Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fight-or-Flight - What do you really know about it?

Anyone involved in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter will sooner or later run across fight-or-flight. They will be told that the fight-or-flight response is an automatic physiological reaction which prepares our bodies to defend ourselves or to flee and escape the source of the perceived threat. The fight-or-flight response was so advantageous to survival it developed in not only human beings but in nearly all mammalian species.

Who developed the fight-or-flight concept? Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon in the early 1900s based on studies of cats responses when confronted by dogs.

What was Cannon describing when he referred to fight-or-flight? An evolved survival mechanism.

Who studies the evolved fight-or-flight survival mechanism? Nobody ... that's right, nobody.

Who studies the fight-or-flight response? The stress discipline, where the fight-or-flight response is referred to as the stress response.

Stress discipline is a term I use to refer to the many different disciplines that are interested in stress. These disciplines include medicine, social science, anthropology, behavioural science, psychology, and even zoology. Each discipline studies stress from their own unique perspective with their individual approaches, conceptions, and definitions dictated by objectives of their research and the intended action resulting from their findings.

When those involved in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter refer to fight-or-flight, whose theories and concepts are they referring to? The stress discipline's.

This can be seen in Bruce Siddle's use of the terms survival stress and survival stress response, aka stress response, aka fight-or-flight response. His pioneering work presented in Sharpening the Warrior's Edge is based on the effects of the survival stress response on cognitive and motor function. It's also seen in training methodologies known as stress training, stress inoculation training, and stress exposure training.

What is the primary interest and focus of the stress discipline? The effects of the stress response on health or performance.

That is to say, the stress discipline is primarily interested in and focus on the physiological reaction in our evolved survival mechanism. This should come as no surprise given Cannon was a physiologist, and the person often attributed with developing the stress concept, Hans Selye, was an endocrinologist. His definition of stress is often used today - 'a nonspecific response of the body to any demand' - which refers to the physiological response.

Is there more to our survival mechanism than just the fight-or-flight/stress/physiological response? Absolutely!

The title of Cannon's 1915 classic is Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches Into the Function of Emotional Excitement. The role of emotion is emphasised in Cannon's original work. For Cannon, emotions triggered the automatic physiological response which mobilised the instinctive behavioural response.

Are emotions studied in the stress discipline? Not to any large degree, if at all. Often they are taken as a given - anxiety or fear. Richard Lazarus is a towering figure in stress theory and he decries the fact that two literatures have developed which do not refer to each others work. These literatures are stress and emotion.

Are there any other emotions which might impact on the survival mechanism? Absolutely! For instance, Cannon suggested that the fight response was triggered by anger and the flight response by fear.

Is the fight response also triggered by fear? Yes. In fact, one authority argues fight-or-flight should be reordered to flight-or-fight as they argue that the instinct is to flee when you can and to fight only when you cannot flee in order to get the opportunity to flee.

Are there any other instinctive behavioural responses in our evolved survival mechanism? Absolutely!

Siddle adds freeze, or hypervigilance, to fight and flight. In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Grossman suggests ‘adding the posture and submit options to the standard fight-or-flight model helps to explain many of the actions on the battlefield’ (2009: 8). So now we have fight, flight, freeze, posture, and submit.

Are there any more instinctive behavioural responses we need to consider? Absolutely!

Are the instinctive survival behavioural responses all associated with one emotion? No. For instance you may faint (which is another behavioural response) from fear, but you won't from anger.

To recap, what is involved in our evolved survival mechanism? An emotional, physiological, and behavioural response.

Are these responses interrelated? Absolutely!

Affect one response and you can affect the others. For instance, voluntarily control your breathing which increased due to the physiological reaction, and you'll affect the physiological reaction and the emotional reaction. The intensity of your fear will reduce, as will the other physiological effects.

Is the most important feature of the evolved survival mechanism discussed in the basic fight-or-flight model? Not generally.

What is the most important feature of the evolved survival mechanism? The appraisal process. The stimuli does not elicit the survival responses, your appraisal of the stimuli as threatening does. Your appraisal determines the nature and intensity of the responses.

What is reality based training, stress training, stress inoculation training, and stress exposure training principally aimed at in our evolved survival mechanism? The appraisal process.

What do most, if not all, people involved in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter know about the appraisal process? Nothing from what I've seen.

Siddle's work has taken on the authority of commonly conceived wisdom. Many refer to his technique section and training methodologies which revolve around the debilitating effects the survival stress response has on cognitive and motor function. In essence, he's suggesting our evolved survival mechanism is maladaptive in today's environment. Is this proposition correct? It depends. You have to understand the underlying assumptions before you can answer this question, and you should definitely understand them before you adopt these methodologies when preparing a person to survive a violent encounter.

Siddle is 'convinced that belief and faith systems are the key to survival when training fails' (141). He suggests that 'students need to understand the scientific basis which values and beliefs have on their survival, so they can personally and privately, resolve these issues before they face combat' (136). His chapter on survival mindset 'attempted to establish a scientific basis for the need of values and belief systems in survival and combat training. The theoretical basis for this assertion is valid, but verifiable research to support this theory is yet to be documented' (141). I do not disagree with Siddle, except that the science is there, its just not in the stress discipline theories and concepts. By integrating the theories and concepts of two disciplines which study the same process, albeit by different names and focusing on different parts of the process, and adopting a systems thinking approach, the answers are there.

The point I'm making which is the raison detre for Beyond Fight-or-Flight, is that (a) the basic fight-or-flight model is simplistic, and (b) fight-or-flight used in activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter are in fact referring to the theories and concepts of the health and performance, physiological reaction focused stress discipline.

Will a better understanding of the complete survival mechanism better prepare a person to survive a violent encounter? It certainly offers that possibility.


  1. I've never really bought into the idea that it's fight OR flight. I don't think you can easily separate the experience as there are too many common elements. Your example of fainting did give me pause though. I'll have to think about it.

    The systems approach you are using will be challenging but in my mind, is the only way to get an accurate picture, or put most of the pieces together. For self defense, an understanding of the stress response is essential, but it's also important to note that it's not a "this is what will happen to you" type of scenario. There are too many factors, internal and external, to accurately predict any one person's response.

    Keep going on the topic.

  2. John, thought you may be interested in this essay by Toby Threadgill re Pschyo Chemical Stress Conditioning - - given your interest in the subject, I'd be interested if you've used this type of training and your thoughts - I especially liked the quote below, ive come accross this before where so called self defence clubs are just not up to dealing with real violence.
    "Remember that most people who call themselves martial artists are nothing of the sort. Most dojos are not martial arts dojos either. They are glorified social clubs thriving in an environment of emotional stimulation which is heightened by a false or extremely limited perception of danger. When real danger shows itself in such a dojo, the participants run for cover. In a real dojo the participants run towards the conflict."

  3. Thanks for the support. It is a fascinating subject to study. Fascinating because our understanding of fight-or-flight, our evolved survival mechanism, is based on the health and performance focussed stress discipline. How related is this focus on the effects of stress on health and peformance to an understanding of our survival mechanism? If the basis of our knoweledge of fight-or-flight is not understood, how can you even question the underlying assumptions of our knowledge.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.