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I am new to neuroscience study and read recently about the brain's ability to balance parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system to achieve homeostasis following stressful stimuli.

From my research, the sympathetic nervous system activates when a threat is identified by the brain and places the body in a fight or flight response. Then once the threat is cleared the brain activates the parasympathetic nervous system to reverse the effects of the sympathetic system and bring the body back into balance.

From my research, I haven't been able to understand the physiological mechanisms (i.e., what the brain does) to trigger to the parasympathetic nervous system that the there is no longer any threat.

More specifically, what is the brains tipping point to switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic following a fight or flight stimuli and response.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. We work differently to many SE sites, where we have a strict policy that all questions should show evidence of prior research. Flipping your question, can you please edit your question to tell us briefly what you know about how the brain knows (neurotransmitter/physiologically) that there is a threat? What have you read about it all? Telling us this will help to provide you with a more useful answer. $\endgroup$ Dec 24, 2021 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers Okay, I have updated my question. Let me know if I am not on the right track. $\endgroup$
    – Gerry
    Dec 24, 2021 at 11:20
  • $\begingroup$ I think the question is better. (+1) However, for the benefit of others who may not know these things, can you please share where you got your research? What web pages did you visit? What books did you read? The answerer may be able to use this information to build upon for a complete answer. $\endgroup$ Dec 24, 2021 at 11:25

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The fight/flight response (or what I have referred to as the 5F response) is as follows:

Examples of single instances of Initial Sensitising Events (ISEs)

Take a soldier in combat who is under constant heavy gunfire and "hell is raining down on everyone around them". Fellow soldiers in their troops are killed in the process, and maybe they have come close themselves. Maybe they have lost a limb from a mortar bomb explosion. This can be one ISE which on its own causes PTSD.

Take a man/woman who is threatened with their life and raped at knife/gunpoint. Again, this ISE alone can cause PTSD.

The fight and flight mechanism

A more in depth rundown on this (what I have called the 5F response — fright/flight/fight/freeze/fawn) can be found in my answer to Understanding fear as a response in classical conditioning, but in short, the 5F response is an unconscious reflex to perceived threats (loud bang or other stimulus received at an ISE including smells). The process follows the pattern Perceived Threat → Brain Receiving Signals → Brain Reacts (Fright) → Cortisol and Adrenaline is released → Physical Reactions occur from the release of hormones → Bodily response (Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn)

From experiences provided by those I have helped who have suffered trauma, there is a 6th possible response (flop — fainting or just plain collapse with fear) making the 5F response, the 6F response (fright/flight/fight/freeze/fawn/flop).

Fight Flight Response
(Source: Wikipedia)

Adrenaline and Cortisol Release

As you can see within the infographic above, the brain initially processes the threat signal in the amygdala and then the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland secretes adrenocortictropic hormone (ACTH) which leads to cortisol and adrenaline release to enable a speedy escape if chosen.

Cortisol is constantly released to maintain the stress response. Once the threat levels lower (either the threat has gone or you have later realised there was no threat after all), the amygdala and hypothalamus are no longer stimulated by the threat and so cortisol release is stopped.

As the cortisol is spent in the body, you start to reach your normal state of calm.

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