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Fight-or-Flight Reaction

 

Explanations > Brain > Fight-or-Flight Reaction

Physical changes | Modern effects | Freezing | And... | So what?

 

 When we perceive a significant threat to us, then our bodies get ready either for a fight to the death or a desperate flight from certain defeat by a clearly superior adversary.

Physical changes

Fight or flight effects include:

  • Our senses sharpening. Pupils dilate (open out) so we can see more clearly, even in darkness. Our hairs stand on end, making us more sensitive to our environment (and also making us appear larger, hopefully intimidating our opponent).
  • The cardio-vascular system leaping into action, with the heart pump rate going from one up to five gallons per minutes and our arteries constricting to maximize pressure around the system whilst the veins open out to ease return of blood to the heart.
  • The respiratory system joining in as the lungs, throat and nostrils open up and breathing speeding up to get more air in the system so the increased blood flow can be re-oxygenated. The blood carries oxygen to the muscles, allowing them to work harder. Deeper breathing also helps us to scream more loudly!
  • Fat from fatty cells and glucose from the liver being metabolized to create instant energy.
  • Blood vessels to the kidney and digestive system being constricted, effectively shutting down systems that are not essential. A part of this effect is reduction of saliva in the mouth. The bowels and bladder may also open out to reduce the need for other internal actions (this might also dissuade our attackers!).
  • Blood vessels to the skin being constricted reducing any potential blood loss. Sweat glands also open, providing an external cooling liquid to our over-worked system. (this makes the skin look pale and clammy).
  • Endorphins, which are the body's natural pain killers, are released (when you are fighting, you do not want be bothered with pain–-that can be put off until later.)
  • The natural judgment system is also turned down and more primitive responses take over–this is a time for action rather than deep thought.

Modern effects

Unfortunately, we are historically too close to the original value of this primitive response for our systems to have evolved to a more appropriate use of it, and many of life’s stresses trigger this response. The surprises and shocks of modern living leave us in a permanent state of arousal that takes its toll on our bodies, as described by Hans Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome.

The effect also happens when a creative new idea makes us feel uncertain about things of which we previously were sure. The biochemical changes in our brain make us aggressive, fighting the new idea, or make us timid, fleeing from it.

Freezing

A third alternative response which often comes before fight or flight is freezing. This is often used by prey as they seek not to be noticed by predators and is typified by the rabbit paralyzed by the headlights of an oncoming car.

Humans also will pause at signs of danger. By freezing, you also cut down on noise and visual change and so may hear or see things around you more clearly.

Freezing gives you time to assess the situation and, if necessary you may then take further action, including fighting or backing away.

And...

Shielding

Another automatic, unthinking reaction when faced with a sudden threat is to go into a 'shield' mode, for example cowering down and protecting the head by throwing arms over it. Turning away to use the back as a shield is also common.

When with a child or another person, the protection instinct may cause you to throw your body around them, pulling them in and literally becoming a 'human shield'.

Sacrifice

Beyond shielding or perhaps as an extension of it, we will even sacrifice ourselves to help others, for example where a soldier 'takes the bullet' for a colleague.

When people are praised for being heroes, a common response is to say that they 'didn't think about it'. In other words, it was an automatic reaction to help others, even at the potential cost of one's own life. This willingness to sacrifice is an essential element of humanity and society, even if we never have to take this action.

So What?

Watch out for angry red faces, cold and clammy skin, signs of a dry mouth, increased breathing rates and jitteriness from activated muscles (in yourself, as well as others).

Also watch out for the various forms of coping that can be dysfunctional and contrary to behavior you are seeking to create. This can lead to a model of 'four Fs of reaction': fight, flight, freeze and 'Freud'.

When others are thus aroused, they are not thinking straight and can be manipulated. You may even want to provoke them into this state. They also may become aggressive and unpredictable, so on the other hand you may want to avoid getting them into this state!

If you get wound up yourself, stop. Get out. Use any excuse to go somewhere and calm down.

See also

General Adaptation Syndrome, Safety, Control, Threat forecast, The dog temperaments, Coping Mechanisms

 

Cannon, Walter B. (1914) The emergency function of the adrenal medulla in pain and the major emotions. American Journal of Physiology 33: 356-372

Cannon, Walter B. (1932). The wisdom of the body, 2nd Edition, 1939, Norton Pubs, New York

 

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