Fight or Flight VS Rest & Digest

Most of us have heard of fight or flight response right?

That adrenal response that allows mothers to lift cars off babies, or for a person to out run something that may be frightening them. But what most people don’t realise is that stress is also a form of prolonged fight or flight.

Now this might sound like a cool way to get superhuman abilities, but what’s actually happening is the complete opposite. With short term stress, we have an instant reaction from the central nervous system to the adrenal gland to release amino acid based hormones that increase blood vessel dilation as well blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, dilated pupils and the ability to react faster(1). This hormonal effect usually dissipates within a few minutes to half an hour, and in rare cases, up to a few hours… which generally is fine because the body is made to cope with this burst of energy.

The issue of prolonged stress

When it comes to prolonged stress, this can potentially be detrimental to one’s health. Although stress is a necessary factor to life that allows us that drive to push further in life, and to attain our goals, it’s when those stressors become long lasting, and stack on top of each other that it cause an exhaustion(2) of the system. With prolonged stress the pituitary gland is the player that affects the adrenal gland(1). And with this specific interaction, different hormones are released from a different part of the adrenal gland. Steroid based hormones are released into the bodies systems, which then cause similar responses to the short term response(1). However on top of that, the immune system can become compromised as the body’s muscles and organs are bombarded with those steroids, they struggle to keep up with this long term high demand.

The digestive system is another that can be directly affected. High stress levels can cause the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to become insufficiently active(1). What a lot of people don’t realise is that we also have an opposing state of ‘being’ known as ‘Rest and Digest’, and that these two states can’t occur simultaneously. This means during an episode of fight or flight/prolonged stress, your digestive tract and urinary output has reduced activity. Long term inactivity of the bowles can be linked to a range of different inflammatory conditions including IBS, Polyps, hemorrhoids. And even cancer(3,4).

Recent links to stress and depression

Not only can inadequate GI health potentially cause depression(5,6,7), but some recent studies have also indicated that those corticosteroids may also be an active effector. It has been known for some time that the constant assault of corticosteroids on the bodies organs can cause inflammatory conditions in different organs such as the heart, lungs, blood vessels, skeletal and visceral musculature or an imbalanced homeostasis, it has only been recently discovered that the long term interaction of the corticosteroids can also cause an inflammatory response in the brain, which has been linked to depression(7).

The ‘relaxation response

Yes, it’s a technical term! Cortisol (a hormone released during long term fight or flight) has been tested and measured during massage therapy trials and has been noted to show a reduction of the steroid over the period established in the study. Also seen was an increase in the ‘feel good’ hormones released by the brain known as dopamine and serotonin(8,9). So if you or someone you know is suffering from prolonged stress, bowel issues, or depressive episodes, then book yourself in for a therapeutic massage. Let us shift your body from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘rest and digest’ and see how amazing the effects can be at relieving the symptoms associated with stress… walk away feeling like a new person.


    1. Marieb.E.N & Hoehn.K 2016. Human Anatomy & Physiology 10 ed. San Francisco, Ca: Pearson Education.
    2. Thomas, J. (2019). What Are The Three Stages of Stress And How To Cope.  Retrieved 30th April 2019 from:
    3. Wold, K, S., Buyers, T., Crane, L, A., Ahnen, D. (2005). What do cancer survivors believe causes cancer? (United States). Cancer Causes & Control. Volume 16, Issue 2.
    4. Sephton, S. E., Lush, E., Dedert, E. A., Floyd, A. R., Rebholz, W. N., Dhabhar, F. S., & Salmon, P. (2013). Diurnal cortisol rhythm as a predictor of lung cancer survival. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
    5. Chiba, S., Numakawa, T., Ninomiya, M., Richards, M. C., Wakabayashi, C., & Kunugi, H. (2012). Chronic restraint stress causes anxiety- and depression-like behaviors, downregulates glucocorticoid receptor expression, and attenuates glutamate release induced by brain-derived neurotrophic factor in the prefrontal cortex. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry.
    6. Holsboer, F. (2000). The Corticosteroid Receptor Hypothesis of Depression. Retrieved 30th April 2019 from:
    7. Ilardi, S. (2013) Depression is a disease of civilization: Stephen Ilardi at TEDxEmory. 
    8. Moyer, C. A., Seefeldt, L., Mann, E. S., & Jackley, L. M. (2011). Does massage therapy reduce cortisol? A comprehensive quantitative review. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies.
    9. Field, T., Hernandez- Reif, m., Diego, M.,Schanburg, S., & Khun, C. (2005). Cortisol decreases and Serotonin and Dopamine Increase Following Massage Therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience.