Two cats showing fight or flight response while playing.

The Fight or Flight Myth

I bet you’ve heard of fight or flight. If not, it’s the idea that when faced with danger, you’ll either fight for your life or run away.

The term ‘fight or flight” was first coined in 1920 by an American psychologist named Walter Cannon. Now it’s a common term thrown around self defense circles.

But what you may not know is that fight or flight is only part of the equation. It’s often seen as fight being on one end of a scale, and flight sitting on the complete opposite end. Like this…

That’s wrong. Cannon left out a third thing that happens under stress. In fact, fight and flight are two actions that sit on the same side of the scale. The missing link sits on the other side.

Let’s take a look at the fight or flight myth, and how your body really acts under stress.

The myth of fight or flight.

As I mentioned, fight and flight are close cousins. They’re both a part of the same response system in the body. That response system is the sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for gearing you up. Growing up, did you ever have a friend or sibling jump out of the shadows and scare you? Remember how your heart raced and your brain went into alert mode? That’s the sympathetic nervous system in action. 

Now, you have another system in the body that relaxes you. It’s the parasympathetic system. It lowers your heart rate, slows your breathing, and more. It’s your parasympathetic system that kicked in after your big Thanksgiving meal last fall.

Both systems are part of the autonomic nervous system. Looking at the chart, it’s easy to see they create opposite responses in the body.

So what does that have to do with the myth of fight or flight?

Well, fight and flight are both actions of the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS, that gears you up. They sit together on the same side. Remember I said the missing piece sits on the opposite side, or the side of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)? 

Here’s how it looks.

Did you notice what’s on the side of the PNS? That’s right. The dreaded freeze response.

What causes the freeze response?

Doesn’t it seem odd that you’d freeze when in danger? Why would your brain allow you to stand there when you could end up hurt or killed?

Let’s look at what happens, in layman’s terms. Because trust me, it gets technical in a hurry if you delve into all the medical terminology.

First thing, of course, is your brain senses a threat. Believe it or not, it doesn’t even have to be a real threat (think of phobias- they cause these same reactions). 

Chart comparing sympathetic nervous system responses to parasympathetic nervous system responses.
When compared side by side, it’s easy to see the PNS and SNS create opposite effects in the body.

Your brain immediately goes into assessment mode. The first thing that kicks into action is our sympathetic nervous system.

It’s asking one thing. Can I do something about this threat? In other words, “Can I run or fight back?”

This assessment only takes fractions of a second.

But how does your brain decide which to do?

Simple. If there’s a viable escape route, you’re more likely to run. If you don’t have a path to safety, then your brain says (maybe incorrectly), “I can win,” and you go into fight mode.

But there’s a catch. And this is where freeze comes in.

Sometimes this catch happens because your brain says “I can win,” but then in the middle of the fight finds out it was wrong. 

Other times the threat facing you is one you just don’t know how to handle. Maybe you’ve never thought about it, or trained for it. Your brain asks “can I win or escape,” and the answer to both is NO.

Can you guess what happens next?

If you said “freeze,” you’re absolutely right.

How do you overcome the freeze response?

It’s important we understand that both fight and flight, as well the freeze response, are survival mechanisms. In fact, some animals have the freeze response down pat. 

Think of a rabbit. Have you even seen one freeze as a dog approaches? The hope is if it freezes, the threat won’t notice it and will simply go away. Now, if that seems silly, answer this. What’s the best reaction if you’re attacked by a Grizzly?

Play dead until it loses interest.

But when we freeze in response to a violent human attack, especially a predatory attack, why is freezing bad?

Because a human predator hopes you freeze. In fact, he’s counting on you being submissive so there’s less of a threat to him (or her). If he just wants your stuff, you may be OK. But if he wants you…

Your body and brain shut down as the last resort. It happens when you can’t conceive of an alternative action.

“Your brain makes a decision in milliseconds. The more knowledge it contains on surviving the threat you face, the less likely you’ll freeze.”

You can help spur your body into action by breathing. Breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve and help your SNS gain traction.

It also helps if you have an idea of what to do. That’s where training comes in, especially training under pressure. Physical techniques aren’t the only important piece to training. 

Awareness training helps you spot potential threats early, giving your brain more time to process the information (and hopefully avoid the threat altogether).

De-escalation tactics delay attacks, and hopefully allow you an escape path.

Something I stress with all students is to establish your definition of “win.” In other words, if your life is in danger, what would winning look like to you? What are you willing, or unwilling, to do in order to get a win?

Like with any skill, consistent practice helps you perform better should the real thing ever present itself.

Fight, flight, or freeze

Now you know the truth behind fight or flight. There’s a third piece to the puzzle. And while it may be a survival tactic, it’s not one you want showing up at the wrong time. 

Both the fight and flight response are actions of the sympathetic nervous system gearing you up for survival. But the freeze response is an over-reaction of the parasympathetic nervous system. It essentially puts you at extreme rest due to an overwhelmed feeling. 

The freeze response may have its purpose, but not if you want the best chance of surviving violence when it’s in your face.

What about you?

1. Do you know the rest of the rules about a grizzly attack? What about black bears?

2. Have you ever experienced a freeze moment (even one not life threatening)?

3. Did you overcome it? How?

Tell is in the comments.

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