The Fight or Flight Stress Response – Secondhand Drinking Connection

The Fight or Flight Stress Response – Secondhand Drinking Connection

The following excerpt from my book, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!, makes me shudder every time I read it. “Who was she?!” I’m sharing it here to help you understand what happens to a person whose fight or flight stress response system is activated over and over and over by secondhand drinking. This post is the last in my April as Alcohol Awareness Month series (see all five articles linked at the end of this post). I thank you for reading and doing whatever you can to raise awareness about the other side of the drinking equation – Secondhand Drinking.

“By the time I finally began my own road to understanding, I was one angry, frustrated, resentful person. The more Alex drank or broke his promises not to drink or to cut back on his drinking, the more vigilant I’d become. I knew the next “fix” would be the one that would finally work. When that didn’t happen, I would step up my efforts — admonishing, nagging, pleading, arguing, crying, pouting, ignoring, and so on. My common theme was, ‘If you loved me, you’d stop!’

Secondhand drinking is the impacts of a person's drinking behaviors on others. These impacts can cause significant harm to a person's physical and emotional health and well-being, as well as the quality of their life.

Secondhand drinking is the impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others. These impacts can cause significant harm to a person’s physical and emotional health and well-being, as well as the quality of their life. When it occurs in families, the impacts are felt by all members of the family in reaction to the person causing the drinking behaviors and to each other as each person changes due to the chronic activation of their fight or flight stress response systems.

“I honestly believed and figured if I just managed our household more efficiently or did a better job of scheduling activities or _____ (fill in the blank, I’m sure I tried it), then he’d quit drinking so much and our lives would finally be happy. And, when I couldn’t control his drinking, I’d step up my vigilance to manage the next inevitable crisis as a way of wresting control of the situation – and in a complex life of marriage, jobs, children, ex-spouses, friends and family, there was an endless source and variety. Little did I understand that focusing on the next crisis was a way of trying to control some aspect of my life, but in fact, it often created problems of a different nature (like my daughter setting aside her own needs in order to make me happy when she sensed I was upset with Alex, for example). But, as long as I focused ‘over there,’ I didn’t have to face the underlying problem right in from of me – alcohol – Alex’s use of it and MY reactions for his use.”

The Fight or Flight Stress Response System (FFSRS) – Secondhand Drinking’s Best Friend

When a person regularly deals with someone’s drinking behaviors, it changes them. It changes them mostly because the emotions it triggers (fear, anxiety or anger, for example) trigger the brain’s FFSR. The FFSRS is also part of the limbic system, the “reactionary” part of the brain.

Like other instinctual neural network wiring occurrences (puberty, for example), the FFSRS is an instinctually wired system built into the human species. It is a system that was intended to kick into gear when faced with physical danger. Again, this makes sense when we think of back in the day when the main danger humans faced was physical danger, as in, “Run or Fight but don’t just stand there!”

How the Fight or Flight Stress Response System Works

In very GENERAL terms, it works as follows. A cue (such as danger-producing emotions like fear, anxiety and anger) triggers the key stress hormones, adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol. These stress hormones cause a number of things to happen to help us RUN or FIGHT. 

They cause blood vessels to the skin to constrict to lessen blood loss if injured. They shut down the digestive system in order to conserve glucose needed for energy. They dilate the bronchial tubes in the lungs in order to carry more oxygen to the muscles. And they increase heart rate to push blood flow to large muscles in order to “run fast!” It is truly astounding what the FFSRS does in such a short period when triggered (an average of about 90 seconds!).

The Difference Between Today’s Stress and the Stress Humans Experienced Back in the Day

Today, however, most of our stress is triggered by thoughts, emotions and memories of negative experiences, not by physical danger. There are two problems with this.

The first is that a person rarely does the physical running or fighting these changes are meant to support. Instead, all of that “stuff” (increased glucose, shut down digestive system, increased heart rate) “sits” and builds up in various body tissues until (or if) it is reabsorbed or used. The physical health consequences of regularly activating the FFSRS, but not carrying it through to RUN or FIGHT, are many. They include: headaches, upset stomach, skin rashes, hair loss, racing heartbeat, back pain, muscle aches, migraines, sleep problems, changes in eating habits (causing obesity or weight loss), dizziness and the like.

