29 Jul

Fight-or-Flight, what does it really mean?

By: Marleen Filimon

You’ve most likely heard of the term “fight-or-flight” system when talking about anxiety and stress. Sometimes it’s referred to as the “fight-or-flight response” or the “fight-flight-freeze system”. But what does it really mean?

During a stressful situation such as preparing to write an exam, or bungy jumping for the first time, or speaking in front of an audience, the body reacts by firing the fight-or-flight response which results in a cascade of hormones that cause physiological changes in the body. This stress response starts in the brain when our eyes or ears detect a stressor and activates the limbic system.

THE LIMBIC SYSTEM

This system sits on top of the brainstem and is made up of three main brain regions (the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus) and a couple of other nearby brain regions. It plays a role in emotional regulation, formation of memories and intuitive responses to our environment.

If the amygdala interprets the images and sounds as a threat, it immediately sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus (aka the command centre of the brain). The hypothalamus maintains homeostasis in the body and communicates through the autonomic nervous system with the rest of the body. It sends out signals to control involuntary body functions such as heart beat, pupil dilation, blood pressure, and digestive processes.

The autonomic nervous system can be subdivided into two further systems

  • The sympathetic nervous system, aka the activation system, that fires the body up to either fight or flee during a stressful event
  • The parasympathetic nervous system, aka the relaxation system, that helps the body to calm down after the stressor is no longer perceived as a threat.

After the hypothalamus receives the distress signal, it sends a signal through the sympathetic nervous system to the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine (aka adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As this hormone makes it way through the body, some significant physiological changes occur that will help the body to either fight, flee, or freeze in response to the stressor. The heart rate increases to speed up the blood flow through the body, so the muscles get more oxygen to be ready for muscle movements. At the same time, the person breathes more rapidly, blood flows faster to the lungs, dilating the bronchioles, which in turn allows more oxygen to be sent to the brain to heighten alertness. A bunch of other physiological changes occur at the same time, making our body a perfectly functioning machine.

As the initial surge of epinephrine dwindles, the hypothalamus activates a second stress response that consists of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary Glands-Adrenal Glands Axis (HPA axis). The HPA axis makes sure that the sympathetic nervous system remains activated and involves the release of the stress hormone cortisol. With cortisol rushing through our bloodstream, the body stays on active mode and remains alert.

PREFRONTAL CORTEX

Another brain structure not yet mentioned but extremely important in understanding the fight-or-flight response is the Prefrontal Cortex which sits right behind our forehead and is important in

  • Personality expression
  • Decision making
  • Goal formation
  • Differentiate between conflicting thoughts
  • Differentiate between good vs bad, better vs best
  • Understand the implication of decisions on future consequences

During the fight-or-flight response, the prefrontal cortex receives less blood, resulting in a diminished ability for rational thoughts, cause-and-effect analysis, an inability to focus on small tasks, and incapability of engaging in meaningful relationships.

AFTER THE FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT RESPONSE

Once the ears and eyes realize that the threat is over, cortisol levels in the bloodstream decrease and the parasympathetic nervous system sends signals to start a body relaxation reaction. This part of the nervous system is regulated by the cranial, spinal and vagus nerves. The main neurotransmitter released by the parasympathetic nervous system is acetylcholine which helps to reduce the stress response. By reducing this response, the body flows back into homeostasis, meaning that the heart rate and breathing slow down, thus allowing the to body to return to a resting state.

When the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, we regain access over our brain, including the prefrontal cortex. This reinstates the ability for planning, conscious thought, and socialization.

Works Cited

Boeree, C. G. (2009). The Emotional Nervous System. Retrieved from General Psychology: https://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/limbicsystem.html

Bohren, A. (2018). Parasympathetic Nervous System: A complete guide. Retrieved from Cognifit’s Blog: https://blog.cognifit.com/parasympathetic-nervous-system/?amp

Greenberg, M. (2018). How PTSD and Trauma Affect Your Brain Functioning. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201809/how-ptsd-and-trauma-affect-your-brain-functioning

HHP. (2018). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved from Harvard Health Publishing: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

Hurley, T. (2018). Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System to Decrease Stress and Anxiety. Retrieved from Canyon Vista: https://canyonvista.com/activating-parasympathetic-nervous-system/

NUROBODI. (2018). The Limbic System. Retrieved from NUROBODI: https://nurobodi.com/news/nurobodi-helping-the-limbic-system

SoP. (2017). Prefrontal Cortex. Retrieved from The Science of Psychotherapy: https://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com/prefrontal-cortex/


03 Aug

Are you stuck in your comfort zone?

By: Marleen Filimon

When you evaluate your life, the way it is now, are you happy with where you ended up?
Or do you look at your life now and say “This is not what I had in mind for myself”.

If you are not where you want to be in your life, it is probably because you are stuck in your comfort zone.

A comfort zone is not necessarily a good zone to be in. It is a zone where you feel at ease with who you are, you know what to expect and how you will react. It’s a zone where you feel (somewhat) in control of your environment and where painful emotions such as stress and anxiety are at its minimum.

Sound familiar?

Being comfortable is great and sometimes needed. But being too comfortable in your own surroundings, while wondering why you have not achieved all the goals you have set out for yourself, creates a sense of stuckness. It sucks you into a vacuum of vicious cycles, in which you suffer internally but are not able to come up with the next move.

The good news is that there are ways of getting yourself unstuck and moving forward, learning more about yourself and challenging yourself. Growth is something we all strive for, but also something that is difficult to obtain. Stepping out of your comfort zone, into the unknown, can be scary. Don’t let fear tell you what you can and cannot do.

Here are four ways to get you started:

  1. What is out there?

What is out of your comfort zone? What are some things you would like to achieve but are afraid of because of possible failure or embarrassment? Start becoming familiar with your fears and discomforts. You can only work on what you know, not what you don’t know.

  1. Goals

Set some goals for yourself, but keep them small. Minimize the risk of “failing”, keep your goals small and set yourself up for success. Daily goals are better to start you off on the right track than yearly goals.

  1. Don’t let fear weigh you down

Get comfortable with the discomfort of pushing yourself. Some challenges will be tougher than other ones, but how else will you step out of your comfort zone? Fear is not something to be afraid of. Let it guide you and motivate you to keep pushing yourself.

  1. Be honest with yourself

You know when you are making excuses for why you should start working out tomorrow instead of today. Don’t kid yourself, be honest. You want success? You go get it!

Enjoy the little successes that you will accomplish. Be proud of what you have achieved.