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Fight or flight




FIGHT OR FLIGHT, or hyper-arousal, acute-stress response is an animal instinct. It's a biological response caused by sections of the brain triggering release of chemicals that make our body physically respond in a highly energised way, whether that be to physically defend against a threat or to run away… or to grasp at n opportunity. Both options (i.e. Fighting, or fleeing) require a huge amount of energy, which isn't a surprise when we consider how much is going on in our body at the time: we experience increased heart rate, extreme alertness, surges of adrenalin. The essence of that state of readiness is the necessity of being 'in the now' as the vital state from which to make our choice - to fight and save ourselves, or to run and protect our safety.

The origins of this method of survival traces all the way back to our pre-historic past. In the animal kingdom of old, in which humans were very much at the mercy of their external environment, it was literally every man for himself.


But what value does this response possess in a post-prehistoric world? We live in a very different time, with a very different relationship to our environment and the rest of the animal kingdom. We don’t have to worry about the lion and the dinosaur… but does that mean we're truly safe? The lion or the dinosaur have, perhaps, taken on a different face... now, they're not necessarily physical.


And, to add to that, we as animals have a limited cognitive load. Despite our being part of the animal kingdom, we as humans have developed so many things that our brain has to do, both on a social and cognitive level. As a result, we find that we’re less capable of responding directly to threats with either a fight, or fleeing. We interpret it, rather than simply acting - and that's kind of good, and kind of bad.

In the modern day, everything is threat / opportunity...  from advertising, through to how we work in shared spaces with competitors who double as collaborators, through to modern meritocracy and popularism and ‘fame’, we are always comparing and therefore always looking for ways to be better, or feel better. This leads to a constant opportunity for threats and opportunities. Everything could change our lives. In theory, it would be justified for our F or F to be engaged. But, this is incredibly tiring, uses lots of resources and stops us from understanding the complexity of the world around us. 


This is where our fight or flight system is no longer the best friend that it once was. Most of our threats are cognitive, emotional or material (money), but don’t actually threaten our physical body. Now we have a response that’s using up all your energy, making you feel like you've just run a marathon, you’re absorbing lots and lots of stimulus but without the ability to think about them or process them… it’s no wonder we feel so stressed. It’s the beginning of anxiety cycles.


 Because our bodies respond the same way, our bodies are physically aroused, overwhelmed and can become uncomfortable - which affects our emotions, which are a complex system of … in the past it would affect our memory and our cognitive ability to analyse anything other than whatever is directly threatening our safety- it only prioritises the most important information getting in, but now that zoning in actually excludes us from engaging with the information we need to problem solve in a modern society.


This unique biological state also affects our memory. It decreases accuracy of recalling certain details, or exaggerates others if they're particularly important to our immediate survival - for example, if you're standing in a room when you hear an intruder enter, you may not remember that the colours of the walls are green, but you might remember exactly where the EXIT signs are. This is often why victims have trouble describing perpetrators with much accuracy. When we're in this state of being hyper alert, we are attuned to our surroundings in a way that means we're receiving a flood of stimuli and filtering through all of it incase it's necessary - but we're not actually able to engage consciously with our cognitive processing to filter through those things. In other words-  you're not really thinking, your body is just doing. 

This makes a lot of sense when you consider that in a moment of life or death, there's not much time to stop and take a detailed inventory of all the ways in which the things around us could possibly hurt or help us...


So, what would an improved fight or flight response look like?  Arguably, it should be about engaging with sophisticated thoughts and feelings... but, our traditional, pre-civilisation brain shuts down our capacity to do precisely that. Analysing the threat and understanding that it doesn't affect our physical safety is a way to disengage before it even has chance to kick in.


If the response has already begun, our challenge is to feel it happening and endeavour to turn it off - assuming that we're not also experiencing complex psychological brain chemistry because we're on the spectrum of mental illness. Mindfulness, resilience being present, more complex things like psychotherapy and counselling are ways to assist in this process: you can find ways to assist in the process of assessing and reframing your own perspective. By this point, however, you will still have found that you've spent some time in the discomfort of the hyper-arousal state of Fight or Flight... so, bearing that discomfort is also part of our challenge.


When we feel we aren't capable of sitting with that discomfort (for a number of reasons, such as a predisposition to mental illness) we may resort to things like alcohol, drugs, even physical or emotional dependency. Inversely, sometimes we become addicted to feelings of stress and hyper-arousal. Thrill-seekers potentially engage in this fight or flight dependency as a way of escaping from the demands of the cognitive space, which pose just as much of a threat in our modern society as our physical space.

So, how can you assess your threat/environment in order to identify if this threat is, indeed, something that requires a fight or flight response? You can re-frame your relationship with a perceived threat (or even opportunity to fight) by asking some of the following questions:


  • Am I about to die?

  • What is the threat/opportunity? 

  • How special it is, how rare is it?

  • What’s it’s significance to you? Could it do something to/ for you?

  • If it could do something for me, could I pick something else instead that would be more beneficial?

  • Do you have alternatives that would serve the same purpose?

  • What’s the longer term impact of making the choice I instinctually want to make?

  • Will it be worth it? 

  • And again… Will I be dead at the end? 


If you're already knee-deep in your unhelpful fight or flight reponse, you can simply break it down to: 

  1. Stop.

  2. Realise that you’re perceiving something as much based on your own values.

  3. Recognise which values are coming into affect here... 

  4. Relinquish the things you believe about something that may not be useful.

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