Mapping Coping Skills Around SHD-Related Stress

3-Brain.BreakingTheCycles.comThe second problem is that a person starts to map neural networks to engage this system when confronted with stress producing emotions, thoughts or memories, not just physical danger. When we map in the limbic system, we are mapping in the reactionary part of the brain. This is because the brain was designed to pay close attention to anything that repeatedly happens there as critical to survival. This keeps us from accessing the thinking part of the brain (the cerebral cortex), where we can pause and take a moment to decide whether the stress-causing event is really an emergency.

This means when we are confronted by anything that triggers those danger-producing emotions, such as anxiety, fear and anger, our embedded maps of coping skills and behaviors kick in. We treat the presenting event (the one that triggered the emotion or thought) as a physical threat and REACT.  The brain maps we wired to protect ourselves take over.  These may include:

  • Yelling, crying, physically lashing out; shutting down emotionally when in conflict or facing an angry person.
  • Trying to make it stop by going along with the unhealthy behavior so as not to confront the person or make them angry.
  • Working hard to please everyone, being hyper aware of how others feel in an attempt to keep things going smoothly.
  • Withdrawing from family and friends or activities we enjoy in order to devote all our time to fixing what’s wrong or out of embarrassment over the drinking behaviors.
  • Verbally lashing out in anger, blaming others or something else for how we feel, trying to manipulate others into doing what we think is necessary to keep the peace.
  • Drinking to relieve the stress. It seems to work (at least for a while) because of the way alcohol works on the brain’s pleasure/reward neural networks.

The mental health consequences of regularly activating FFSRS are equally troubling. These include: anxiety, depression, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, difficulty concentrating or a desperate need to be in control. As importantly, they change our behaviors.

If You Are Talking About Drinking Behaviors, Secondhand Drinking is a Problem

If you (or someone in your life) is talking about drinking behaviors, SHD is a problem. It is that simple. This makes sense when you think about it. You would never be worried, concerned or talking about how much water a person drinks, right?

Two Things to Remember

As a species, our brains are designed to put reaction (from the limbic system) above thought (from the cerebral cortex) when confronted by physical danger in order to survive. Our brains are also designed to focus on the negative (things that scare or hurt us) or pleasurable and map our reaction so that we recall that reaction when confronted by a similar negative or pleasurable experience. Back in the day, this was especially important to the survival of our species.

Today, this can be a problem because when we are reacting from our limbic system, we cannot access our thinking, reasoning neural networks in the cerebral cortex. And those are the ones we need the most when confronted with SHD. It is only from the cerebral cortex that we can decide, “Hmm, is there anything I can do to change that person’s brain and therefore that person’s drinking behaviors?” It is from there we can decide, “No, but I can protect myself and take control of my brain health.”

DISCLAIMER: not all stress is related to SHD, of course. Nor is this information intended to suggest it is. Stress comes in many forms, including worries about one’s job, relationships, finances and children.  Often SHD-related stress gets bound up with these other forms of stress. It may also come from coping with Secondhand Drugging – the impacts of a person’s drugging behaviors on others.  Drugging behaviors occur as a result of brain changes caused by misusing prescription medications, such as opioid pain medications, antidepressants or stimulants for ADHD) or illicit drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, meth or Spice.


©2014 Lisa Frederiksen – the above article shares portions from my upcoming Quick Guide to Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions and my pocket guide, Secondhand Drinking, to be published by Quick Series Publishing later this year for use by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Army, Navy, U.S. Forest Service and similar groups.

If you have questions or would like to talk further about secondhand drinking or my SHD consulting, training and presentation services for individuals, families and businesses, please give me a call at 650-362-3026 or email me at


Raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation - drinking behaviors and secondhand drinking.

Raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation – drinking behaviors and secondhand drinking.

