What physical and psychological changes occur during fight or flight? Please also explain why individuals respond differently in threatening situations.

The acute stress response is a psychological and response to a situation which is perceived as scary, threatening, or dangerous. The acute stress response is also known as the fight-or-flight response. This name is derived from the concept that the stress response is preparing the body to run or to fight. Acute stress response manifests in what is known as general adaptation syndrome.  There are three stages of general adaptation syndrome (GAS), that a person will experience. In the first stage of GAS, called alarm reaction, the body releases adrenaline which energizes the body and increases physical control. This response is called ‘fight or flight’. Symptoms of this response include muscles tension, increased heartbeat, and increased breathing and perspiration. Should the stress continue a person would begin to feel stage two.

GAS in the second stage called ‘resistance or adaptation’. The body responses think it is in need of long-term protection. More hormones are secreted that increase blood sugar levels to sustain energy and raise blood pressure (Hammerfald et al, 2005, p32). The adrenal cortex produces hormones called corticosteroids for resistance reaction (Field et al, 2005, p. 1412). If this defense mechanism is prolonged this stage can lead to sickness. If the adaptation phase continues fatigue, concentration lapses, irritability and memory lapse can occur as a result. The third stage of GAS is called ‘exhaustion’. In this stage, the body has run out of energy and immunity. The body will experience ‘adrenal exhaustion’ (Field et al, 2005, p. 1412). This is when blood sugar levels decrease. This in turn leads to decreased stress tolerance. Eventually, the body and mind will collapse.  The most common symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Back pain
  • Chest pain
  • Heart disease
  • Heart palpitations
  • High blood pressure
  • Decreased immunity
  • Stomach upset
  • Sleep problems (WebMd, 2011)

The perception of a threat causes people to respond differently to the fight or flight response  (Feldman, 2010, p.505) (Dallman et al, 2005 p. 477). Individuals experience stress as a result of perceiving situations or events in a threatening manner which gives rise to the psychological and physical responses. This perception of what is a threat and what is not is different for everyone. References Dallman MF, Pecoraro NC, la Fleur SE. Chronic stress and comfort foods: self-medication and abdominal obesity. Brain Behav Immun. 2005;19:275-280. Feldman, R. S. (2010) Psychology and your life. New York: McGraw Hill Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Diego M, et al. Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. Int J Neurosci. 2005;115:1397-1413. Hammerfald K, Grau M, et al. Persistent effects of cognitive-behavioral stress management on cortisol responses to acute stress in healthy subjects-A randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2005 Sep 22 pg 32. WebMd (2011) Stress Management – Effects of Stress




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