Fight or Flight

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A mechanism (?) that is part of the organisms self-preservation ingrown instinct. When it is in danger the organism will 'automatically start equipping itself for either a confrontation (fight) or looking for an exit to flee through (flight).

''imagine that you are a monkey and you're running along a
path past a rock and unexpectedly meet face to face another
animal. Now, before you know whether to attack it, to flee it,
or to ignore it, you must make a series of decisions. Is it
monkey or non-monkey? If non-monkey, is it pro-monkey or
anti-monkey? If monkey, is it male or female? If female, is she
interested? If male, is it adult or juvenile? If adult, is it of my
group or some other?... You have about one fifth of a second
to make all these decisions, or you could be attacked.''
(Copied from Prometheus Rising)

Examples: Pay attention next time you are startled by someone watch how your body reacts.


The fight/flight response has evolved as an adaptive measure to handle threats in the environment. In a fear-provoking situation, the body and mind need to be mobilized in order to survive. The body has evolved in such a way that when a threat is perceived, it self regulates so as to:

  1. provide energy
  2. reorganize attention and
  3. prepare itself to deal with injury.

This adaptive mechanism was highly effective for our ancestors in helping them survive in their wild and often dangerous environments.

The drawback of this system, however, is that it bases itself on perceived threats as opposed to actual threats. In our everyday lives, we are rarely chased down by aggressive predators however demanding bosses, overly critical parents, and even school deadlines can easily be perceived by our body as threatening, thereby kicking in the fight/flight response. Extended fight/flight response, which often accompanies difficult life situations, leads to what is commonly called stress. Stress leads to the same cognitive and physiological response as the fight/flight response – however in a maladaptive way. When extended over long periods of time it can lead to psychological (anxiety, inability to focus..) and physiological (lowered immune system) adverse reactions.

Biologically speaking, stress brings about activation of the sympathetic/adrenal system (heart rate and breathing acceleration, shutting down of digestive system, release of sugar in the blood, release of epinephrine and norepinephrine..) and of the pituitary/adrenal system which releases glucocorticoids (primarily cortisol) and endorphins. Glucorticoids are involved in suppressing the immune system during an ‘attack’ so as to mobilize energy for survival needs, while the endorphins bring about a state of euphoria along with analgesic properties. A prolonged fight/flight response thus extends these reactions to longer periods of time leading to those health problems we commonly associate with stress.

So now imagine that you are a recent college graduate working at your new prestigious job. Your boss shows up at 4:45 and hands you a project with a deadline you cant imagine meeting unless you work late into the evening. You need to call your date to cancel, your computer crashes.. before you save your work, you need to remember to pay your on line bills, including your colossal student loan…(can you feel that tightening feeling in your chest?). Apparently, we don’t need to be faced with a dangerous animal to trigger the fight/flight response, everyday life in the 21st century seems to do that on its own. This leads me to wonder, has the system become maladaptive.. or have we?

Because the system is activiated according to our assessment of the situation, the only way to avoid stress, or an extended, aversive fight/flight response, is to learn to perceive threats as challenges. The way in which we perceive a stressful event plays a fundamental role in determining whether stress will ensue or not. Cognitive and behavioral coping mechanisms can be learned so as to avoid falling into the stress response.


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