and kill it, or you run like mad!

(Photo compliments of fotopedia.com)

First discovered by the Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, the fight or flight response is initiated in a part of our brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then sets up a sequence of chemical relays to the pituitary gland and then on to the adrenal glands. This is collectively known as the HPA Axis.

The HPA Axis activation causes a number of stress hormones to be ejected into the blood stream and our body responds as follows:

  • Increased focus and alertness
  • Increased mental activity and awareness
  • Pupil dilation of the eyes for increased visual acuity
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Increased muscle contraction
  • Increased blood sugar needed for strength and endurance
  • Increased blood cholesterol and free fatty acids required as food
  • Increased blood clotting to minimize injury
  • Decreased blood flow to internal organs, and increased blood to muscles
  • Immune system is suppressed in order to conserve energy
  • Decreased perception of pain, so that we are able to keep going until the danger disappears
  • Decreased blood flow to logical and rational parts of the brain, the frontal cortex

How could such a complex system go wrong?

To this day, when our actual physical survival is threatened, there is no greater response to have on our side than the flight or fight response. We can escape a burning house fire, or heroically lift a car off a trapped victim. The courage and protective mechanism it endows us is certainly something to cherish.

However, it does go awry. Why?

It goes awry because our bodies no longer use this as a short term survival mechanism, as it was intended.

The problem: the fight or flight response in modern times never shuts off! And likewise, our relaxation response never turns on.

By its very nature, it bypasses our rational minds, and therefore we see everything as a threat and possible enemy. We move into attack mode with our family members, our kids, our jobs, and even people on the street that we do not know.

Rather than an actual physical threat, today's saber tooth tigers consist of rush hour traffic, missing a deadline, or paying our bills on time. Day after day, toxic stress hormones flow into our blood stream.

We overact to the slightest comment. Fear is exaggerated. Our thinking becomes distorted.

We are in perpetual hyper-drive!

We lose the ability to activate our positive minds or change our belief systems. We live in default mode.

What are the effects of prolonged Fight or Flight Response?

There are both physical and emotional consequences to this state of hyper-drive.

Physically, you can see from the above list what the HPA Axis does in the body. It is no coincidence that this list is very reminiscent of conditions like

  • Heart Disease
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Pituitary Disorder
  • Adrenal Exhaustion
  • Sleep Disturbances

These are all stress related illnesses. The longer we maintain our bodies in the state of stress, the less ability it has to adapt and cope. It simply breaks down. And one day, it may be years from now, or it may be tomorrow, you will be faced with a health choice you wish you did not have to make.

Emotionally, we see similar challenges in the body-mind:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Aggression and uncontrolled anger
  • Our heart is not open
  • Our rational mind is disengaged
  • We lose our creative potential
  • We focus on fear, rather than love
  • We lose the ability to listen to our intuitive voice
  • We become overwhelmed to a point where joy does not exist
  • Our choices are based on short-term survival, over long-term prosperity

What do we do about it: Hitting Rock Bottom?

When we live from crisis to crisis, burnout is inevitable. We hit rock bottom at some point, and the bottoming out is what actually becomes the catalyst for change in people.

The beauty of realizing that things are not working, motivates action. This is perhaps why you are reading this page in the first place. You feel compelled to take a deep breath, take a step back and look at the bigger picture - to evaluate your beliefs, your values and begin an effective goal setting program, with a health coach.

There are many ways to finding stress relief. This entire website has been designed just for that purpose.

Since there is no one way that is right for everyone, you will need to figure that out for yourself; one step at a time. If you need any help at all, please know that it is my mission to assist in any way possible.

Yours In Wellness,

Dr. Lisa

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