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The Truth About the Fight or Flight Nervous System

Dec 29, 2022

“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us” John Muir

In integrative medicine, we constantly hear practitioners talk about nervous system overactivation, being caught in fight or flight mode. If you know me, you know that I talk about this frequently. 

Our world today sets us up for chronic overactivation of a pathway that evolved to help us survive and thrive in situations when our body absolutely needed to be extremely alert, aware and focused. The problem is not the response itself, but the chronic feeling of stress that is perceived as “danger” in our bodies on a daily basis. 

When I woke up in the dark to the loud sound of thunder, a flip switched in my brain…a feeling I truly do not think that I had felt before. We got up, packed up camped faster than we had ever before, made some coffee and got hiking. We were 6 days into hiking 10+ miles a day at this point and had already done 2 of the hardest climbs of the trip. Yet, our feet weren’t hurting, our legs weren’t sore, we weren’t even hungry waking up that morning and we were able to reach the top of the pass much faster than we typically would. Hyperfocus, checking in with one another, remaining extremely positive and confident and moving forward. The thought in my mind was reach the top before the storm hits. It felt easy…and trust me, no one would describe these switchback as easy. About a mile and a half into our hike down on the other side, it hit me. I felt we had made it out of the danger zone and all of a sudden I was SO HUNGRY. I dropped my bag and immediately started eating my snacks.  Then it hit me, THAT was the nervous system mode or activation that I had to described to so many clients and friends so many times in the past…the difference was, my body had switched it on in the situation it was evolved for. My body sensed the imminent danger and knew that it had no choice but to perform to get me to the other side of that mountain for safety and sustenance, a situation that I personally had never been in before. 


The shift was so apparent and I didn’t even realize it until after I had finally calmed down. Our bodies are so wise, resilient and supportive of us IF they have the chance. This is an example of how the stress response is actually beneficial to us, how it is meant to be used.


Here is the kicker though…the biggest difference I noticed between this situation of danger and the “danger” I feel from receiving an email with bad news or missing a deadline or a more typical stressor. In this situation, my ego wasn’t there creating self doubt. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I was making it over that pass regardless of what it took. 


In the day to day chronic stressors, it is easy to fall into negative self talk, self doubt, and overthinking of our ego. Our bodies did not evolve to live in this state of stress, especially not the small scale nagging stress we are now exposed to in modern day. Maybe that negative voice in your head is actually trying to protect you from living in a state of chronic stress all the time. Our bodies cannot sustain this burden.


When people ask about my experience, I keep saying that nature makes things very clear. Things that I have been struggling with for months were made black and white and I think that part of that is simply from re-aligning with the way my body is actually meant to function, leaning on its resilience and reducing so much of the burden it was never meant to bear. I felt I was able to experience so much of what I have learned in real time. I am even more convinced now of how intertwined our mind and body are. So when you hear that little negative voice…consider the deeper meaning of what it might be trying to tell you. 



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