Fight or Flight vs. Rest and Digest

Last week, I taught my students about the Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Nervous Systems. They are five, so I used the cuter names, Fight or Flight vs. Rest and Digest Responses. Most people learn about Fight or Flight at some point, but let me just remind anyone who’s rusty. The Fight or Flight response is the emergency response system of the body. Many animals have a Fight or Flight mode they go into when they perceive danger or a threat. Humans can go into Fight or Flight over a missed train, a forgotten assignment, or a high electric bill. Anything that can be considered an emergency goes straight to the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for “sounding the alarm.”

When the alarm sounds, several things happen. Energy that usually goes to digesting food, supporting the immune system, reasoned thinking, or anything else concerned with long-term survival, is redirected to short-term survival needs: Muscles are ready for movement, heart rate increases, breathing rate increases, pupils dilate for optimum information intake.

However, Rest and Digest is the opposite. When the emergency is over, the body calms itself down. Heart rate and breathing slow. Breathing becomes deeper. Muscles relax. Energy is distributed back to all the usual functions of the body.

What I really wanted the students to understand is this: You can induce the Rest and Digest response by controlling your breathing. If you breathe slowly and deeply on purpose, your heart rate will slow down, muscles relax, and higher reasoning return to full function. It’s important that the students are able to do this. Fight or Flight mode rarely produces constructive behavior in children. They need to learn to use that motivating energy in constructive ways, like having a conversation or writing a letter.

If you’re curious about how I presented this information to five-year-old children, click here to view the guiding slide show I used in my¬†Emotions Lesson.

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