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Cheetah hunting gazel

Fight-or-Flight

How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threats

A strong fight-or-flight reaction served our evolutionary ancestors well. If the leopard catches you, that’s it! But today a visceral response to a not-so-mortal threat seldom improves things. If you want to get a handle on those intense, counterproductive bouts of emotion, start by understanding where fight-or-flight came from in the first place.


Suddenly your heart starts to pound. Your breathing speeds up and you feel a knot in your stomach. Your mouth goes dry. You stop hearing things. You have tunnel vision, and your sense of pain diminishes. Energy-rich blood rushes to your muscles, preparing them for action. There is anxiety, tension, and perhaps even panic. We all know the feeling. And we all know that when we feel that way, things aren’t likely to end well.

Fight-or-flight at work

It’s amazing how little real difference there is between the two images above. Our fight-or-flight response evolved long ago, in a time when life-or-death threats were a daily part of life. For better or quite frequently for worse, we still carry that evolutionary legacy with us today.

When facing a threat, your brain knows just what to do: Run back to the savanna where it evolved.

In that moment your brain isn’t in the 21st Century anymore. It is back in a world that existed millions of years before the first hominids walked the planet. In that world our remote animal ancestors faced sudden life or death situations as a common feature of daily life. When those moments came, an animal had to react instantly and couldn’t afford to hold anything back. That is the evolutionary hearth within which our brains were forged. We still carry that legacy with us today.

Returning to the present, there you are, heart beating out of your chest. Your sympathetic nervous system is on fire. You unconsciously flex your fists and the veins in your neck bulge, all in anticipation of immediate, intense, decisive, physical action!

But you aren’t facing a predator on the savanna. You are in a meeting at the end of a long, stressful day, going toe to toe with a coworker. That’s hardly an appropriate time for the physical violence your body and mind are ready for…

Evolution has given you a finely tuned brain with finely tuned reactions. But a lot of that fine tuning was for a very different time and place. Just at the moment all of those evolutionary adaptations to a world long gone are doing a lot more harm than good.

Stress, anger, jealousy, or just a harsh word in the office: Social threats trigger fight-or-flight, too.

Reactions like these go by a lot of names; “Acute Stress Response” is one. “Hyperarousal” is another. I prefer the term fight-or-flight because it vividly and correctly calls to mind our evolutionary past.

Fight-or-flight started as a response to physical danger. But as our ancestors’ lives became more socially complex, evolution repurposed that same existing machinery to respond to social threats as well. Have you ever wondered why something as simple as missing a work deadline or a coworker’s harsh words can have such a devastating impact? A social threat or failure can feel as immediate and life-threatening as a predator coming at you at a run because as far as the alarm circuits in your brain are concerned, that is exactly what is happening!

Fear, anger, losing your temper, anxiety, jealousy, even chronic stress, are all controlled by this same neural circuitry. Things that feel like fight-or-flight also work like fight-or-flight, because ultimately they are fight-or-flight.

An ancient structure in your brain decides when to sound the alarm.

Fight-or-flight is controlled by a couple of walnut-sized structures jointly called the amygdala, buried down deep down inside the brain. The amygdala keeps an eye on what is going on, and sounds the alarm when it perceives threat.

Fight-or-Flight Amygdala

Our fight-or-flight response to threats of all kinds is controlled by two small structures deep in our brains, jointly called the amygdala (or more properly, the amygdalae). When activated, the amygdala inhibits reasoned thought. But that inhibition works both ways. Orderly thought also calms the amygdala.

Fight-or-flight is fast! It reacts over ten times faster than conscious awareness, much less conscious response. Have you ever been driving a car and swerved to avoid something before you even realize it was there? Or perhaps you’ve ducked your head suddenly, only later realizing that a baseball missed you by inches? Thank your amygdala. It takes roughly a third of a second for something to reach your conscious awareness. But the amygdala knows about a threat and responds in as little as a fiftieth of a second!

The amygdala also helps produce intense and long-lived memories. If you survived a mortal threat once, you don’t want to forget how you got yourself into trouble or how you got out. Those memories just don’t go away. That is why you still wake up at night in a cold sweat, remembering just how embarrassing it was last year when you accidentally sent that email about the boss’s ridiculous toupée to the whole office!

(As a fascinating aside, there are a number of therapeutic and even experimental pharmacological techniques that take advantage of the vulnerability of recalled memories to erase the fear memories responsible for irrational phobias or treat disorders like PTSD.)

When fight-or-flight turns on, the thinking part of your brain turns off.

The amygdala doesn’t stop with sounding the alarm and laying down some indelible tracks in your memory. Back to the Pleistocene, it’s a bad idea to stand around over-thinking things when a leopard jumps out of the bushes. Delay and uncertainty could prove deadly, removing you from the gene pool in sudden and effective fashion. So when the amygdala sends the body into fight-or-flight, one of the things that it does is suppress the parts of the brain responsible for emotional control, value-based decision making and rational thought. As a result, just as you feel an overwhelming need to lash out, your Emotional IQ falls through the floor.

