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Fight, Flight, or Breathing Right: The Choice Is Yours

Stress can be defined as our body’s response to any threat — real or imagined — and our belief that we don’t have the resources to cope with that threat.

When it comes to stress “management,” many of us are not too different from our ancestors who roamed the plains 60,000 years ago. Our distant relations handled stress by automatically switching into what we describe today as the “fight-or-flight response.”

We all know this fight-or-flight response quite well: your heart beats faster, your blood pressure shoots up, and your breathing quickens as adrenaline races through your system and you want to either attack or run for your life!

While the fight-or-flight response was extremely useful to our predecessors when they were stalked by saber-toothed tigers or challenged by enemy tribes —they didn’t really have options other than to fight or flee — it’s less effective when coping with 21st century stresses. And yet, our present-day minds and bodies still can’t distinguish a genuine threat from a perceived or imaginary threat.

Imaginary Threat, Routine Reaction

Stress — unless you live on a cloud, you deal with it every day. Can you count the number of times you’ve heard or said, “I’m completely stressed out!” in the past week? Unlikely. It’s probably become routine.

And routine, in fact, is what it is. Research has shown that over 70 percent of all doctors’ visits are stress-related, and in a city the size of Boston, an average citizen has 60 fight-or-flight responses to stress every day!

On her way to work, Jane wasn’t paying attention as she crossed a busy intersection. She stepped into the street and suddenly heard the screech of tires and several loud car horns. Her body tensed, her heart pumped and she jumped back just in time to miss being hit by a speeding car. Although she was upset and nervous, she was already late for an appointment. When the light changed, she ran across the street to her office.

Later that day, during a particularly unpleasant meeting, Jane had the impulse to leap across the conference table to hit an irresponsible co-worker. She knew this would be highly inappropriate, and after taking a deep breath, she realized that the physical response she had to her colleague (a perceived or imaginary threat) was identical to that of nearly being hit by the car (a genuine, physical threat).

Although, or perhaps because, our ancestors didn’t have many of the conveniences we live with today, their lives were far simpler. As a result, they were able to regroup, relax, and recover from the saber-toothed tiger attacks and other real dangers they experienced. The way we modern types address stress is to “just move on,” “get over it,” or “deal with it later.” We head to our next activity, our next responsibility, our next stress, without taking the time to let our bodies and minds recover. The more the stress accumulates, the more at-risk we are for illness and disease. You might know the feeling of having chronic stomachaches, back pain, headaches, or numerous other symptoms as a result of “just waiting to deal with it (the built-up stresses) when it’s more convenient.” Unfortunately, it’s rarely “more convenient,” and the symptoms and stresses continue to build.

The Relaxation Response

The good news is that there are ways to reduce the negative impacts of stress, to “bring down the volume” and maintain balance. While the “fight-or-flight response” or “stress response” was scientifically “discovered” and named in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that a Harvard-trained cardiologist named Herbert Benson identified the body’s opposite reaction, which he coined “the relaxation response.”

There is, however, one catch: while the fight-or-flight response occurs automatically (Jane could not have prevented her physical reaction to the speeding car), the relaxation response must be “elicited” — you must do something to engage it and benefit from its effects. Fortunately, the “something” can be very, very simple and take less than fifteen minutes per day. In fact, you may already be performing an activity that you can build into a relaxation practice.

The two basic components of the relaxation response are:

Repeating a word, sound, prayer, phrase or muscular activity for 10-20 minutes once or twice daily. Examples of focus words or phrases include: “peace,” “relax,” “ocean,” “the Lord is my Shepherd,” “Shalom,” and “let go.” Muscular activities might include jogging, swimming, or lifting weights.

Maintaining a non-judging, passive attitude and disregarding everyday thoughts. A passive, non-judging attitude means not criticizing yourself for becoming distracted, but noticing the distraction and drawing your attention back to your relaxation practice.

The best way to elicit a basic, breath-focused relaxation response is by sitting in a chair with your back as straight as possible, legs unfolded, and hands resting in your lap. Gently close your eyes. If you’re using a word or phrase as your focus, begin to repeat it in rhythm with your breathing. Let your breath be easy, let go of any other thoughts, and continue to repeat your focus as you breathe in and breathe out.

Sound Too Easy?

Thousands of pages of validated research support the benefits of regularly experiencing this state of deep rest on everything from anxiety to cancer. For thousands of years, people have been eliciting the relaxation response through such methods as:

  • Meditation — a practice that involves quieting and focusing the mind to improve well-being;
  • Yoga — ancient systems consisting of relaxing and energizing postures and poses;
  • Visualization/imagery — the use of positive thoughts and images created by the mind to positively affect the mind and body;
  • Tai Chi/Qi Gung — ancient Chinese martial arts that are also used for relaxation and focus;
  • Progressive muscle relaxation — a procedure in which one concentrates on relaxing all muscle groups one by one; and
  • Prayer — rituals that bring one’s self into a conscious relationship with an infinite being.

You Have a Choice

Stress isn’t going anywhere. But many of us have forgotten that we have choices in how we deal with it. We need to remember the extraordinary power of our minds and bodies as we learn to live in ways that are more satisfying, full, rich, smooth and comfortable. Although we might begin by acknowledging that “we’re only human,” with many faults and fears, we must also acknowledge that it is our humanness that encourages us to make healthier choices in the way we live our lives.

Fight, Flight, or Breathing Right: The Choice Is Yours

Beth Greenberg, MA

APA Reference
Greenberg, B. (2020). Fight, Flight, or Breathing Right: The Choice Is Yours. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.