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The truth about the fight or flight response

By Esther De La Ford // BBC The Social contributor // 23 December 2020

I think one of the many reasons the process of healing after trauma (whether it be a traumatic experience or the trauma of on-going mental health issues) is so complex is because of the misconceptions around our understanding of how we respond to trauma as it is happening.

The ‘fight or flight’ response is frequently referred to and widely understood at its most basic level. Our system is flooded with chemicals, the most well-known of which is probably adrenaline, and this gives us the boost of energy and courage needed to either run like hell or fight like hell.

But the truth is that ‘fight or flight’ is only one little piece of what is known as our ‘stress response system’. ‘Fight or flight’ can only be utilised is a small handful of relatively simple situations, when the threat you are faced with is physically violent and you feel you either have a safe exit to escape via or are physically fit and able to fight and believe you are likely to win.

Fight, Flight And Other Stress Responses

We know about fight or flight but there are other stress responses.

People who have not been faced with an impossible situation such as a sexual assault or some other violent or traumatic experience can and frequently do make comments such as “Why didn’t he/she just do this.” We have assumptions about the ways in which we might react and manage a violent or coercive situation.

It’s so easy to come up with all the different ways you would combat such a situation when you are sat in the comfort of your home, with nothing to fear. Your brain has the leisure of working at its optimum capacity, to rationalise and map out a perfect response. But we don’t have that leisure in the moments when we are truly under attack, we are rarely able to consider and analyse things in this way.

To understand why this is, we need to understand a little more about the parts that the Amygdala and the Frontal Lobes play in all of this.

In simple terms, the Amygdala is the part of your brain that gives meaning to your emotions, both positive and negative. It’s also responsible for managing how we respond to those emotions.
When we feel emotions associated with threat, like anxiety, fear or anger, the amygdala activates what we’ve come to know as the ‘fight or flight’ response but what we should really be calling the ‘stress response system’.

The Frontal Lobes are larger and more recently evolved parts of the brain and they are in charge of conscious thought, things like rational thinking, planning and decision making. They allow us to consider and assess our emotions, making sense of what we feel and making logical decisions based on what we’ve discovered. In situations where we are relatively safe the frontal lobes will override the Amygdala so that we can calmly and rationally navigate the circumstances we find ourselves in. But when we are in real danger (or the Amygdala thinks we are) it will overwhelm the frontal lobes with automatic action via the ‘fight or flight’ response.

It’s so easy to come up with all the different ways you would combat such a situation when you are sat in the comfort of your home, with nothing to fear.

It takes practice to get to a point where in the face of any strong emotions associated with threat we can stay in control with the help of our frontal lobes and still make calculated balanced decisions. Learning to be mindful and use reason to combat fear is not something that comes naturally to most of us, precisely because in the wild, being mindful would lead to being, well. . . very dead.

It’s why soldiers go through so much training to be prepared for a deployment and face the high probability of being under fire. They have to train themselves to bypass the automatic fight or flight response from the amygdala and stay focused and clear headed when their lives are in danger. And even then, sometimes we are powerless to overcome our basic instincts to survive.

Some people may also know there is a third response, ‘Freeze’, but many people don’t know there are actually six possible ways currently understood that our bodies can react with when in danger to keep us safe.

These are Friend, Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flop and Faun (more information on these responses in my video ‘The Truth About Fight Or Flight’). This stress response system is designed to help us react quickly and effectively to get to safety when faced with threat.

The last response is one that has in the past had very little attention given to it and is rarely talked about. And that’s really not surprising, given all the shame, and victim blaming that surrounds people who survive physical, mental or sexual trauma or abuse.

It’s important to remember when looking at our own and others past responses to traumatic experience that these are not choices and are not made with the logical parts of our brain. These responses are triggered in an instant, before we can make a conscious analysis of the situation and decide on the best solution, they come from deeply primitive and instinctual parts of the brain, parts which exist purely to keep us alive.

Understanding the fact that these stress responses are not choices but are inbuilt management techniques developed over time to help us to survive can hopefully help us to let ourselves off the hook for the ways we might have navigated past experiences and give us more compassion and awareness should we have the honour of being trusted with someone else’s story.