In short, as soon as you get your hackles up, you literally – neurologically – become incapable of thinking straight, and there isn’t a damned thing that you can do about it! All of this is happening in parts of your brain that are outside of your conscious control. You are going to take the ride, whether you want to or not.

(Start with the amygdala. Add the compromised decision making and emotionally disinhibiting effects of alcohol to the socially and sexually charged atmosphere in a club. Is it any surprise that bar fights are a thing?)

To deal with fight-or-flight, think! Think about anything. Just think!

Fortunately we aren’t defenseless in the face of fight-or-flight. Back to the Pleistocene, if you are watching the leopard in the bushes, planning how you are going to respond, your brain doesn’t have to send you into flight-or-flight in the same way. You will certainly be in a heightened state of arousal. But the thinking part of your brain can assure the amygdala, “it’s OK, I’ve got this,” leaving you free to think and decide rather than just react.

Thought as antidote to Fight-or-Flight

Using the thinking and value-based decision-making parts of your brain inhibits the amygdala, preventing or soothing a fight-or-flight response. The best guard against fight-or-flight is metacognition. Be thoughtful. Be mindful. Be self-aware. Just think!

So, just as fight-or-flight can shut down the higher brain, the opposite is also true. Calm, focused thought inhibits fight-or-flight. You can’t consciously turn fight-or-flight off like a light switch, but just by thinking in an orderly manner about anything you can put your brain into a state that is less susceptible to fight-or-flight. And if fight-or-flight has already kicked in, one way out is to redirect your attention to something different and less threatening and think about that instead.

A really good thing to think about at such times is what is going on inside your own head! Observe your own mental state and look for patterns. When dealing with your own behaviors, or the behaviors of others, it helps a lot to understand something about what is going on under the hood. Metacognition – thinking about how your brain works – is a powerful tool if you want your emotions to serve you instead of you serving your emotions.

When dealing with fight-or-flight in others…

As a coach, I often work with clients who are facing (or who are in) fight-or-flight to one degree or another. Perhaps their focus for a session is on something that is causing them anxiety. Perhaps our conversation leads to an issue that triggers a response. Or perhaps they have had a bad day or are fresh off of an argument and show up for coaching still stressed out. Regardless, this is territory I deal with frequently. What follows are some practical insights built on the evolutionary psychology behind the fight-or-flight response. I have seen all of these work well with clients, and in daily life.

  • Don’t try to reason or problem-solve with someone who is visibly upset. They aren’t trying to be pig-headed. In that moment, their brain is neurologically incapable of processing what you are trying to say or what you are asking them to do.
  • Be aware of the emotional state of people you are with, especially if you know that things might become contentious. Everything starts with awareness. The sooner you recognize things are in danger of coming off the rails, the more opportunity you have to help people stay on this side of the Pleistocene. (Why is that your job? Maybe it’s not. But if you are the one who sees the danger, a gentle nudge or two away from the edge of the cliff can’t hurt.) And just the act of actively thinking about the emotional states of others makes it less likely that you will get pulled into fight-or-flight.
  • Worry about emotional safety first. By “emotional safety” I don’t mean getting all touchy-feely, holding hands, and singing kumbaya. There’s nothing New-Agey about this. This is neurology. First things first. You can’t really talk to someone if their amygdala has the thinking part of their brain in a death grip! Getting annoyed at them for not listening will only make matters worse for both of you.
    Fight-or-flight at the airport

    Rule Number One: the person screaming at you is neurologically incapable of hearing or understanding your perfectly reasonable ideas and requests! The thinking part of their brain has been shut off. Deal with their emotional safety first. Then deal with the issue itself, thoughtfully, after their brain gets back from the Pleistocene.

  • Beware mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire not only when you are taking some action, but also when you see someone else taking that same action. Mirror neurons are very important in learning and play a large role in understanding and empathizing with the experiences and emotions of others. But they also mean that when you deal with someone in flight-or-flight, you have mirror neurons that are firing like mad. Let them have their way and you might find yourself with two people screaming instead of just one!
  • Don’t take it personally. You are taking the brunt of a bunch of anger. Hurtful things may be said. That is not about you. It is about them. All of that hostility is coming from a part of the brain that only knows how to do one thing – lash out. Sometimes you also say things that you regret. Give the other person the break that you would hope they would give you were the roles reversed.
  • Communication isn’t about what you are saying; it’s about what the other person is hearing. This is kind of a “you can’t say it too often so I’ll say it here, too” observation. One of the most common coaching questions that I ask is, “That is what you thought you were saying, but what were they actually hearing?” The more aware you are of the psychological state of the person across the table, and the more intently you listen to what they have to say, the better you will be heard. That certainly applies when dealing with fight-or-flight.
  •  Find a distraction. Anything that draws attention away from the immediate perceived threat is a win. As long as someone stays focused on the perceived threat, the amygdala will keep cracking the whip.
  • Draw the person into a conversation about something, anything. Remember, thinking itself is one of the best ways to calm the amygdala and let the higher brain reassert itself. Listening can be a good place to start. It helps to be heard, and in order to articulate you have to bring some order to your thoughts, soothing the amygdala in the process. But be aware if all of that talking starts to again trigger their fight-or-flight response.
  • Change the subject to something safe. A bit of self-deprecating humor can go a long way here. Smalltalk also matters, especially in the midst of difficult and emotionally challenging discussion. Ever find yourself during a break in a contentious meeting talking to someone from the other side of the table about the weather or last night’s ballgame? Whether you are aware of it or not, you are engaging your thinking brains around a nice neutral topic while establishing a less threatening social connection That kind of safe conversation helps the amygdala settle down and behave itself.
  • Find some common ground before you dive into difficult issues. If you can reach a point that you share some common goals, and start with those, you will each feel less threatened. And your respective amygdalae will be less likely to pitch fits as you start digging into the hard stuff.
  • Talk about how fight or flight works. I often talk with my clients about how the brain works, and how that knowledge might help them with some issue or another. Sometimes I will even ask a client, “What part of your brain are you in right now?” That can lead to all sorts of interesting and fruitful conversations that also help soothe the amygdala. At the same time, those can be profound opportunities to really help a client learn something about themselves. But you can’t pull this off unless someone feels really safe with you. Even then, you need to have a good plan B if the conversation starts to go sideways. I probably wouldn’t recommend this one as a place to start!
Mindfulness on the Street

