How To Outsmart Your Fight-Or-Flight Reaction

A few months ago, around the holiday season, a friend and I walked into a wine bar on the Upper West Side. (Sounds like a bad joke.) Sitting there at the bar, with a Britney Spears song blaring on the loudspeakers, struggling to read the menu in the dim light and pressured by the overly attentive bartender coming over every 90 seconds to see if we were ready to order, I felt a wave of panic and an overwhelming urge to leave.

Fortunately, I didn’t because a few minutes (and sips of wine) later, it hit me: I’d just had a fight-or-flight false alarm. My amygdala, that good ol’ primitive part of the brain, had perceived a “threat” to my survival in the loud, jarring environment and was urging me to very literally flee.

That’s because the primitive midbrain would rather be trigger happy and alert us every time it senses there might be even the slightest threat, rather than get it wrong one fatal time. And according to social neuroscience, not only is it on the lookout for possible physical harm, it’s scanning the horizon for threats to things like our sense of control, status compared to others and certainty of our future.

So every day, we get dozens of false alarms — seeing a backstabbing colleague when we walk into the conference room, having to renegotiate a client contract, seeing your ex on a date at your favorite restaurant, and pretty much every time we go on Facebook. Uncomfortable and unpleasant, yes, but not life-threatening.

Real or not, when the fight-or-flight reaction is triggered, our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream so we have the energy to get away or face our foe. For a gazelle being chased by a lion, for example, this is really helpful. Here’s the thing: once the gazelle safely out-runs the lion and the cortisol leaves her system, she relaxes and doesn’t give it another thought.

Humans, though, continue to feel anxious or upset long after the event has passed, trying to figure out why it happened or how to keep it from happening again. Our bodies were not designed to handle this kind of chronic stress. We need to learn how to reset:

  1. Learn to recognize your personal fight-or-flight reaction — maybe your heart beats faster, your extremities get cold, you feel nauseous.
  2. Realize that no matter how real the threat feels, it’s a primitive, survival-driven reflex, not your rational, thinking brain. You can choose what action to take, not react.
  3. Take a deep breath and tell yourself “override” or “reset.” In fight-or-flight mode, we’re narrowly focused on what’s right in front of us. To shift out of it, we need “open focus,” to broaden our view to a relaxed, diffuse form of attention. Something about becoming aware of spatial relationships helps synchronize our brain waves. (You can learn more about it here.) That’s what the lion does, whether or not he caught the gazelle.


You can do it too when you’re feeling out of control: “Imagine the space that your head occupies in space. Then notice the space that your upper body occupies in space. Become conscious of the space that your lower body occupies.  Imagine the space that your entire body occupies in space. Then sense the space that the room you’re in occupies in space. Zoom out and see if you can sense the space that all of space takes up in space.”

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