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Here's what is hidden behind "certain" physiological stimuli...

Better to fight or flight?

2022 February 16 | by Arduino Mancini Resilience

Have you ever wondered why, when you must face a task you don’t feel comfortable with or you find stressful, you may have to deal with sudden “physiological stimuli” that are difficult to control?

Yes, a bit like what happens to Mario in the cartoon.

The story comes from far away, when we lived in caves and our survival was threatened by predators of all kinds.

To enable humans to survive until today, Nature had equipped them with a sophisticated safety device, which came into operation in dangerous situations: the “Fight or Flight Response” (FFR) had the task of increasing the probability of survival in case of a threat.

How did it work?

The safety device generated strong and sudden emotional stimuli, which prepared humans for two possible reactions: fight or flight.

The body prepared for one or the other, without distinction, with a complex procedure, which I summarize briefly:

  • Release into the bloodstream of catecholamines, a range of hormones of which adrenaline is the best known;
  • Increase of sugar in the blood, to make immediately available the energy needed to perform outstanding efforts;
  • Acceleration of the heartbeat, to supply the muscles with oxygen and prepare them for action;
  • Increased frequency of pulmonary ventilation and elevated muscle tone;
  • Increased blood pressure;
  • Activation of the intestine activity, for an immediate “lightening”, to increase escape speed and chances of survival.

Well, how much have things changed today?

The habitat we live in is not the same as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago; many wild animals have disappeared, other species have been killed or put out of action, and threats to our safety are quite rare.

However, our brains have not changed much, and the Fight or Flight Response never misses a chance to get into action, thanks to multiple stressful agents: an important job interview, children who don’t study, a difficult boss to deal with, the unwanted end of a story, a public presentation, persistent financial difficulties, are just a few examples.

As in the past, FFR generates sudden stimuli hard to control, identical to those we described for humans living in caves; however, they are much more dangerous, since we replaced escape from the bear with a fight against a weaker or unarmed person.

Hence the news that reports the man who kills the woman who abandoned him, the quarrel in the parking lot that ends in tragedy, the man who shoots his neighbour for the too-high TV volume.

But fortunately, things are not always so dramatic.

There are cases in which FFR generates escape instincts: when, for example, we have an important job interview or speak in public, we cannot avoid the test by punching the interviewer or shooting the people who are gathered to listen to us.

Better, far better to obey the instinct of a healthy retreat, which generates that physiological stimulus aimed at “lightening us up” and preparing us for escape; a bit like what happens with a flock of pigeons, which run away while bombarding us from above.

In this case, to get out of the way, it is not necessary to turn to violence:

just go to the toilet first.

Don’t you think so?

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