The Fight or Flight Response: Our Body’s Response to Stress

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

In the second episode based on material from Daniel G. Amen MD’s new book, Feel Better Fast and Make It Last, Dr. Amen and Tana Amen discuss how our evolutionary fight or flight response can affect our stress levels. They describe how our habits in dealing with this response can lead to unhealthy chronic stress, as well as what you can do to get those feelings under control when they strike unexpectedly.


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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. Here, we teach you how to win the fight for your brain to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD, and addictions.
Dr Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we've transformed lives for three decades using brain SPECT imaging to better target treatment and natural ways to heal the brain. For more information, visit
Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest-quality nutraceutical products to support the health of your brain and body. For more information, visit Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast.
Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome back. We're in our Feel Better Fast and Make It Last series, and you can pre-order the book at We're so excited to be able to bring you this information, and if you pre-order it, we actually have four gifts for you along with it, including the introduction and first chapter of Feel Better Fast. You can get that even before you get the book. A Feel Better Fast quick-start guide. So many people, they want the CliffNotes.
Tana Amen: Right.
Dr Daniel Amen: Right? They get a book and it's like, "Oh, I don't have time-"
Tana Amen: Or time. Right.
Dr Daniel Amen: " ... to read the whole book," although you really like it. It's filled with lots of stories and practical information on how to feel better fast. You also get an audio series. We're going to talk, right now, about hypnosis and how powerful that is to help you feel better fast, and Tana's new cookbook, The 10-Day Brain Boost Cookbook. You want to feel better fast? Like how about 10 days? We'll give you strategies for each day, including what foods to eat, which can seriously help you feel-
Tana Amen: We're not just making this-
Dr Daniel Amen: ... better fast.
Tana Amen: ... up. This is coming from people we've worked with, like thousands of people really, that over the years, we get all these testimonials, and people are like, "Wow. I can't believe within seven to 10 days, my mood started to lift. I started to have more energy. My pain is decreased. My joints feel better." Just on and on how when they start to do the right things, they begin to feel better really quickly. It doesn't mean you aren't going to continue to progress to get better. It's not like all better. It means you start to radically shift so that you then have the energy to do the right things.
Dr Daniel Amen: If you go to, you can pre-order the book, and what I want to talk about now, and I talk about this in the beginning of chapter one, is the fight-or-flight response, and when-
Tana Amen: Powerful.
Dr Daniel Amen: ... people get-
Tana Amen: Adrenaline and ...
Dr Daniel Amen: Adrenaline. When they get anxious or they get afraid, you actually have a system in your body to help you manage that, and it's the dynamic tension between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Tana Amen: So interesting.
Dr Daniel Amen: I tell a story to open the book about a woman who's in the emergency room screaming because she has a swollen leg from a DVT, or a deep venous thrombosis, so she has a blood clot.
Tana Amen: Clamps down. Right.
Dr Daniel Amen: It's made her leg swell, and she's screaming. The chief resident is trying to start an IV in her foot so that they can image where the blood clot is, and it's not going well. That is ... As she pokes her about it, the patient screams, and then the doctor screams at the patient, "I hear this," and-
Tana Amen: When that's happening, her vessels are clamping down.
Dr Daniel Amen: Right. Because when you get anxious, part of the fight-or-flight response is, your peripheral blood vessels constrict. That's why your hands and feet-
Tana Amen: It goes-
Dr Daniel Amen: ... get cold-
Tana Amen: ... to your core.
Dr Daniel Amen: ... and it goes to the big muscles in your legs and arms so that you're either going to flight, run away, or you're going to fight. Beth is having none of this, poking her. When I saw this, I asked the chief resident if I could try to start the IV, but the first thing I did was not poke her. It was, I put her in a trance, hypnotic trance, just to begin to calm her down. It was so powerful.
Tana Amen: It's really interesting. The fight or flight is so fascinating. It's how even in martial arts we know we can, you know how to look for a fight. Like you actually can watch people to spot when someone's going to be violent, because they get monosyllabic. They lose the ability for articulate speech. They lose fine motor skills, so everything becomes big movements, so it's really an interesting thing. People start to behave really wacky when this starts to happen.
Dr Daniel Amen: Well, and what happens is, their amygdala takes over, so that's the almond-shaped structure deep in your limbic brain, your emotional brain, and it becomes overactive, and your frontal lobes actually drop in activity, so you're not as thoughtful. You go on automatic fight or flight, and so the amygdala takes over. Your hypothalamus excretes ACTH, adrenocorticotropic hormone goes to your kidneys. They produce cortisol and adrenaline, and this is what it sets off. Your pupils dilate, because you have better tunnel vision, so you begin to lose-
Tana Amen: So you can't see, right, peripheral.
Dr Daniel Amen: ... peripheral vision. Your hearing actually becomes less acute. Your tears and saliva-
Tana Amen: Dry.
Dr Daniel Amen: ... dry up. Your skin, the veins constrict, cold hands, cold feet, so more blood flow to your shoulders and to your hips. You can fight or flee. The lung passages open up. Breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Blood sugar levels increase. Heartbeat's faster. Muscles become tense. Your digestion slows down. Your immune system shuts down. You have trouble focusing on small things. In the book, there's actually a great illustration, so threat, an attack, harmful event, so something happens. Your brain processes it as a threat. You produce hormones, and heart goes faster, bladder reacts, pupils dilate. Your breathing changes. Your heart rate changes, and your whole system is going into, we call it, a fight-or-flight response.
