Fight-or-Flight: It’s Now Optional

Imagine it’s 1 million BC and you’re Zog, the caveman. Every day you wake up with one mission: to go out and hunt for food to feed you and your family. At the same time, you have to constantly be on the lookout for the predators that want to eat you.

That primitive, automatic instinct that prepares us to “fight” or “flee” from a perceived attack or threat to our survival came in very handy when we ran into a saber-toothed tiger or member of an enemy tribe.

But now it’s the 21st century and — unless we’re on a TV reality show — most of us don’t fight for survival on a daily basis.

Why you need to take the “fight-or-flight” response with a grain of salt

Our “fight or flight” instinct doesn’t distinguish a genuine threat from an imaginary or perceived threat: That’s why the criticism of a colleague in a meeting often elicits the same response as the SUV speeding toward you on the street. Whether or not our lives are truly in danger, we experience the physical effects of being on alert: adrenaline pours into our system, our heart starts pounding, our hands get sweaty and our stomach begins churning.

In “fight or flight” mode, we over-react to modern-day stresses: Our thinking becomes distorted and we see everything through the lens of fear (much the way airport security reacts after a terrorist scare, searching every octogenarian with fingernail clippers). In fact, the average city-dweller has over 50 fight-or-flight responses a day!

Fight or flight” can be counter-productive: If you get in an argument with a colleague, you can’t just start a sparring match there in the conference room (though I’m sure it’s been done!). Likewise, when you are voluntarily pushing yourself to extreme physical exertion, you need to over-ride the instinct to flee in order to push through to greater levels of fitness.

As evolved human beings, we’re able to choose civilized, rational behavior:

  • Relax and recover. Although the fight or flight response is automatic, recovery is not. Our cavemen ancestors took time to regroup from the saber-toothed tiger attacks and other real dangers they experienced. We have to do the same – make a conscious effort to reduce the negative impact of stress – otherwise it will accumulate and impact our health and well-being.
  • Choose a different response. Once you recognize that you’re not in actual danger, you can make a rational choice how to respond: If someone cuts you off in traffic, for example, you can decide not to take it personally and give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Go outside your comfort zone. The Navy SEALs are masters at conquering fear. The secret to their courage – in running towards danger rather than away – lies in habituation, the idea that the more you’re exposed to something you initially fear, the more you repeat a seemingly difficult action, the less it will affect you and eventually you will no longer have any emotional attachment to that situation, environment or action. (This works whether you’re banging down a door with a bad guy on the other side or delivering a speech to a crowd.)
  • Keep it in perspective. Pressure is a fact of life. But, as Steve Siebold says in 177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class, you don’t have to perceive it as a threat. Instead, if you can see life as a game and not get attached to the outcome, pressure offers a chance to grow and evolve as a human being.


  1. Lori Kramer November 24, 2010 at 6:47 am

    Needed to read this today, Renita. I am so human, that sometimes I want to scream. Although I have worked hard to counteract that “fight or flight” response, it still rears its ugly little head on occassion.

    I am pleased to have opened this e-mail today & to bare witness to my humanness. Now I must take my spiritual principles and put them into action. I will rise above the nonsense & detach from the emotional attachment & baggage that I still carry at times.

    Thank you for sharing your strength, hope & experience,
    smiles always, Lori

  2. admin November 28, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Lori.

    It is frustrating being human sometimes, isn’t it!? I think it’s also disconcerting when our biology “deceives” us.

    It’s helpful in recovering quickly and neutralizing the feelings of stress to know that just because the fight or flight reaction is triggered doesn’t mean it’s warranted (kind of like my fire alarm going off when I light a candle… ;-).


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