Written by: Kayzad Jokhi
August 15, 2021: I have a fundamental disconnect with the phrase, the overuse, the inadequacy, the excuse of the “ fight or flight response ”. That’s what you’re born with, sure okay. Are you to die as you were born? Do experience, exposure, education, effort, reflection (the list goes on) amount to absolutely nothing? The mere phrasing is a misnomer; it couldn’t be further away from the truth. Unless you wish to live that way, in which case you can be my guest and spend your entire life either fighting or fleeing, whichever takes your fancy. I couldn’t care less, whichever you choose; but you should care.
The Fight or Flight Response
From time to time, something in the environment stresses you out. Humans don’t have a good history when it comes to dealing with stress; they go bonkers and produce all sorts of epic ordure. Here’s the dry and drab biology of it: your sensory system perceives the stressor as a threat because your brain is in an evolutionary lag (which means its designed to solve problems from a gazillion years ago, not modern-day problems); your bronze age brain responds to this threat as if it is a matter of life or death. It activates your sympathetic nervous system, which stops digestion, makes you breathe faster, your heart beats faster and pumps more blood to the large muscle groups for you to either fight or run for your life (literally). Being in a heightened state of arousal is far from healthy, and repeatedly entering that state has long-term detrimental effects. Jeez guys, relax. It’s an argument with your idiotic coworker who will be an idiot even tomorrow. Spare yourself.
Fight or Flight: Do we Need to Choose?
The phrasing “fight or flight” suggests a dichotomy, a choice between two and two only. Humans have an unfortunate tendency to choose between the options provided.
Ask a random person “tea or coffee?” and tell me how many come back and say, “milk with honey, please”. Ask a random person “black or white?” and tell me how many come back and say, “magenta, actually” (for a more detailed account on how humans impose suboptimal constraints on themselves, look up ‘the 9-dot problem’ which gave rise to the term ‘thinking out of the box’).
To drive my point home, consider the case of freezing. When something stresses you out, there may have been some point in your life where you absolutely froze. You neither fought, nor fled. You had an inability to do anything in the moment, as if your senses were hijacked.
In all probability, this happened the first time you were exposed to the stressor. As the instances of exposure to the stressor went up, the freezing went down (unless freezing became a habitual response induced by anxiety, a topic which is beyond the scope of the current exposition).
Freezing is a clear example of another automatic response which comes naturally to some people, which is out of the fight or flight gamut. However, fighting, fleeing and freezing are (most of the time) unhealthy responses to stressors. Suboptimal and unhealthy responses can always be swapped out for optimal and healthy responses.
Fight or Flight or The Side-Step
Imagine you are a bullfighter faced with a raging bull in front of you. The bull is out to gorge you (and it’s phenomenally good at it too, it can’t wait to impale you). You are stuck in that arena with no means of escape available. What can you do?
You can’t fight it, it’s stronger, it’s lethal, it cannot be reasoned with.
You can’t flee from it, you’re in that arena and there’s no way out.
You can’t freeze, unless you enjoy being impaled and dead.
All you can do each time it darts at you, is step out of its way.
Not all stressors directed at you require your response. It may be an idiotic colleague, an irritable family member, an irate boss, the member of your society that has a problem with your pets and plants, your domestic help not showing up when you needed them to, the lewd comments of a co-worker, the gossip and slander directed at you that you’ve just learned was happening behind your back, it could be anything on this planet. Yes, stressors often need responses; I make no case for inaction. I am making a case for conscious action.
You can’t fight it all. You can’t flee from it all. You can’t freeze in the midst of it all. What you can do is side-step your unhealthy responses, side-step the stressors aimed at you, pause, consciously calm yourself, think, rethink, reiterate your calmness back to you, take control of your breathing, ensure you are in a rational state of mind, and then respond (it’s either that or you respond with your emotions hijacking all rationality from you; not a good option, my friend).
The so-called fight or flight response does kick in when the sympathetic nervous system gets activated, as previously mentioned. This is a part of the autonomic nervous system.
These responses are autonomic in so far as they help you survive when you come across a beast in the stone age and need to survive. Now, just because something comes as an involuntary response void of volition, does not make it right. Technology and the world around us may be changing at the speed of light, but evolution has its own pace irrespective of everything else. Just because you are evolutionarily primed to behave in a particular manner, does not mean that is how you must behave until the end of your life.
The 3-Stage Process
The fight or flight response happens in the middle of a traditional 3-stage process. The first the Alarm Stage. This is when you detect a stressor. The second is the Resistance Stage. Here, you either fight, flee or freeze. The third is the Exhaustion Stage. You feel the aftermath of your suboptimal responsiveness here, and you will feel it each time you choose any of the suboptimal responses. I implore you in earnest to consciously rewrite your 3-stage process into another.
After the Alarm Stage, choose the Conscious Mindful Stage. Consciously control your breathing. Consciously keep calm. Be mindful of your suboptimal choices and the consequences they may have. This is where you bring in your volition, your experience, your maturity, your grown-up problem solving versus a response style which won’t benefit you.
If you do this, you won’t wind up in an Exhaustion Stage, because you have not sub-optimally wasted emotional and mental resources. End with a Reflection Stage, wherein you observe your responses, how the situation panned out, whether things worked in your favour or not, and what could have been done better.
Human behaviour is not purely a result of genetics. So much of it is learned behaviour. You are more than a genetically encoded pattern of behaviour. You are more than a halfwit that does not learn from his mistakes. You are more than a mindless robot that responds in a programmed way.
You are a fully functioning human being, filled with volition and you owe it to yourself to live up to your full potential.
About the author: Kayzad Jokhi is a psychologist, coach and scholar of varied academic tastes.