Anxiety and the fight-or-flight response

Anxiety is a complex reaction involving the body as well as the thoughts and behavior. The perception of danger triggers a fight-or-flight response that sets numerous bodily reactions in motion. The heart increases its pace, breathing gets shallower, palms turn moist, there is a flushing of the skin and one feels a pit or churning in the stomach.

Why does the body react in this way?

All of this happening is the body’s attempt to help us survive and it’s all of these reactions combined that make up the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight-response is an evolutionary mechanism evolved when mankind lived a life of constant danger. Large predators, rivalling tribes and natural disasters made life hazardous for our early ancestors. For that reason it was those who were especially good at detecting danger and run for their lives or fight of predators or enemies who survived. In other words those with a well developed fight-or-flight response. These being our ancestors we still to this day have the fight-or-flight response as a passed on evolutionary heritage. We are in fact to appreciate this: If a car is heading directly towards us, we instantaneously jump out of harms way without spending any otherwise potentially fatal time of consideration. It happens automatically because our fight-or-flight response is activated.

When does it become anxiety?

The problem arises when the fight-or-flight response is triggered in situations where the person is not in danger. This could be when grocery shopping, commuting in a crammed bus or complaining to customer service. These situations do not call for running away or fighting. The response is in other words set off on a false alarm and one experiences bodily reactions mismatched to the situation. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to start avoiding situations that evokes this discomfort. Fearing or avoiding objectively seen non-dangerous situations is what we assign the term anxiety. There are many different types of anxiety such as Panic Disorder (lav engelsk ordborg), Social Anxiety Disorder (eng ordbog), Agoraphobia, Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Specific Phobia (eg. phobia connected to spiders, dentists or dogs).

What can be done about anxiety?

Even though it’s natural to avoid the unpleasant situations it’s not a good strategy in the long run. Every time one flees from or avoids an anxiety provoking situation, one signals to the body that it’s right in activating the fight-or-flight response and should do so next time around. If you want to unlearn your anxiety in these situations you have to actively seek the anxiety provoking situations. We call this exposure. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy we mainly structure this in a format called graduated exposure. This means picking out situations that meets the balance of being sufficiently anxiety provoking so that there is some anxiety to unlearn but not so challenging that you can’t stay in the situation until the anxiety lessens and the response gets unlearned.

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