The Fight or Flight response
What happens to us during bouts of high anxiety or panic?
The fight or flight phenomenon is based on the work of Walter Cannon during the 1920’s and is very central to an understanding the mechanisms behind panic attacks.
Cannon argued that the basic instinct in any threatened animal is to release potent discharges into the body; this release of hormones had an effect on the sympathetic nervous system preparing the animal or individual to either stand its ground and face the threat head on, or to flee the scene. Christine Ingham (2000) states: “when the body is under threat, the primary urge is always to survive. In some cases this means fighting, in some cases it means fleeing, but either way there is an need for extra adrenaline and other hormones that aid the cause for survival” (Ingham, 2000, p 45).
Effectively, during such an episode, the body’s overwhelming primal aim is to survive, at all costs. As soon as a threat is apparent, it’s existence is relayed from the sensory cortex of the brain to the brainstem via the hypothalamus, which in turn increases the rate of noradrenergic activity and elicits excess action in the locus coeruleus, which then results in the release of extra epinephrine (adrenaline) from the medulla of the adrenal glands. The direct result of this is that a number of physical reactions take place, including the increase of rate of heart and lung action; inhibition of digestive actions; constriction of blood vessels throughout the body but excluding the major muscle groups, which dilate increasing strength; dilation of the pupils; and the narrowing of the peripheral vision (tunnel vision). All of the above physical reactions are critical, to varying degrees, in readying the body to face the fight or to flee the scene, and are present in panic attacks. For this reason, panic attacks are generally understood to be the direct result of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response being triggered incorrectly, and once this occurs the lack of the need to utilise this extra adrenaline causes the body to react in a distressing way. In most cases, the fight
or flight effects on the body start to reduce after between ten and thirty minutes, after this time and with no immediate threat, the body starts to return to normal. In essence this is largely due to the fact that the body is only able to sustain this condition for a short period of time before it becomes totally exhausted.
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