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F is for Fight or Flight

By Mriganka Lulla

Artwork by @vamikasardana

Running into the wild

I thought about the physiological concept of Fight-or-Flight on a mundane day in 2019, years after I studied it in 12th-grade psychology.

There was nothing particularly significant or stressful about that day - the usual sorry state of my bank account, the onslaught of traffic, and the bustle of Bangalore’s non-existent sidewalks - were aspects of life to which I had grown accustomed. So when my heart started beating in my chest faster than a cheetah running through the Maasai Mara, and my body felt hot and cold and hot and cold all at once, and my vision became so blurry I had to prop myself up against the gate to keep from fainting, I just thought, “Jesus, weakling. Should’ve eaten breakfast first.”

And then it happened again. In the changing room of a ZARA, after trying on a particularly skinny pair of jeans (I know, first world problems). Maybe I tried to squeeze myself into a size too small - can’t say it’s the first time I’ve done that. But then it happened again when I was talking about the ZARA incident. And then again, on another random day. For no real, identifiable reason.

As my hands trembled uncontrollably, I finally realized that these were not reactions to low blood sugar. These were panic attacks, triggered by high-stress situations I had recently experienced. I was unconsciously replaying these situations in my head - most of which had no connection to a ZARA changing room at all.

It was my amygdala - a collection of cells near the base of my brain (and yours) where emotions like fear, stress and anger are processed. As the writer and Social Anxiety expert, Arlin Cuncic, explains, when you see, hear, touch, or taste something, that sensory information first heads to the thalamus, which acts as your brain's relay station. The thalamus then relays that information to the neocortex (the “thinking brain”). From there, it is sent to the amygdala (the “emotional brain”) which produces the appropriate emotional response.

When faced with a threatening situation, however, the thalamus sends sensory information to both the amygdala and the neocortex. If the amygdala senses danger, it makes a split-second decision to initiate the Fight-or-Flight response before the neocortex has time to overrule it. This cascade of events triggers the release of stress hormones, including the hormones- epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and cortisol. These hormones prepare your body to flee or flight by increasing your heart rate, elevating your blood pressure, and boosting your energy levels, among other things.

Often, it takes about 20-60 minutes for your body to calm down and return to ‘normal.’

Ok. Enough with the technicalities. Let’s go back to the imagery of a cheetah running through the Mara. Now, imagine it is running straight at you - and for the animal lovers who would only dream of an opportunity like this - let's imagine that the world’s fastest animal is running towards you to, um, eat you. What happens next? Well, you probably don’t stand a chance. But in the few milliseconds it takes to reach you, your small but mighty amygdala triggers a psychosomatic response to the stress. It activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which in turn stimulates the adrenal glands to release hormones like adrenaline. This prepares the body to - you guessed it - fight or flee. (Let's be real, no amount of adrenaline is going to save you from that cheetah though)

But how does this work when the cheetah lives in your head? Or when you cannot actually see this so-called cheetah?

To fight or to flee?

Attacks - outside of my bountiful African Savanna metaphors - like panic and anxiety, often need no trigger at all. Your body goes on alert. Your adrenaline levels might spike to 2.5x. All the physical symptoms of panic and anxiety are very real. Yet, sometimes you simply cannot figure out what triggered you. Maybe it was too much caffeine. Maybe it was lack of sleep. Maybe it was a year of continued stress, guilt, uncertainty, isolation, loneliness and an inability to completely process our current reality (You know … that little thing called the pandemic). While I really want to make a joke about 2020, I find it hard to make light of the year that has triggered the Fight-or-Flight response in such an unprecedented manner, at a global scale.

If you have had the desire to flee, to run far away from the internal and external chaos, you are not alone. According to Google Trends, we saw a spike in people searching for symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks between March and May of 2020. Many of whom likened these symptoms to those of a heart attack.

For those of us whose amygdala triggered us into a fight response, kudos. You have been the frontline workers, the helpline workers, the food distributors, the coordinators, the essential workers and so many others. For the others, who felt the panic rise and swell in deep waves, but managed to quell the urge to flee and stay confined in quarantine - you are incredibly brave. And to the rest, who, like me, felt rather frozen to their spots this year, unable to work out, crush your KPIs, bake banana bread or do anything, really - it’s okay.

Like the pandemic, the perceived stressors that trigger our Fight-or-Flight response are often silent. Invisible. Internal. Yet, very real. And extremely difficult to survive.

Soothing Systems

So, how do we deal with it, and learn to balance fight or flee?

The amygdala may be mighty. But equally mighty are the cheetahs we face and the way our bodies respond to them. When those countless online sources feel like they are useless, it’s good to go back to basics. As the Fight-or-Flight response is triggered by threats to your sympathetic nervous system, it can be useful to decipher what those threats are and what motivates them. This might require digging deep into your past traumatic experiences, or simply writing down where and when you felt like you were having a Fight-or-Flight battle, and observing whether there is a noticeable pattern.

Once the triggers are identified, it becomes easier to develop a “soothing system” - to make the fight and the flight seem less panicked and messy, and to calm the amygdala down a little. Your soothing system is unique to you - activities, people or places that help you carve a path towards self-care. Finding what works for you is most important because there is no one-size-fits-all formula for dealing with the stressors that trigger our Fight-or-Flight response.

Our brains and bodies are exhausted by the challenges that 2020 threw at us, leaving a lot of people little or no time to care for themselves. The last stage of a Fight-or-Flight response, after alarm and resistance, is exhaustion. So, while learning to develop resilience is critical, it is also worth showing yourself some compassion, by dedicating time to identify and continue the things that help you calm down.

As Nayyirah Waheed says, “There is peaceful. There is wild. I am both at the same time.”


About the author

Mriganka is passionate about democratizing access through inclusive financial technology. She thrives at the intersection of mobile money systems and consumer-facing product design and works as a Product Manager at Branch International. She spent four years creating financial access to household clean energy in Nairobi, where she designed, implemented and scaled the world's first clean energy mobile loan. Mriganka cares immensely about gender, mental health and social justice, especially in conflict zones, and is still hoping to be a conflict journalist one day who tells human-interest stories.


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