My native lanugage is Hindi, and I am not versed in English. I am reading a book and I came across the following paragraph:

Maybe most serious of all is when the fight-or-flight response becomes “kindled,” or sensitized, making the child much more easily and repeatedly startled. When this happens, the child pulls away from us.

I am not able to understand the above paragraph primarily because of the two words: Kindled, and sensitized. I searched for the meaning of these two words over the internet, but I couldn't see how these two words fit in the context of above paragraph. Can someone help me to understand the meaning of the above paragraph?


4 Answers 4


The other answers here are right about "sensitized," but wrong about "kindled."

"Kindling" is a specific technical term in psychiatry and neurology, as explained by this paper, "Sensitization Phenomena in Psychiatric Illness." It refers to a process whereby triggering an event (in this case, the fight-or-flight response) makes that event more likely to recur in the future (e.g. by making one more susceptible to having the fight-or-flight response). This creates a self-reinforcing cycle. "Kindling" was a term first applied to epilepsy, but it has since been extended to a number of other neurological and psychiatric conditions.

Edit: for the sake of completeness, sensitized is the past participle of to sensitize, defined by MW as "to make sensitive or hypersensitive"; the idea is that the child's fight-or-flight response will come to be triggered more easily.

  • 9
    This is probably why 'kindled' was in quotes (i.e., to indicate that it was a term of art in this context), but 'sensitized' was not. Feb 25, 2023 at 19:27
  • 1
    @MarkFoskey Yeah, they should have been clearer that they were trying to give a definition.
    – alphabet
    Feb 25, 2023 at 20:21

If a child has an adverse or traumatic experience, their fight-or-flight response is much more easily triggered afterwards. This is what the passage means by "sensitized" ... making the fight-or-flight response more easily triggered, i.e., more sensitive to events. In practice, this means that it will be more difficult to treat or deal with this child in the future (which is why the passage says that this is serious).

The word "kindle" means to light a fire; metaphorically, it means to start some process. I am not sure that "kindle" is the right word here, because the fight-or-flight response would have always existed, it just would not have been as easily triggered.


As per Wiktionary, the literal meaning of kindled and sensitized is as follows:


  1. (transitive) To start (a fire) or light (a torch, a match, coals, etc.).
  2. (transitive, figuratively) To arouse or inspire (a passion, etc). Example: He kindled an enthusiasm for the project in his fellow workers.
  3. (intransitive, figuratively) To begin to grow or take hold.


  1. To make (someone or something) sensitive or responsive to certain stimuli.
  2. To make (someone) increasingly aware of, in a concerned or sensitive way. Example: Ever since the burglary, we've been more sensitized to home security issues.
  3. (transitive) To render capable of being acted on by actinic rays of light.

In the context provided thus, we could say that "kindle" and "sensitize" together refer to the idea of gradual development or maturity.

The excerpt expresses the seriousness of the situation after the child develops her/his "fight-or-flight" response making him/her more prone to getting easily startled. When that happens, the author says, the child pulls away.


Kindled means here activated, aroused:

2a :to stir up : AROUSE

  • kindle a child's interest in art (M-W)

Kindle is often used with this metaphorical meaning:

to cause strong feelings or ideas in someone:

  • Her imagination was kindled by the exciting stories her grandmother told her. (Cambridge)

As for sensitized, it is used with the meaning you find in the dictionary (to make sensitive).

Basically, the fight-or-flight response is provoked or easily triggered in the child (which is how sensitized can be understood here).

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