Fight-or-Flight Loop, Part 1
Are you familiar with the term fight-or-flight? Did you know that the fight-or-flight response can become ingrained within your body, creating many problems that can be detrimental to your overall health? Let's talk about the symptoms and signs that you're stuck in the fight-or-flight loop, how you get into it, and the mayhem it can create in your life and your health.
The Fight-or-Flight Loop
Fight-or-flight is the instinctual response to resist (fight) or run from (flight) a threatening or dangerous situation. This response dates back to our ancestors and their choices when facing danger. We may no longer need to run from a sabertooth tiger, but when we constantly have too much on our plate, live a stressful life, and don't take time to rest when we need it, we can become stuck in a seemingly ever-present loop where we're constantly on alert. There is a saying that goes, "When all you know is fight-or-flight, red flags and butterflies all feel the same." Everything is a red flag when we're stuck in a fight-or-flight loop. Many of us, women especially, live our lives in this state without even realizing we're there.
When I was young, my mom was fun and relatively healthy. She and I would drive around in our red Jensen-Healey convertible with our matching red tank tops and sunglasses, living it up. Our living situation was lovely, and my childhood was close to ideal.
Unfortunately, my parent's marriage was toxic and stressful. Eventually, they separated, and my mom became a single mother. Mom was working for the state of California, and she ended up in an incredibly stressful department. Eventually, stress took its toll, and something in her body broke. Most days, she couldn't get out of bed, and she was taking a lot of medication every day to function minimally. At the time, there was no diagnosis for fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, which are both diagnoses that she got later in life, so doctors just threw medications at her to bandaid her symptoms. In the end, her doctor put her on medical disability, and our family went from lower-middle-class to poor.
By 10-years-old I decided to become a natural health doctor. I saw my mom suffer and wanted to help others like her. Later, I researched commonalities between fibromyalgia patients to determine the biochemistry and mechanism underneath this diagnosis. And, by golly, in the studies I came across, getting stuck in sympathetic dominance (fight-or-flight) is present in all fibromyalgia patients.
The Nervous System and Fight-or-Flight
Your nervous system consists of pieces. One piece is your autonomic nervous system, which has two legs - the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is what we call fight-or-flight. The parasympathetic nervous system we call rest and digest. Fight-or-flight is your survival state or a stress state; it's your nervous system trying to protect you. The rest and digest state is when your body can focus on deep, rejuvenating rest and digestion.
These systems function like a teeter-totter. If you're in sympathetic dominance, then you can’t activate your parasympathetic system as well. Problems arise when your body gets stuck in fight-or-flight and stays there, and the cycle begins to loop, leading you to become worn down and sick.
Another aspect of sympathetic and fight-or-flight dominance is something that women do called "tend and befriend." Women tend to be peacekeepers. We have a safety feature where we tend to be people-pleasing, walking on eggshells, and trying not to step on toes. This is especially true for women who have been stuck in that fight-or-flight loop or grew up in an insecure fight-or-flight situation. We’ve adopted this trait out of survival.
The parasympathetic nervous system, or rest and digest, is responsible for things like your immune health, sleep, and digestion. When you drift off to sleep, ideally you'd be in a parasympathetic state so that you get that deep, detoxing, rejuvenating sleep that your body needs. It is a vital component of health. You also want this state to be active when it's time to digest food. Your brain signals to your body to fuel your gut by sending extra blood flow there and shunting it elsewhere so that you can properly absorb nutrients. Unfortunately, when you're stuck in a fight-or-flight loop, your rest and digest state cannot act as it should.
In the United States, we often live in what I call a perpetual summer. This is that go, go, go lifestyle where we work ourselves to the bone. We over-schedule ourselves and our kids. We don't say no, and we have no village of support. Especially as moms and women, we juggle so many things ourselves. All of these things compound, taking their toll and throwing you into this fight-or-flight response. This everyday stress, as well as illness, infection, or lacking nutrients due to improper digestion - these are all stressors that add to this fight-or-flight loop.
The Signs and Symptoms
When your body feels stressed it generates adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone and your wake hormone. It is also involved with when you eat and your gut microbiome. When your circadian rhythm gets messed up, it affects your sleep and wake cycle as well as your hunger signaling. All of this can perpetuate the fight-or-flight loop, leading to a vicious cycle.
When your circadian rhythm is off, your body becomes inflamed. When you have inflammation throughout your body, it can break your blood-brain barrier causing inflammation in your brain. When this happens, things like heavy metals, toxins, and white blood cells that aren’t supposed to be there can enter your brain through that broken barrier. When these cells enter your brain, they munch on healthy brain tissue because it looks like an invader. This can result in memory issues, brain fog, and other neurological dysfunctions.
Being stuck in fight-or-flight long-term can lead to poor digestion, an inability to exercise, and an inability to handle stress. Other signs of being stuck in fight-or-flight include unrestful sleep, rapid heartbeat when resting, blood pressure dysfunction (too high or too low), dry mouth and eyes, and sexual dysfunction.
What happens when you have this increased fight-or-flight response? Your body asks for more adrenaline. So your adrenals kick out more while simultaneously kicking out more cortisol, closing the loop before it begins again. The longer you stay locked into that loop, the harder it is to find your way out. Think of it as a well-traveled trail in your neurologic wiring. When that trail is walked long enough, it isn't easy to step out of.
But there is good news! There are intentional steps you can take to escape fight-or-flight. Having autoimmune disease myself, I've been where you are. I want to guide you in creating a better tomorrow for yourself. I will be talking to you about this and how to get yourself out of the fight-or-flight loop in future blog posts.
Until then, I want to share my Fight-or-Flight Quiz. It's a simple quiz that covers the most common symptoms you will have if you are stuck in fight-or-flight.
Take the quiz here: