What exactly is flight-or-flight?

by David Delaney, MA, CAR, LPC                 david@boulderneurofeedback.com

Fight-or-flight is the collection of physiological (body) and psychological (mind & emotions) changes that occur when you face a perceived threat–when you face situations where you feel the demands on you outweigh your resources to effectively cope.

When some event in your life triggers the state of fight or flight, a series of changes occur within your body and mind, often without our awareness. They include:

•A quickening of the pulse

•A burst of adrenaline (can mean shaking, feeling queasy, or hyper-alert)

•Redirection of blood from your brain and core to periphery

•The release of cortisol (stress hormone), putting you in a heightened state of alert. Your internal alarm system is on- even though you might not hear it!


Within seconds of any situation which causes you to become upset, which is fight-or-flight, the primitive amygdala (trauma center in your mid-brain) automatically sounds a general alarm.  The adrenal system promptly floods the body with adrenaline and stress hormones. Non-essential physiological (body) processes switch off.  Digestion stops, skin cools, and blood is diverted from viscera and small muscles into the outer, large muscles in preparation for a burst of emergency action (fight/flee/freeze).  Breathing quickens and becomes shallow, the heart races, and blood pressure skyrockets, infusing the body with oxygen while the liver releases glucose for quick fuel.  The entire body is suddenly in a state of high alert, ready for fight-or-flight.


Fight-or-flight is designed only for emergencies: not for everyday living!


Our culture today places so many demands on us, that we live in this state too often for good health and well-being.

In this state, learning ability, as well as other mental functions (including problem solving, reasoning ability, and relating to others) are inhibited. This response is incredibly powerful and can indeed be life-saving.

However, we experience this response on a regular basis through pressure at work, traffic jams, anticipating the future or stewing about a past event, family and relationship challenges, the intensity of school, and many more situations that are not life-threatening.

What makes it worse is the body’s design: if we get to really fight or turn and actually run, all those electro-chemical responses get used up.

But to be in this fight-or-flight state and not have to fight or run for our life, is extremely disabling and explains why stress is indeed the biggest killer.

What we need most of our day is the opposite state, called the Relaxation Response. It brings us out of the fight-or-flight state. Research shows that our approach to Neurofeedback will induce the balanced production of alpha and theta brain waves, which will then reduce our heart rate and blood pressure, relax muscles, and increase the quantity of oxygen flow to the brain.  Incredibly, because your brain is plastic (adaptable) it will remember how does this in the future because it changes in response to experience.  In other words, you can train your brain; you can increase your brain fitness.

Many researchers have also noted that this Relaxation Response is very beneficial for super-learning, enhanced creativity, healing, and optimal performance in life.


“The relaxation response is a physical state of dynamic rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress.”

Herbert Benson, M.D.

Herbert Benson, M.D., is the Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI), and Mind/Body Medical Institute Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School. A graduate of Wesleyan University and the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Benson is the author or co-author of more than 180 scientific publications and 11 books (listed below):

The Relaxation Response, 1975

The Mind/Body Effect, 1979

Beyond the Relaxation Response, 1984

Your Maximum Mind, 1987

The Wellness Book, 1992

Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief, 1996

The Relaxation Response – Updated and Expanded

(25th Anniversary Edition), 2000

The Breakout Principle, 2003

Mind Over Menopause, 2004

Mind Your Heart, 2004

The Harvard Medical School Guide

(c) David Delaney, 2009.  All rights reserved.