In case you are reading this out of sequence, here are the links to all posts in this series:

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

8 Responses to The Fight or Flight Stress Response – Secondhand Drinking Connection

  1. Herby Bell says:


    This…after just watching the movie, “August: Osage County.” Highly recommended, (while admittedly disturbing) for an exemplary, acted out script of your above descriptions. As you may know, it is the story of a dysfunctional family…I mean an American family…where SHD is alive and “thriving.” And as you so astutely point out, this often, sub-clinical stress syndrome that routinely gets written or laughed off can be deadly. I’m reminded of Dr. Gabor Maté’s now famous and EXCELLENT tome on the real-deal repercussions on the subject, “When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection.”

    Another important and superbly written post, Lisa and yet more of what every American family NEEDS to know. Thank you!

  2. Kyczy Hawk says:

    This is such a rich column Lisa. There is so much in here. I am leading another training soon: the first day is all about where WE come from – even before we lead classes for others recovering from addiction, we need to understand our own pain, past, present and recovery. I wish I could read this aloud in class.
    Recovery is a lifetime process of re-education, self care, and changing the mental patterns to a healthy path. New stages and events in life require a re-invigoration of this process. To keep those neural pathways online and ON TIME 🙂
    Thank you again for this work

    • Aw – thank you so very much, Kyczy! Loved your line, “…keep those neural pathways online and ON TIME.” As you say, it’s a lifetime process of re-education, self care and changing mental patterns to a healthy path. In my journey of secondhand drinking recovery, I realized in 2009, which was about six years into my recovery, how I was still triggered by fear and could zip right back down unhealthy neural pathways. I was a ton better than when I’d started, but it was still there. So I forced myself to take up Scuba diving (to combat my claustrophobia) and eventually rock climbing (my fear of heights). It’s been amazing what both have done for me. Pushing through two very “real” fears helped me see I’d survive, plus pushing through them required I trust someone with my life – in this case, my daughter, who is an avid Scuba diver and rock climber. She was very patient with me, and I trusted she would not let me get lost underwater (and she taught me the science of buoyancy control in a way I could manage my air and location in the water – love that science stuff 🙂 ), and I knew she would make sure I was tied in safely and keep the rope taut as my belayer while I was on the rock. Learning to fully trust another person and push through two of my deepest fears showed me I would survive, which was huge in finally jarring those more deeply embedded brain maps wired around trauma so long ago. This is not to say I still don’t have moments, but they don’t cripple me like they used to.

  3. Hot stuff, Lisa. And spot-on, as usual. When I was doing my recovery (emotional, mental, alcohol) ice-breaking years ago, I found learning about the realities of what was going-on physically very interesting – and comforting. I mean, it felt good knowing there was a reason I was feeling how I was. You’ve provided that here. No doubt, the FFSRS always looms large. Your point about what happens to all that “stuff” that sits and builds is a valid one. A number of years ago I came upon the trauma work of Dr. Peter A. Levine – Early in his work, Levine observed the behavior of animals of prey after they’d survived a chase. He witnessed a physical shake-out, if you will. And he supposed that was the animal’s way of releasing all that “stuff” you mentioned. Seemed so plausible to me, and still does. Hmmm. Your work is important, Lisa – and you’re helping folks understand the realities of their bodies – and how they affect their emotional/mental beings. Good job, and thank you…

    • I always appreciate what you have to say, Bill, and you stopping by regularly to comment. Love the way you described your recovery work as “ice-breaking” – that’s it in a nutshell. This stuff is so, so deeply embedded and triggered by layers and layers of emotions simulating the trauma we don’t even realize it. I agree, the science has been key for me, as well. Thanks for sharing Dr. Levine’s link!

  4. David Dunning says:

    Hi Lisa,

    I am a social worker for Child Protective Services, a veteran of over 10 years. I am on a mission to make significant changes in the social worker side of the equation. I was wondering if you were aware of anyone studying the effects of the stresses of social work, even better if it is specific to Child Welfare Services/Child Protective Services, on social workers and their families.

    Thank you for your important work,

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