• Jonathan Pittam

Problems with the 'fight or flight' theory of stress

On the run

You’re being chased by a sabre tooth tiger, so your 'fight or flight' response kicks in, your pupils dilate, breathing rate increases, as does heart and pulse rate, digestion halts, the immune system is elevated, energy is diverted to the muscles, sex drive decreases, memory is enhanced, as are other cognitive abilities, along with all of the senses sharpening. You are now primed for action…

Outdated mechanism?

Whilst this is fine for a hunter gatherer, its not fine when we trigger the same response repeatedly every day or chronically, as this leads to disease. Well, that’s what we learn on most stress management courses.

But what if there’s more to it than that? After all, this fight or flight response actually appears to be different in males vs females, different across circumstances, and even different across species…

Some holes in a beautiful theory

In this article, I’m going to talk about the fight or flight response, which is a foundational idea in the stress concept. I’m going to mention some holes in this idea, and how it may be an oversimplification of what’s been observed, and how we might just be demonising one of the most useful human responses there is.

So, what’s this FFF stuff all about?

A central idea underpinning the harms done to our health by stress is that of an overactive stress response. Through the chain of events described above, whilst being helpful in the short term, they apparently become destructive in the long term through constant or chronic activation.

The thinking goes, you have an experience that’s either physically stressful (injury), emotionally stressful (bereavement) or psychologically stressful (worrisome thoughts) and a part of the brain named the hypothalamus communicates with what’s called the pituitary gland, setting off a whole cascade of hormonal events via the release of adrenaline, noradrenalin, and cortisol, priming the body to flight, flight or freeze.

So why is the FFF harmful?

The current world leading expert on stress, Stanford professor of Biology Robert Sapolsky himself says in his famous book ‘Why don’t zebras get ulcers’, that “stressors, even if massive, repetitive or chronic in nature do not automatically lead to illness”. But this doesn’t seem to be the message that’s been embedded in the public consciousness around stress. Many people believe it definitely makes you sick, and that it’s something to be avoided at all costs.

The root of the relaxation epidemic

When you take into account how the stress response works in terms of gearing the body up for action, it’s easy to see why so many of us have come to fear arousal, and over-stimulation and pressure of any kind. With some quarters even avoiding exercise due to its arousing properties.

The same response no matter the situation

But does the FFF/stress response really go off every time we experience a thought or emotion that’s uncomfortable, and in the same way it would were we being chased by a knife-wielding maniac or a sabre-toothed tiger?

Well according to professor Sapolsky it does, who says, “and regardless of the stressor (injury, starving, too hot, too cold, or psychologically stressed) you turn on the same stress response”. But after searching high and low, I haven’t been able to find the scientific evidence anywhere that supports his claim, and demonstrates an equal biological response to events varying in their magnitude.

Some stressors

A good read of professor Sapolsky’s book highlights the following examples of stressors, to name a few: electric shock, sleep deprivation, malnutrition, bereavement, anorexia, bullying, traffic, drought, famine, concentration camps, child circumcision, psychological terror, death of a child, burns, inattentive parents, surgical procedures, to name a few… Perhaps you’re wondering what any of the above have to do with ‘everyday stress’? Me too.

I’m not quite sure how we get the same response to psychological terror or malnutrition as we do to traffic jams? But professor Sapolsky seems convinced of this, as he doubles down on his belief that stressors might vary, but “they all produce essentially the same biological response”.

If professor Sapolsky is right, and that famine causes the same biological response as exam pressure then the world itself is packed full of unavoidable hazards that are highly detrimental to our health. But if that were so, surely all of us to some degree experience these ‘stressors’ both large and small, so why aren’t more of us sick and diseased, as his theory would predict?

Hole 1 in the FFF theory – Gender differences

According to a number of research papers, males and females have different stress responses. A paper in the ‘Industrial Psychiatry Journal’ states that “men and women tend to react differently with stress – both biologically and psychologically” and adds that “the stress response specifically builds on attachment care-giving processes in females”. Very different to the male ‘fight or flight’.

So, the ‘fight or flight’ response in women doesn’t actually make them want to fight or flee at all, but rather ‘tend and befriend, a phrase coined by Psychologist Shelley Taylor of UCLA, one researcher who thinks that due to the bias of males studying stress the fight or flight response has been overemphasised.

In fact, the stress response has actually been shown to vary between species, and most obviously by circumstance, as you would expect.

Hole 2 in the FFF theory – Guilty until recently proved innocent

Quite logically the stress response is very helpful in the short term, as it gets us ready to act in a way that aids survival. The bad rep it gets is that it becomes problematic when its constantly activated, or when its chronically activated.

This constant or chronic activation has been tenuously linked with health issues. Initially it was linked to stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer to name a handful. But all of those ideas have been proven wrong, with the British heart foundation stating that 'stress does not cause heart disease', the Blood pressure society saying similar, stomach ulcers being caused by helicobacter pylori, and there being no strong connection between stress and cancer, it appears the FFF may have gotten an unnecessarily bad name.

Hole 2 in the FFF theory – Exercise triggers the stress response

Yes, exercise triggers this response in our bodies too. As does excitement, and orgasm. Surely these can’t be bad for us too?

A misjudged hero?

So, is it possible that this very response we’ve decided is harmful and out to kill us (or at least do us no good) is actually an unbelievably helpful threat response that has aided the survival of humanity over millions of years?

Has this 'survival response' mistakenly had the finger of blame pointed at it for crimes that we’re coming to realise it never committed or even played a part in, such as cancer, stomach ulcers, heart disease, high blood pressure, and many more?

I’m going to let Professor Stephen Maier, of the University of Colorado department of psychology add a few words along these lines here, as he says “not infrequently, investigators have drawn sweeping conclusions such as “stress suppresses” immune function” from studies that have measured but one aspect of immunity at one point in time”, he goes on to add that “this is akin to measuring a single aspect of neural function, and making claims about what stress does to the brain”.

A misnomer

So, should we maybe re-brand the stress response, as it seems to do so much? It keeps us alive; it helps females to respond in a different way to men that seems highly productive, it varies across species, and circumstances.

So, to think of it as one thing seems ill judged. Especially when that judgement leads to us fearing and demonising something such a beneficial biological response, that is actually there to help us.

A reality check

If we take a logical look at things, who out there is constantly switching this inner alert system on all of the time, or leaving it chronically activated? That’d have to be somebody who is constantly angry or anxious throughout the day, or constantly worrying or ruminating on negative things.

So, an obvious next step in the research would be to measure if disease prevalence is higher in these people, as the theory would seem to suggest.

How about in your organisation?

What’s the stress talk like in your workplace? Do people live in fear of stress or other forms of arousal they believe will harm them?

If so, how can you convince them to explore that belief, as perhaps they’re living in fear of pressure which can be highly beneficial to our health.

Correlation doesn’t mean causation

Remember, just because somebody says they experienced stress and then became ill doesn’t mean stress was the cause.

As previously mentioned, there’s a link between people using olive oil and living longer, but just maybe people who use olive oil follow other longevity supporting health practices, and it has nothing to do with the olive oil.

Jonathan Pittam

Mental Health Educator