When a person feels threatened, we tend to refer to this person’s immediate response as a “fight or flight” response.
This “fight or flight” response can be:
- Fight: talk back, argue, shout, throw tantrums, refuse to move, hit out physically
- Flight: ignore, keep quiet, refuse to participate, disconnect from the situation, walk or run away physically
Recent studies indicate that there is significantly more going on. In other words, the “fight or flight” response is a science and not a myth!
Let’s look into these studies.
There are many things you should know about your emotional system, especially the amygdala, and its impact on your life.
Here’s a picture of the amygdala:
The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped organ that is highly involved in the fear response. There are two of these organs and they are located deep in the temporal lobes at the foot of the hippocampus in each hemisphere.
1. Gender differences in “fight or flight” response
The important point to note here is that the amygdala operates differently in males and females.
Males experience emotions more in the right amygdala, hence more globally. People with masculine characteristics (typically boys and men) are frequently content with the “gist” of things as an explanation for an emotional event. Hence, males, when they hear the explanation, tend to say “That sucks!”.
Females experience emotions more in the left amygdala, hence more sequentially. Those with feminine characteristics (typically girls and women) are more inclined to want to analyze and digest an emotional event. Hence, females tend to talk about the event in some detail “She told me this…and then I did that …but she…”.
Women are more prone to want to “unpack” emotional emotions, whereas males are more likely to want to “bundle” them (Cahill et al.). Most men need help just to say or write emotive story starters or opening sentences in conversations. In a relationship, it can be a good idea for each person to appreciate the other’s tendencies.
2. Speed differences in responding
The amygdala can be stimulated quickly or gradually. New research shows that an early survival-oriented reaction to threats occurs independently of workload or attentional focus.
Super-fast amygdala processing happens during fearful situations, like when you are feeling threatened. Slower amygdala processing happens during less threatening situations, like when you are trying to sleep but keep hearing strange sounds in your house.
This fight or flight reaction is both electrical and chemical in nature. It is a quick-response high-threat system that is hard-wired (Pichon, et al.). It cannot be switched off like flipping a switch once it has begun.
If you frighten someone and then tell them you’re just kidding, their brain may not recover as quickly from the fearful emotion. It will take some time for them to calm down.
3. Response is not automatic
Your amygdala is less likely to be triggered if your attention is fragmented. Attentional bias will influence how long the amygdala responds. This indicates that if you are distracted or don’t pay attention, the response may be delayed.
This is why your amygdala functions both quickly and slowly. Your emotional reactions to a situation can act as an on-off switch, but they typically act as a dimmer switch, delaying the brewing and unfolding of events. More participation in the workplace will boost concentration on the work at hand. When people are thrilled, their “uncertainty response” is less likely to be engaged.
The amygdala is also influenced by whether you have a low or high level of anxiety (Brosch and Wieser). A fight or flight response is not always triggered by the same event. Higher-level anxiety means stronger arousal.
Originally, the amygdala was considered to be built just for sensing danger. Recent research shows the amygdala is actually designed to detect uncertainty and not just fear. Those with greater anxiety levels are more likely to activate their amygdala (uncertainty) than those with lower anxiety levels.
Read our post on how to deal with stress and high anxiety levels.
What you can do with the “fight or flight” response
Now that you know something about the “fight or flight” response, what can you do with this information?
1) Make leading remarks if needed
From the research, you know now that your male colleagues need to “unpack emotions” when they express themselves.
You can help them do this by making leading remarks or adding structure to their speech or their writing. Put leading sentences to their reports such as “The first thing I felt was….”, and “Then I realized …” Your male colleagues can then continue describing what happened next smoothly and sequentially.
2) Get them to do something else
You know that when the “fight or flight” response is triggered, it takes time for it to calm down.
When a supervisor says something threatening to a group, everyone in the group may go into a “fight or flight” response. Your immediate task now is to get the group to focus on something else that they can control, like giving them another job to do or getting them to focus on another issue or a different problem to solve. Once the group works on what you just gave them, their “fight or flight” response will go away.
This is why, if you or your partner become irritated with one another, one of you will frequently go off and begin doing something routine, like washing the dishes, laundry, ironing clothes, working in the garage, or fixing something). This may upset the other partner, but it gradually calms the brain.
3) Manage emotions
The trick here is to learn how to control and manage your emotions. There are many ways to do this and one common method is to use CBT.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps a person learn how to identify and change destructive thoughts that have a negative influence on their emotions.
For example, if your supervisor says to you, “Get this done right or you’re fired”, this is definitely a threatening or destructive thought. However, if you can change this threatening thought to something less threatening, or even harmless, then you won’t get to the “fight or flight” response.
There are many books that offer suggestions about how to accomplish this. Two of the best are Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism and Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity.
One of the simplest things you can do to relieve stress and distract yourself from the “fight or flight” response is to laugh.
Laughter creates endorphins which provide a positive feeling and alter your mood, retraining the amygdala’s emotional input system. Even when there isn’t anything to laugh about, the act of laughing decreases your cortisol levels and balances your dopamine levels, making you feel much better.
Watch this YouTube video, laugh, and feel good!
- Brosch, T. & Wieser, M. J. “The (Non) Automaticity of Amygdala Responses to Threat: On the Issue of Fast Signals and Slow Measures.” Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 12, no. 31(41), 2011, pp. 14451-2.
- Cahill, L., Gorski, L., Belcher, A., Huynh, Q. “The Influence of Sex versus Sex-related Traits on Long-Term Memory for Gist and Detail from an Emotional Story.” Conscious Cognition, vol. 13, no. 2, 2004, pp. 391-400.
- Fredrickson, B. Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive. One World, Jan 2011.
- Jensen, E. “Fight, Flight or Freeze.” Adapted with permission.
- Pichon, S., de Gelder, B., Grèzes, J. “Threat Prompts Defensive Brain, Responses Independently of Attentional Control.” Cereb Cortex, Jun 2011.
- Posner, J., Russell, J. A., Gerber, A., Gorman, D., Colibazzi, et al. “The Neurophysiological Bases of Emotion: An fMRI Study of the Affective Circumplex Using Emotion-denoting Words. Human Brain Mapping, vol. 30, no. 3, 2009, pp. 883-95.
- Seligman, M. Learned Optimism. Vantage, Jan 2006.