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Fight, Flight, or Freeze

If you have taken anatomy, psychology, or maybe even a biology class you have probably learned about our body's fight or flight response. In case you have not, or you need a refresher, here is a general overview. Your nervous system can be broken down into two subfields. Your central nervous system and your peripheral nervous system. Your central nervous system is made up of your brain and spine and serves as your body's processing center. Your peripheral nervous system on the other hand has the job of relaying what our bodies sense back to the central nervous system and vice versa. Within the peripheral nervous system, you have the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Your parasympathetic nervous system is a network of nerves that works to relax your body, and in turn, promotes digestion, slows your heart rate, and overall relieves your body. Your sympathetic nervous system is where fight or flight comes into play. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in when you encounter stress, danger, or when you are physically active. During this time your pupils dilate, your heart rate and respiratory rate increase, your body will secrete adrenaline and cortisol, and overall your body is put into that fight or flight mode.

Fight or flight has played a major role in survival since the dawn of time. From cavemen having to hunt and run from predators to our bodies being on high alert when walking down a dark alley late into the night. Our ancestors relied on fight or flight to ensure they stayed alive another day. In our modern-day, most people are not too worried about fighting predators and trying to brave the conditions of the wilderness and its life. Rather, it kicks in when a car swerves in front of us on the highway, or we come down in the middle of the night to a coat rack that looks like a person standing next to your door. But with how easily our body kicks into fight or flight it will often kick in during non-threatening situations. Such as the nerves we feel before a big exam, or thinking about that one awkward thing we did four years ago. Living in fight or flight with high levels of stress for prolonged times can immensely affect your mental, physical, and emotional health.

There is also a third lesser-known sibling of fight or flight, known as a freeze. The idea of this third response, freeze, is something that came to light in more recent years. A big determinant of what you would do in a situation of danger or stress is your childhood and what your upbringing looked like. So how can you tell what mode you are entering when you are reacting? In general, a fight feels like a tight jaw, clenched teeth, raised voice, and general feelings of anger and rage. Flight makes you restless and makes you feel anxious and tense coupled with shallow breathing, inability to focus, and fidgeting. Finally, freeze makes you feel stuck, you will feel physically stiff, you might hold your breath, and overall be overcome by a feeling of dread.

As mentioned above, stress can be a trigger for fight or flight, and during this time the body releases cortisol. Cortisol plays a major role in the body, regulating blood pressure, keeping inflammation down, controlling your sleep/wake schedule, along with more. When your body releases extra cortisol it gives you a temporary boost of positive stress, also known as eustress. Eustress gives you a positive type of stress which gives you the incentive to finish your essay or study for a test. Still, long-term high levels of cortisol can impair the immune system, cause high blood pressure, and weight gain, affect your sleep schedule, and so on.

Students especially are found to be in this high alert state for unhealthy amounts of time. Research done by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found a trend among high school students with high cortisol levels. When looking at purely academic reasons for increased cortisol levels, researchers found that when a student did poorly on an assignment or a test their cortisol levels would spike, usually returning to normal by the next day. But what about the students whose cortisol levels remained high? Researchers found that students with a fixed mindset kept those high cortisol levels for much longer. Students with a growth mindset would see their academic setbacks as a chance to improve, as something they could work on. Students with a fixed mindset would remain stressed, thinking that this one setback determines their entire year, and because of this their cortisol levels were unable to come back to normal.

For this reason along with numerous others, it is essential to have a growth mindset. What does that look like you might ask? Having a growth mindset means you believe your intelligence can be developed, you embrace challenges, learn from criticism, and are inspired by others. Having a growth mindset allows you to rebound quickly from setbacks, grow your intelligence, and strengthen love and relationships. Besides having a growth mindset, eating healthy meals and eating enough, getting regular exercise, meditating, trying yoga, doing breathing exercises, anything that will calm you down can also help your body to relax. Now that you know all these cool facts, go tell your friends and family what you have learned. But right now, unclench your jaw, relax your shoulders, and take a moment to relax.


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