Tana Amen: Right, and you'd be better at explaining why people do one or the other. Some people ... I mean, literally, as somebody who practices martial arts, because I was attacked when I was younger, some people freeze. We've actually seen people like they just, they end up being hurt because they can't respond because of this response, or they're people like me who I go psycho when something ... I can't even think straight, because I get so angry, so people become very dangerous, a dangerous-
Dr Daniel Amen: Like the time we were on the beach, and we-
Tana Amen: The pit bulls.
Dr Daniel Amen: ... were attacked-
Tana Amen: You just keep having to bring this up-
Dr Daniel Amen: ... by-
Tana Amen: ... don't you?
Dr Daniel Amen: ... two pit bulls, and [crosstalk 00:08:05]-
Tana Amen: I think I scared the pit bulls, actually, because the mama bear thing, and we just went crazy, so-
Dr Daniel Amen: You went-
Tana Amen: I'm not sure if I scared the pit bulls more or the gangbanger that owned the pit bulls, but it was not-
Dr Daniel Amen: Or me.
Tana Amen: Right. It was bad. It was really bad, but anyways, the point being, it's a dangerous state to be in either way. It's a dangerous state to be in, but it's worse than even that when it's an acute situation is, when people begin to do this, if it happens too much, you begin to train your system to do it chronically. That's really bad.
Dr Daniel Amen: And so often. We travel from Orange County into Los Angeles a lot, and there's a lot of traffic issues.
Tana Amen: Yeah. That's me. I get so irritated.
Dr Daniel Amen: For me-
Tana Amen: I have traffic-
Dr Daniel Amen: ... if somebody acts stupid, I just go, "Okay." My brain's [crosstalk 00:08:49].
Tana Amen: Not always. Not always. He just doesn't hear himself. It's like subconscious, like-
Dr Daniel Amen: Yeah, no-
Tana Amen: We're in the car-
Dr Daniel Amen: ... when I was in Greece, it was-
Tana Amen: We're in the car laughing, because he's like actually reacting, but he doesn't even realize it. He lets it go. I lose my mind.
Dr Daniel Amen: It can be traffic. It can be stress with a child that's struggling. It can be if you're in a conflicted marriage or job, so there are lots of reasons, but if you're under chronic stress, all of these things can begin to take over, so you can have a chronic stress response. There's actually a book I talk about in Feel Better Fast called Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, because once they get chased by a lion, if they don't get caught, their fight-or-flight response almost-
Tana Amen: Adapts.
Dr Daniel Amen: ... immediately goes back to normal.
Tana Amen: It adapts, yeah.
Dr Daniel Amen: It adapts, but we have a chronic stress response, and what are the things you can do to feel better faster?
Tana Amen: Well, and you make people around you anxious. My mom is a perfect example of that. She is chronically stressed, and she sort of creates some of that. It's just, it's become almost a habit for her, but she'll stress people around her with her constant level of energy and anxiety, so ...
Dr Daniel Amen: In Feel Better Fast and Make It Last, we actually talk about a number of strategies that can really help to reprogram your mind to feel significantly better, so as I helped Beth in the emergency room with hypnosis. So powerful.
Tana Amen: Oh, my gosh.
Dr Daniel Amen: If you pre-order the book, we actually have a number of hypnosis audios that I do for you on pain and weight loss, anxiety, and so on, so hypnosis, I'm a huge fan of that. Also, diaphragmatic breathing, because when you get stressed, your breathing becomes shallow and fast, so learning how to slow it down, and here is just a super simple, tiny habit. We'll talk about, "What's the smallest thing I can do today that will make the biggest difference?"
Tana Amen: Or in the moment.
Dr Daniel Amen: In Feel Better Fast, there are dozens of tiny habits. Take a big breath, about five seconds in. Hold it for a second or two, and then take five or even 10 seconds to blow it out. Five seconds in. Hold it just for a second. Take five to 10 seconds to blow it out, and hold it out for a second, and then take another deep breath. If you do that just five times, it can significantly decrease your stress and your anxiety.
Tana Amen: One thing, just a little tip before we end this segment, that's like, I think that's a great takeaway for today is, when we're training, that's one thing that soldiers and police officers learn, too. When they are in a highly stressful situation that's adrenaline-driven, taking deep breaths like you just talked about and forcing themselves to look from side to side, it breaks that tunnel vision, so those two things in those adrenaline-driven situations literally can help you to reset, so-
Dr Daniel Amen: One of the most important things I do, I've been thinking a lot lately, so after I've been a psychiatrist for 40 years, it's hard to say that, but what are the top 20 things that I teach my patients? Diaphragmatic breathing is in that top 20, is, you can learn to control your own physiology to feel better fast. You can learn to control how your body responds, but it takes a little bit of practice. Right? That, I'm seeing this NBA player I like a lot, and he didn't become a masterful basketball player-
Tana Amen: No.
Dr Daniel Amen: ... overnight. Right? It took him time to develop these skills, and I want you to learn to discipline your mind and your body, and it's going to take a little time, but one of the best, quickest techniques to feel better fast is diaphragmatic breathing. I talk about how important it is and go through it step by step in Feel Better Fast. We would dearly love if you would pre-order, or if you're listening to this after the book is out, order the book. Go to You'll get the extra gifts that we talk about, including Tana's new book, The 10-Day Brain Boost. You can feel better fast. Stay with us.
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