Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Fight or Flight?

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager


What makes one person able to run into a dangerous situation to help, and another be compelled to run in the opposite direction? All humans have the same biological responses to fear, but some people are able to overcome them.

It seems that we are constantly bombarded with the fears of modern living. Media informs us of the dangers of our life styles, health choices, food, cars, communities, other people, animals, and super bugs, just to name a few.

Most of us have become conditioned to those daily fears, but when events like shootings, terrorist attacks, and senseless violence happen, we begin to wonder what our own response would be if we were in those situations.

The human brain contains more than 100 billion brain cells that work together to produce autonomic responses in cases of extreme fear. We do not intentionally have physical reactions, but instead, our body responds automatically.

Several parts of the brain are involved in the fear response. The thalamus decides where to send the incoming stimuli while the sensory cortex interprets the data. The hippocampus helps to decide the context of the event and the amygdala decodes emotions and determines if there is a real threat. Finally, the hypothalamus activates the fight or flight response, if it is necessary.

There are two paths to the fear response which occur simultaneously. The low road is quick and causes a “take no chances” reaction while the high road involves more interpretation and considers the options.

Our bodies immediately react to the stress hormones like adrenalin being produced with physical signals such as our heart rate quickens, blood pressure increases, mouth dries out, pupils dilate, veins constrict sometimes causing a chill or goose bumps, and blood glucose levels rise. Smooth muscles relax to allow more oxygen into the lungs, non-essential systems like digestion shut down, and we have trouble focusing on small tasks.

Fear is essential to mankind’s survival when will and reason are powerless against danger. Early man knew that rain sometimes came with frightening thunder and lightning producing fire, so he learned to stay inside. Rational fear is manageable and keeps us from doing things like walking down a dark ally.

Studies have shown that teenagers fear such things as terror attacks, death, failure, war, being alone, and the future. New research is focusing on the fear of bullying and its short and long term effects on learning. Chronic fear can be emotionally and physically debilitating as seen in phobias.

Recent events in Boston have caused some of us to question and cope with our own levels of fear. What would be our own reaction in such a situation? Would we run to help others or would we run in the other direction? The answer lies in our ability to deal with our fight or flight response. Let’s all hope that we never need to discover the answer. President Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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