Can meditation really help to control your body's fight or flight response?
Updated: Jul 7
Fight? Or flight?
I get asked this question all the time. Every day, we face a situation, where one part of us tells us to fight it out while the other part tells us to just flight or escape.
And this dilemma creates immense stress on your mind and then, on your body as well. This impact of stress, according to research studies, could be controlled significantly by practicing meditation.
You may experience trembling, and a rising heart rate, break into a sweat or feel your heart is racing faster….
All these are signs that your brain, or to be more precise your mind, is undergoing a turmoil. And it is this state that we call the body’s ‘Fight or Flight’ response. What makes it even more important is this response, though created with good intention, can lead to several physical and mental health problems including hypertension, heart attacks, anxiety, depression and long term chronic illness.
So, wouldn't it be wiser to learn more about the fight or flight response and the ways to control it? If you have realised the importance of controlling the fight or flight response, let's move further to check what exactly happens when your brain elicits this reaction and whether or not meditation can help to control it.
What is the ‘Fight or Flight’ response?
Before you perceive fight or flight response in a negative light, let me make it clear that it is actually one of the best defence mechanisms designed by your body.
Yes, to help you understand it better, let me show you a bit of what they call a precap or flashback….
Several centuries ago, when humans stayed in forests and hunted animals, they came across dangerous, life-threatening situations on a regular basis. Imagine yourself wandering in a jungle and a fierce animal appearing in front of you! In such situations, the ancient humans had 2 options: to fight or to flight!
In simple terms, Both these choices require our body to be more alert, and quick. The way your brain prepares your entire body to be alert and quick, known as the fight or flight response.
It is also called the acute stress response that refers to your body’s physiological reaction, which occurs when faced with something terrifying, either physically or mentally. Now, let's check what happens when the brain triggers this response.
What happens during a fight or flight response?
The fight or flight response is triggered following the release of hormones, which prepare your body to deal with the threat face-to-face or escape and run away to safety. It involves the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which, in turn, stimulates the adrenal glands to trigger the release of cortisol and catecholamines, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline.
The high levels of these hormones are responsible for the rise in the heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure that we experience during a stressful situation.
The increased heartbeats and respiration rate are aimed at providing more oxygen and energy to your body, particularly muscles, in order to fuel a quick response to the dangerous situation.
The response may also cause dilation of pupils so that more light can enter your eyes. It can help you be more observant and aware of the surroundings during the times of danger. And trembling is nothing but the after-effect of the tightening of muscles that become tense and ready for action. All these changes occurring in your body are meant to help you fight the dangers ahead or escape the situation.
Once the threat is gone, it may take you about 20 to 60 minutes to return to the pre-arousal state.
Now, what makes this good response turn into a negative factor that must be controlled? Let's find out…
Why is it important to control the fight or flight response?
Fight or flight response is good as far as it resolves after having fought or escaped the dangerous situation. However, it doesn't always happen the way it should, at least not in today's times where we are facing stressful situations too frequently.
Though nowadays we do not have to fight fierce animals, we definitely have to fight worse adversaries that create constant stress and anxiety. Job insecurity, rising career demands, lack of work-life balance, strained relations, and several other factors keep us stressed all the time thereby eliciting a chronic or long-lasting fight or flight response.
As a result, your brain produces a higher amount of cortisol, also called a stress hormone, due to which you are likely to suffer from health problems such as depression, diabetes, hypertension, heart attack, stroke, and so on.
Long-term stress can also exhaust your nervous system thus releasing a higher amount of adrenaline and cortisol ultimately causing you to “burn out.”
And the result?
You will age faster, your immune system will become weaker, and your brain tissue will shrink.
This is why it is important to keep your cortisol levels in control by keeping your body’s fight or flight response in check.
Now, let us have a look at whether meditation can help to control the fight or flight response.
How does meditation help to control fight or flight response?
1. Controls wavering thoughts
Most of the stress we experience is the result of our busy mind. The brain, on average, generates and processes nearly fifty thousand thoughts per day. And the problem is most of these thoughts are non-productive. They are often based on perceived fears and past or future narratives that may not make any difference to us at the present moment. Such stale and repetitive thoughts worsen stress by reminding you of what you are not having enough or not doing enough, thus creating a sense of inadequacy, guilt, and helplessness.
Meditation can help you avoid these problems by keeping your thoughts the most productive and related to the present moment. Research studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can bring and hold your attention and focus to the present moment.
It can quieten the wavering mind and teach you to be mindful of the incoming thoughts by making you aware of your monologue with your inner self. This can prevent crowding of thoughts thereby controlling the fight or flight response arising due to the perceived threats and anxiety.
2. Makes brain happier
Yes, meditation can make your brain happier thereby keeping it from eliciting a chronic fight or flight response. A research study has indicated that a part of the brain called left prefrontal cortex shows an increase in size and activities in patients who practice meditation regularly. And what is interesting here is the left prefrontal cortex is considered the happiest brain region. This goes on to show how meditation can reduce stress, help you stay happy and relaxed and thus, prevent an exaggerated fight or flight response.
3. Shrinks the “Fear Centre
Meditation goes another step further to help you avoid stress and the fight or flight response by shrinking the fear centre in the brain.
The amygdala is a part of the brain linked to negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and fear. An overactive amygdala can trigger a wide spectrum of health problems by initiating the “fight or flight” response.
Meditation, through a process called "neuroplasticity", can structurally transform the amygdala. Research studies have shown that meditation can shrink the amygdala significantly. It also weakens the synergetic connectivity the amygdala has with the rest of the brain tissues. As a result, the negative emotions you experience reduce significantly. This is how meditation can help to control the fight or flight response.
4. Regulates hormones
The levels of cortisol, one of the main culprits of stress, have been found to be much lower in people who practice meditation regularly. This means the entire cascade of events that arise due to the fight or flight response following the release of cortisol could be avoided simply by practicing meditation.
5. Improves stress threshold
Practicing meditation on a regular basis can enhance your threshold to stress. Just like our physical stamina that improves with regular exercising, your mental stamina can also improve by chanting a mantra or focusing your mind during meditation.
For you, this would mean the factors that could make you overly anxious earlier, would no longer produce the same intensity of negative emotions anymore. On the contrary, according to research studies, meditation would enable you to think rationally and choose the most effective way to fight the situation by improving your cognitive skills such as memory and attention span.
Meditation is the key to regulating the fight or flight response in such a way that all the goodness of it stays with you and the negative influence is done away with. From physically altering the structure of your brain to quieting the constant mind-chatter to releasing stress relieving chemicals, meditation can offer an effective natural tool to neutralise stress and control the fight or flight response.
You can practice meditation on a regular basis to avoid mental stress and its impact on your health to stay healthier and happier. This would not just allow you to avoid harmful diseases but also improve the quality of your life by regulating normal bodily functions.