Fight or Flight: Understanding the Adrenaline Dump And How it Affects the Body

An adrenaline dump is a physical reaction to a perceived fear stimulus. This fear response causes a specific hormonal reaction that in turn triggers the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is an ancient protective mechanism designed to enhance survivability by physically priming humans to either fight or run. While the adrenaline dump is essentially a useful tool it is also a powerful tool that needs to be managed; it is often mistaken for sheer terror, which can result in misinformed reactions to a perceived threat. Knowing what to expect will help you navigate your fear response to allow for increased decision-making power while under duress.

Where It All Begins
An adrenaline dump begins with the senses; when our eyes, ears, skin, or instincts perceive a threat this information triggers activity in certain parts of our brain, which begins to interpret the data and prime our body for action. Here s a look at how the brain processes sensory information under fear-inducing circumstances:

Parts of the Brain Involved in Activating the Adrenaline Dump
Functions of the Parts of the Brain y Thalamus: The entry point for sensory data. The thalamus decides where to send the information next. Sensory Cortex: Interprets sensory data. Hippocampus: Where conscious memory is stored and sensory stimulus gets contextualized. Amygdala: Where fear memories are kept, threats are determined, and emotions are decoded Hypothalamus: Activates fight or flight response.

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This is the chain of events that occur at lightning speed when we are confronted with something that startles or frightens us. The next step in the process is the decision phase , when we decide to fight, run, or stand down because it was all just a misunderstanding.

Two Pathways : Tracing the Primitive and Cultivated Trajectory of the Fear Response
Two responses occur simultaneously after the senses have sounded the alarm. The primitive response is immediate and animalistic and wastes no time trying to contextualize the threat; it acts immediately. The cultivated response is the path of reflection; this is the part of the brain that considers the options and verifies perception. The following diagram illustrates that both processes begin with the senses sending information to the thalamus, but from there the primitive road takes a short cut right to the high-strung amygdala while the high road continues on to the more worldly sensory cortex.

The Primitive Path
Fear Stimulus Thalamus Amygdala Hypothalamus

The Cultivated Path
Fear Stimulus Thalamus Sensory Cortex Hippocampus Amygdala


Regardless of which path is taken, all roads lead to the hypothalamus...

The Hypothalamus: Setting Fight or Flight in Motion
The hypothalamus is the gate-keeper for activating the fight or flight response and it activates two different systems simultaneously: the central nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. This is where the actual adrenaline dump occurs; both of these systems dump a vast array of hormones into the bloodstream at once rather than releasing it slowly. This is why the effect is so immediate and so intense.

Hormones Released Into the Bloodstream During an Adrenaline Dump
The Central Nervous System -Activates glands and muscles -Activates Aderenal Medulla, which releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, which enter the bloodstream. Adrenal-Cortical System -System activated by the release of CRF1 -ACTH2 secreted from the pituitary gland -When ACTH arrives at the adrenal cortex it releases around 30 hormones, all of which enters the bloodstream.

The hormones dumped into the bloodstream by these two systems mix with each other as well as neural activity to produce the flight or fight response.
1 corticotropin-releasing

factor, 2 adrenocorticotropic hormone

You now know what happens to you physically when you experience the flight or fight response but an important aspect of this process is understanding not only how it works, but how it feels.

How It Feels: The Physical Effects of an Adrenaline Dump
Once a sensation has lost its novelty and its power to surprise it is much easier to control. Recognizing an adrenaline dump will help you control your panic and move more easily to the problem-solving stage of a confrontation.

Adrenaline: Primary Effects on the Body
Body Systems Negatively Affected by Adrenaline Vision: y Loss of near vision y 70% reduction in peripheral vision y Disrupted depth of perception Cognitive Processing: y Inhibition of higher brain functions y Deterioration of immediate threat recognition y Deterioration of decision making skills y Inability to comprehend or communicate complex thoughts or ideas Motor Skill Functioning y Loss of fine and complex motor skills such as martial arts technique and precision shooting.


Adrenaline: Potential Secondary Effects on the Body
Aside from the physical effects listed above several perceptual distortions may occur during an adrenaline dump. Although these secondary effects do not always occur the following distortions are the most frequently and consistently experienced by a majority of people: y y y Altered auditory perception Heightened visual clarity: though 70% of your peripheral vision may be gone what you do see is more detailed than what you would normally see Time moving in slow motion and/or the feeling that everything happened so fast .

y y y

Intrusive or distracting thoughts; completely irrelevant ideas popping into your head Intensified sounds Emotional dissociation; the feeling that nothing is really real

Although the effects of adrenaline can be intense and very disorienting, there are ways to manage the process and work through it more effectively.

The Benefits of Understanding the Fight or Flight Response
Understanding the adrenaline dump and our hardwired flight or flight response is an important component of self management. Somewhere along the line someone came up with a popular acronym for the word FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real. While the source of your fear response may be in fact be real, panicking will not help you and more often than not will do you harm by causing you to freeze or inadvertently escalate the situation while decreasing your ability to process information rationally. Self defense classes, or any relatively safe situation that allows you to practice recognition and problem solving while undergoing an adrenaline dump will fine-tune your skills, and basic knowledge of this system and how it works will at very least de-mystify the experience.