Rest & Digest vs Fight or Flight – What Do They Mean?

Rest & Digest vs Fight or Flight - What Do They Mean?

You’re staying up late one night working on your computer. You’re alone at home, and you know your next door neighbor is away on vacation. All’s well till you hear the unmistakable creak of the back door being pushed open. 

At this point your heart rate and blood pressure go up, the hair on your arms stands straight, your skin prickles into goosebumps, your mouth turns dry and your eyes widen, you begin to sweat, and you can feel strangely energized by the burst of adrenaline pumping in your blood. 

You’re ready to attack or flee the scene. You debate whether to pick up a paperweight and rush downstairs or to lock yourself in your bathroom. 

In a while, you decide to investigate. As you walk towards the back door, you remember that you’d forgotten about the broken latch that had to be fixed this morning. And something warm and furry rubs against your leg. It’s your kitty returned via the back door after her nightly jaunt. 

Your parameters drop, your breathing slows down, your eyes and mouth become moist again, your skin returns to its smooth texture and you feel your muscles relax. 

You’re now more rested and calm. 

These two situations perfectly illustrate the Fight or Flight vs the Rest and Digest responses. Both are produced by the body’s autonomic nervous system. But fight or flight is triggered by the part known as the sympathetic nervous system, while rest and digest is by the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

The primary function of the autonomic system is to maintain equilibrium and stability in the functioning of your body. It controls the internal eco-system and processes so that the body can survive, remain healthy and grow. These processes include digestion, circulation, metabolism, excretion, temperature, fluid balance, breathing and heart rate, endocrine systems and more. 

These two systems have essentially opposite but complementary roles in the human body. They produce different physiological responses and activate different systems in the body. 

The sympathetic nervous system is located in the mid region of the spinal cord, while the parasympathetic system is between the spinal cord and the medulla region of the brain. 

What Happens To The Body In Both Responses?

In the Fight or Flight response, there is a huge amount of stress energy generated. This is a natural reaction that goes back to the time when our ancestors feared predators and needed that instantaneous response to either attack the enemy or defend themselves and run away. This is the Fight or Flight response. 

In today’s world this reaction is triggered by a host of other stressful situations. An important meeting, a job interview or presentation, an exam, social events, milestone happenings such as birth, death, relationships are all situations that demand high levels of performance from us. 

The sympathetic nervous system is activated, flooding your bloodstream with adrenaline, cortisol, vasopressin, norepinephrine and other hormones. While this certainly helps you to face the problem, or gives you the energy to escape from it, prolonged exposure to stress hormones can create a host of conditions, ranging from headaches to heart attacks. Your digestive system could be wrecked, you could develop ulcers, your sleep patterns may spin out of control, you develop issues with normal sex drive, and your immune system weakens. 

Emotionally and mentally, you get anxious, depressed, you develop memory and learning issues, you have problems making decisions, you could have mood disorders and develop unhealthy behaviors, or succumb to substance abuse. 

This is precisely why the parasympathetic nervous system has to step in to restore balance in the body. It’s the job of this system to ensure that you relax and allow the other systems in your body such as digestion begin to function normally.

The Rest and Digest or Feed and Breed system as it’s otherwise known is responsible for conserving energy, and regulating body functions. This system has a host of special regulators and receptors that actually inhibit the Fight or Flight response. It helps to bring down the heart rate and blood pressure, modulates breathing and lung function, and increase mucus secretion to allow smooth muscle tone. 

There is a strong connection between the brain and the gut, via the vagus nerve. It is the parasympathetic nervous system that is mainly benefited by this nerve. 

When your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it produces a beneficial rest and digest or feed and breed condition that ensures good health in the short and long term. The problem is when you’re exposed to prolonged stress, whether real or perceived, and your parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t get a chance to do its work. 

Activating the Rest and Digest Response

While autonomic responses are usually spontaneous reactions to a perceived stimulus, there is much that you can do to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and maintain your physical and emotional wellness. For more information on this, visit

Physical activities, relaxation, yoga, massage, proper nutrition, adequate sleep, consciously avoiding stress triggers are some of the possible ways to activate the rest and digest response. You can also use a range of good quality products that can aid this process in the most natural way. 

If you find it difficult to manage your stress it’s important to seek professional help. 

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