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Understand and Manage Your Fight or Flight Response

The Autonomic Nervous system (ANS) is a network of nerves that controls unconscious processes in the body (3). This means it controls functions of your body, such as breathing and your heart rate, without you thinking about it and is crucial to your survival.

When we are living in "fight or flight" survival mode, everything feels URGENT. It’s like we are in a state of EMERGENCY. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two divisions:

Sympathetic (Fight or Flight)

Parasympathetic (Rest and Digest)

Imagine the ANS is like a see-saw; as one side fires up, the other side comes down. When our body is exposed to stress, the sympathetic side of the see-saw is increased, down-regulating the parasympathetic side.

From a survival perspective, our body would remain in a parasympathetic state for most of the day and only go into a sympathetic state for a short period of time if there was a threat of a "sabre-toothed tiger"(3). This is a healthy survival response, and after the bear was avoided or killed, life would have returned to a calm response again.

What happens when our body is exposed to Stress (or Tiger)?

Our fight-or-flight response is triggered.

  • The calf muscles tighten, ready to run.

  • The head is moved forward, ready to engage or flee.

  • The shoulders round forward, ready to fight

  • The reproductive system and digestive systems become down-regulated.

  • The adrenal glands increase the release of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol into the bloodstream.

  • Heart rate increases.

  • Senses like hearing and sight sharpen. (1).

When we are exposed to stress or a ‘threat’, our parasympathetic (rest and digest) system is down-regulated. This means we are not digesting food properly and have a lack of sexual function as our body is too concerned about running away from the ‘tiger’ that digestion and making children is not its priority.

Mental fogginess, inability to maintain weight, poor digestion, poor liver function and inability to sleep all lead to feelings of depression or anxiety(2). You are mentally and physically exhausted but can’t sleep. Why? Because all we do is run.

Children and the Survival Response

In infants, some of the symptoms you may notice are irritability, poor sleep and digestive issues. Children may present with processing problems, developmental delays and emotional outbursts. Teenagers may show signs of anxiety, issues with their self-esteem and may have trouble sleeping.

Adults and the Survival Response

Adults may be fatigued, gain weight and have a loss of vitality. Seniors may notice a loss of balance and an increase in falls.

Unfortunately, in our modern world today, once we have avoided one stress (tiger) there is always another one. This may be things like work stress, family stress, financial stress, relationships etc. If our body is in under a constant state of fight or flight we call this sympathetic dominance. This continual response now leads to the development of disease and we have become an incredibly sick nation, spending billions of dollars each year on health care (2).

Ways to decrease your stress levels and calm an overactive nervous system:

  • Meditation

  • Yoga

  • Breath work – slow, rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing

  • Going for a walk

  • Supplementation

  • Splashing cold water on your face or taking a cold shower/ice bath

  • Get adjusted!


1 Todd, W. (2016). SD protocol: Achieve greater health by learning to balance your physical, chemical and emotional wellbeing. United States: BookBaby.

2 Pingel, T. (2014). Total health turnaround: The all-natural plan to reverse adrenal fatigue, lose weight, and feel better fast. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

2 Factor 1: Primal threat, the fight-or-flight response • harper west. (2017, December 26). Retrieved February 09, 2023, from

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