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Understanding our "Fight or Flight Response" of our Limbic System

Posted on March 9, 2013 at 9:36 AM Comments comments (861)
Many of you have asked me to explain in more detail why we have anxiety issues and in furthering our understanding what are the basic strategies for controlling anxiety.  The most important element in controlling anxiety is to have a firm grasp of the physiology involved in the anxiety reaction that is often referred to in popular literature as "the fight or flight response".  I will give you a broad understanding of this important but very primitive reaction that we all possess by directing your attention to a specialized part of the brain known as the limbic system (it is the area colored in red in the illustration below).  The limbic system is a part of the brain that lies in the middle of our head a few inches behind our forehead.  It is composed of a number of smaller organs that together act as an alarm system that monitors anything outside our body that may pose a threat to us. 
 
Our five sense organs are highly attuned to anything that looks like, smells like, sounds like, tastes like, or tactilely feels threatening to us.  For that reason we involuntarily respond, even as infants, to loud noises or being suddenly dropped. The limbic system has a very powerful reaction our sense of being threatened.  If we feel that we are in danger, of any kind, the limbic system sounds the alarm and our body is immediately put on high alert.  It is the equivalent of a car alarm going off in a parking lot.  If someone tries to break into the car the alarm detects the attempted entry and sets off the car's lights and the horn starts beeping until the owner comes to investigate the situation.
Brain limbicsystem is important to undersand for clients if they are to be able to control their emotional reactions to stressful situations.We are physically prepared to "fight or flight" and we instantly have an enormous amount of energy available to us to either run away from danger, attack it head on, or if we don't know what to do to "freeze" and hope it goes away.  If you are familiar with the animal kingdom you see what happens when their respective limbic systems respond.  You may notice that predators (ie. lions, tigers, bears) all naturally go to the "fight" response.  Their prey on the other hand may go to the "flight" response (ie. deer) or "freeze" response (ie. rabbits). If you were to hook up the medical equipment to each of these animals you would find that all of them have the same kind of physiological activity that we experience as humans when we feel anxiety.  That is, our hearts begin to race, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, our muscles all tense, we become easily startled and feel extremely tense to the point that all we can think about is how to resolve the perceived threat and find a safe place to calm down.
 
Our central nervous system goes on high alert (psychologists call this state "hypervigilance") and our endocrine system opens the flood gates of a number of powerful biochemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that cause our hearts to race and muscles to suddenly tense. 
 
As we grow older our limbic system encounters other situations that it adds to the list of "dangerous or threatening" events.  This may include being punished for wrong doing by a swat on the bottom or being beaten up by the neighborhood bully on the playground at school.  Whatever the event may be, the limbic system adds that information to an emerging data base that remains in our unconscious mind for the rest of our lives.  As we continue to experience life we add new experiences, and new information, to the limbic data base of threatening situations.  This may include failures in taking an academic test or being rejected by our first attempts at romantic love.  Note here that the threat may not be a physical threat but rather a threat to our sense of well-being or our feeling that we are accepted and loved by others.
 
As we age we gather more and more data into the Limbic System information storage (which remains in our unconscious mind but instantly available).  The limbic system therefore begins to have a large number of situations that cause the "fight or flight" response.  This may include anxiety about taking tests, meeting new people, public speaking, taking elevators, being on high places, or spending time alone.  Notice that none of the list of situations listed above involve actual physical threat even though the limbic system response is a physiological one.  In other words, the limbic system is a "one trick pony".  Meaning that no matter what type of situation it is that we perceive to be threatening (meaning it may be a threat to us socially or psychologically) the limbic system always treats any perceived threat as if it were a potential physical threat to our very survival.  For this reason we over react to many things in our lives simply because this primitive part of our brain has encoded some aspect of the situation as being related to a past incident that caused us some level of emotional if not physical pain.
 
As a result we get a large number of "false positives" in our daily lives.  That is we react to things that may or may not be at all threatening as if they were in fact life threatening.  It like having a car alarm that goes off every time someone may bump the side of your car in a parking lot with their car door or a shopping cart.  The car alarm misinterprets this as if someone is trying to break into and steal your car.  In other words, it over reacts in much the same way our own limbic system does.  In both cases the car alarm and your limbic system are taking no chances; they will try to protect you even though they are over reacting in the extreme.
 
The net result can be that you become afraid of so many things that are encoded in your unconscious limbic system data base that you feel anxiety so much that you are afraid to live. The limbic system is so very sensitive that it only requires an image of something threatening to get a "fight or flight" response.  For example, if you are watching a movie and there is violence you may notice that your limbic system has misinterpreted the images on the screen to be categorized as a threat.  When you are deeply involved in a movie, novel, television, video game, radio program, or even a conversation your limbic system is busy examining the content of the thoughts and images presented for any indication of threat. It is not just the external images of something threatening but even our own thoughts that can be the triggers of the "fight or flight" response.  For this reason we can wake up with nightmares when our unconscious mind is replaying a scary movie or perhaps a scary event in our own life.
 
Producers of drama know exactly how to push the triggers of the limbic system so that we get the partial arousal of the "fight or flight" response so that we experience it as stimulation. Consider your favorite adventure movie and remember what you like the best. If it the chase scene?  Chase scenes alert our limbic systems when we identify with the person being pursued and we experience some heightened alertness as we feel ourselves tense up. We may have that same rush of adrenaline when we voluntarily participate in sports involving some risk.  I think one of my exciting experiences is when I get to go snow skiing at night in the Rockies.  I feel the adrenaline rush when I am zooming down slopes at high speed sensing the danger but loving the intense feeling of being alive in a beautiful mountain night.  It is deeply satisfying to experience the beauty of the mountain, the risk of skiing at high speed, the feeling of controlled falling, and the pleasure of accomplishing something of an adventure. The difference between excitement of skiing and the unpleasant feeling that comes with being stressed out or anxious is one important element: the feeling of being in control.  Scientists have studied what determines the difference between what is exciting or thrilling and what feels dangerous is the feeling of being in control of the situation.  This is most obvious when you interview someone who enjoys a particular sport (skiing in this case) and then interviewing someone who is scared to death to attempt such a sport.
 
On the one hand life involves risk.  However, choosing the risk and overcoming the challenges that it entails is one of the great satisfactions in a life well lived.  The truth is we need to challenge ourselves to feel life more deeply.  It is not unlike what occurs when you practice weight lifting.  Lifting weights actually makes microscopic tears in the muscle fibers.  However, the muscles quickly rebuild themselves and after a couple of days rest the body has repaired them so they are stronger than they were before you weight lifted.  The repaired, and stronger muscle, is then subjected to weight lifting again and the process is repeated so that after several months the muscles are much stronger than they were prior to the practice of regular weight training. In the same manner our mind is built to need a certain amount of challenge, or stress, in order to function at it's optimum.  To totally avoid the stress of triggering the "fight or flight" system would be to live a very safe but ultimately boring existence and to rob yourself of the satisfaction of overcoming your fears.
 
As Emerson once said, "Life is an experiment.  The more you experiment the more you learn. So the more experiments you do the fuller your life."   If you view each risk you take to try to overcome your fears as an experiment,  then journal about and analyze then your can disconnect the limbic system's natural response to try to overprotect you from death and danger.  Taken to an extreme, your limbic system can keep you from being fully alive.