By Angel Latt
Love is in the air, but so are midterms. And we’re all likely experiencing the all-too-common feeling of having “butterflies in your stomach.” Whether it’s from a romantic attraction to someone, nerves from taking a test, or stage fright, it is the unsettling sense that occurs in the pits of our stomachs and follows with various symptoms. Your heart starts beating rapidly like it’s about to fall out of your chest. You feel nauseous and sweaty. Your mouth might go dry, and your hands are cold and trembling. A tight and uncomfortable feeling coils around your chest. These are all common trigger signs of your body entering fight-or-flight mode.
Fight-or-flight represents the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which falls under the autonomic nervous system branch of the main peripheral nervous system. In other words, your body is preparing itself for any danger in sight, even if that so-called danger may just be your Zoom crush. Since this is a subcategory of the autonomic nervous system, we cannot control when our bodies decide to go into fight-or-flight. Instead, our bodies attempt to bring the body back to homeostasis, transporting information from our brain and spinal cord to our organs, blood vessels, and glands.
So how does our body know how to spot danger before we perceive it in front of us? Well, the brain is constantly collecting sensory input and processing it. With our stored information, experiences, and memories, the brain can perceive whether or not the stimuli at hand is a threat. If the brain denotes it so, the structures involved in this fight-or-flight pathway are activated and work with one another to produce the physiological symptoms you feel.
First, the limbic system, which is the primary emotion- and drive-based neural circuitry, is activated. Then the thalamus, the brain’s switchboard, signals the amygdala and the hypothalamus about the threat. The amygdala is the star of fight-or-flight. Another name for the fight-or-flight response is the amygdala hijack, due to the overwhelming rush of emotions and fear that you experience when you perceive a threat. It is a small lima bean-shaped structure responsible for learning fear and anger and detecting danger or life-threatening stimuli. It will send out signals to the hypothalamus to produce stress hormones.
After the limbic system is triggered, the hypothalamus regulates hormone production by talking to the hormone-secreting pituitary gland in the brain and adrenal gland above the kidneys. The adrenal glands release epinephrine (adrenaline), the main fight-or-flight hormone, and norepinephrine, another stress hormone and neurotransmitter. The pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which causes the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol. Cortisol lends our bodies sudden bursts of energy, improves memory and cognition, and suppresses pain and inflammation in the short run. All of these brain structures and hormones work together to prepare the body for the danger that it has detected. As a result, our bodies will experience a multitude of symptoms.
As our physiology prepares us to fend for ourselves, our brains trigger an epinephrine rush, allowing extra blood flow to areas crucial for the fight-or-flight response (i.e., legs). In turn, the direction of blood flow moves away from our stomachs. This drop in blood flow also results in the blood vessels in your digestive muscles contracting, inducing those famous so-called “butterflies.”
So next time you feel yourself getting nervous and anxious for no apparent reason, just remember that even though you may actually just be staring at your Zoom crush, your brain really thinks a bear is chasing you.