How to Regulate the Fight-or-Flight Response

Balance the cortisol with a little oxytocin

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
Burn out the fight-or-flight response with oxytocin instead of letting it fester.
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
Burn out the fight-or-flight response with oxytocin instead of letting it fester.

Have you ever noticed how once you get worked up, it’s hard to calm down?

Someone cuts you off in traffic and hours later, you’re still having an argument with them.

Cortisol is the hormone behind the “fight or flight” reponse (or is it “flight or fight”?) Often accompanied by adrenaline, its job is to get you ready to spring into action. You’re going to run away from that bear or box it. One of the two.

Most of us don’t see very many bears these days. Our brain doesn’t care. They’re still on the lookout for dangers, trying to make sure we stay alive. If we don’t see a bear to trigger our fight-or-flight response, another driver in heavy traffic will do. Nobody in that 4:00 meeting is really going to try to kill us, but our brain doesn’t know that.

The half-life of cortisol is an hour in healthy individuals. If you have medical issues or use steroids, it can take much longer to metabolize cortisol. It only takes a few seconds to sense a threat and get worked up, but the effects can last for hours.

On the other hand, oxytocin is a feel-good hormone that’s associated with many positive behaviors, including social bonding, generosity, and trust. Its half-life is just 6 minutes.

Think about that for a minute. The hormone that makes us feel angry and stressed is easier to trigger and lasts ten times longer.

That explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Cortisol serves a purpose: to keep us alive in dangerous situations. We just don’t face as many of those kinds of situations today, but our brain doesn’t know that. It still registers threats, competitors, and dangers in our realatively safe and non-threatening environment.

Oxytocin has a purpose, too. It calms us down, helps us bond socially, and fosters creativity—benefits all over the hierarchy of needs. It modulates our stress response. Want to create a buffer to keep from getting stressed? Oxytocin. Want to metabolize cortisol and calm down faster? Oxytocin.

When we feel safe and secure, our brains produce oxytocin. During a thunderstorm, snuggle up on the couch under a blanket–the chrysalism induces oxytocin. Pet a puppy. Spend seven seconds to give someone a hug.

If you get worked up, work it out. Let your body burn off the cortisol naturally. Go for a run. Hit the gym. Pick a fight with the punching bag in the corner. It doesn’t matter if the outlet doesn’t match up with initial stimulus. Your brain won’t know the difference. It sensed a threat, you acted, you survived, job done.

The best option is to not get worked up in the first place. Insert a gap between stimulus and response that lets you choose your response. Few situations come down to fighting or fleeing. You can usually find the third alternative if you can keep your cool.

But if your brain triggers the fight or flight response and you need to end it quickly, hug it out. It’s science.

Question: How have you sought out the third alternative to fight-or-flight? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.