fight or flight

What Your Body Knows

Our Bodies Know the Basics.

Fight or flight? Which do you choose?

Of the five reactions to danger described in a previous post, let’s drill down on what the body is doing during perceived danger.

When asked about the body’s reaction to danger, most people will at least come up with “Fight or Flight” as responses. Neither our natural weapons nor our speed is a match for most predators.  Yet somehow we have managed to survive as a species long before our technologies began to give us an advantage.

Physiologically speaking, what does our body know to do that has helped us to survive?

Upon recognition of danger the body readies itself for either flight or fight by releasing a surge of adrenaline.

Epinephrine, also known as adrenalin or adrenaline, is a hormone, neurotransmitter and medication. Epinephrine is normally produced by both the adrenal glands and certain neurons. It plays an important role in the fight or flight response by increasing blood flow to muscles, output of the heart, pupil dilation, and blood sugar. This is done by binding to alpha and beta receptors. Look for adrenalin in many animals and some one cell organisms. Napoleon Cybulski first isolated epinephrine in 1895.

Unfortunately, the very same system that gave us the ability for fight or flight with success, causes some side effects that work against effective use of anything (like a handgun, fancy martial arts techniques, or Operation®) that requires any degree of fine motor control.  Gross motor skills like swinging a fist or running are enhanced by the adrenaline dump. Fine motor skills not so much.
So, what causes these effects of adrenaline?
Vasoconstriction is the narrowing of the blood vessels resulting from contraction of the muscular wall of the vessels, in particular the large arteries and small arterioles.
To protect vital organs, blood is moved towards the heart, muscles, and lungs.  This leaves less for the skin, hands, etc.  People become “pale with fear”. The fine motor control that we expect from our hands under normal conditions is absent.  Training that involves as much gross motor action with lots of repeated action tends to be the most effective.  This informs what sort of training one should pursue to prepare for the potential of personal danger.
Hearing Focus or Lack Thereof
Loss of hearing or Auditory Exclusion is another effect of the adrenaline that is coursing through your system.
Auditoryexclusion is a form of temporary loss of hearing occurring under high stress. As such it is related to tunnel vision and the slowing of time in the mind.
Under stress, like that of imminent perceived danger, our auditory system can play tricks.  The ears and auditory processing areas of the brain are ignored in favor of other signals the body considers a more important use of processing capability.
If you’ve played a sport, you may recognize the situation of friends or coach yelling tips/warnings/suggestions that you just don’t remember hearing.
Tunnel Vision
We will tend to focus completely on a small part of our visual field. For instance the gun, knife, or other weapon, while failing to see the attacker or our environment.   Here is an excerpt from SAmatters by Rich Gasaway

When there is a conflict between what the ears are hearing and what the eyes are seeing, vision will be the winner. This is why the sounds appear to be coming from the star on the movie screen, even though they’re not. A very simple, albeit perhaps juvenile, exercise  can be used to test this phenomenon on an un-exacting person. Tell the person to “Touch your finger to your nose” while actually touching your finger to your ear. Chances are very good they’re going to touch their ear, despite your verbal instruction to touch their nose. The brain takes its instructions from the eyes, not the ears.

On a fireground this can have some critical implications. For example, if you hear one thing on the radio yet see something else with your eyes, there’s a risk that in the process of sensory integration, your visual cortex wins and what you see is what is processed. The audible message, in turn, loses (is changed, distorted, or tuned out). It’s almost like the visual image convinces the brain to disregard the audible message because it doesn’t make sense. As you can imagine, this can wreak havoc on your ability to develop and maintain situational awareness.

situational awarenessClearly situational awareness does matter.  There may be dangers other than the one upon which you are focusing.  Multiple attackers, environmental danger, etc. are very real possibilities in the modern urban environment. Get trained in visual scanning practices that diminish the tunnel vision effect.

Is Time on your side?

The same minute on the clock can be perceived as longer or shorter depending on our mental state…think one minute til the recess bell or one minute on the roller-coaster.

Your after-action report of the high stress situation may appear to others (police) as inaccurate.  Your timeline will not fit the objective facts of the encounter. Whether in slow-motion or hyper-speed, you can expect some degree of time dilation.

Your Body, Brain, and Situational Awareness

Some, any, all, or even none of these may happen to you in a high stress or danger situation.  We humans are strange like that!  But preparation, training, and the intent to be more situationally aware can mitigate the effects.  Make your internal “Battle Computer” use the adrenaline fueled strength to best effect.

How to manage the Fight or Flight reflex?

Train, train, train.  Expand your knowledge and skill set.  Give your Battle Computer the programming it needs to prevail when you are confronted with personal danger.

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