You don’t have to be sitting in lotus position in a yoga studio to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a very powerful metacognitive technique that can have significant benefits in high stress situations.

When dealing with fight-or-flight in yourself…

One of my major goals as a coach is to help clients find understanding and tools that let them be more productive and satisfied in their lives. Here are some approaches to managing fight-or-flight that are often successful. 

  • Take responsibility for your own emotions. Do you really want to be the person in full-up fight-or-flight that someone else is having to try to manage? It’s your brain. Learn how to use it.
  • Metacognition, metacognition and more metacognition. As I mentioned above, fight-or-flight is fast, and once you are in it, it can be hard to back out. But most of the social threats that we face are fairly slow moving. By far the best way to deal with fight-or-flight is to see it coming. Approach potentially fraught situations in a thoughtful way. Be aware of the lay of the land, including your own mental state. Learn to recognize and pay attention to warning signs that tell you when you might be nearing that edge. And as always, the fact that you are actively thinking about your own emotional and cognitive processes helps inoculate you against fight-or-flight in the first place.
  • Mindfulness can be an effective metacognitive technique. When I say mindfulness I’m not talking about “putting your chi in touch with the oneness of the universe,” whatever that means. Instead, I’m talking about the dictionary definition: “Thinking of the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”  Forget the woo woo, but there are all sorts of approaches to mindfulness out there. A lot of them engage your brain in ways that effectively calm the amygdala.
  • Diet, sleep and exercise. This is Brain Maintenance 101. You are your brain chemistry. Keep that in balance and the rest of this gets a whole lot easier.
  • Step away. If you do find yourself in fight-or-flight, you won’t be thinking very clearly. But if you recognize what is happening, excuse yourself from the conversation. (Yes, I know you want to dive back in, but trust me. That will only make it worse! In this state of mind, once you open your mouth the best that you can hope for is to break even.) Direct your attention away from whatever has you feeling threatened. Do something mindful. Think about something, anything, that is safe and nonthreatening. Get your frontal cortex engaged and keep it that way. Then when your amygdala settles down, reengage the original challenge in a thoughtful, self-aware way. 
    Fight-or-flight takes many forms

    As humans evolved, the same fight-or-flight response that once helped our ancestors survive life-and-death threats generalized to many different types of perceived threats and worries. That includes anxiety,  fear of social failure, mind racing and many more. The same basic metacognitive techniques that keep you from wanting to punch a colleague can help with a wide range of different types of stress.

  • Recognize that fight-or-flight can feel really good at the time. You can’t gain control over an emotional reaction like fight-or-flight until you actually want to gain control. Telling that annoying coworker to burn in hell can be really satisfying in the moment, but what are the consequences? Think about what flying off of the handle costs you, and whether the dopamine hit you get from lashing out is worth it.
  • Turn avoiding fight-or-flight into a habit. You can’t just will yourself not to get upset about things. You can’t decide not to feel or react to a sensation pouring out of the base of your brain. And you can’t snap your fingers and suddenly have perfect awareness. But you can train yourself to be on guard and to keep decision-making in the thinking part of your brain. Here is a four-step metacognitive process to build awareness and turn avoiding fight-or-flight into a habit:
    • Step 1: “I did it.” Start with awareness that you flew off the handle. Don’t judge yourself for it. That just gets your amygdala going all over again. Think about the subjective experience of fight-or-flight as well as the circumstances and triggers.
    • Step 2: “I’m doing it.” As you become more aware of having experienced fight-or-flight, you are more likely to recognize it as it is happening. You and your crippled thinking brain might not be able to change your behavior much in the moment. But at least you know what is going on, and have some awareness of how you got there.
    • Step 3: “I’m going to do it.” As you start better understanding the sorts of things that trigger fight-or-flight for you, you start to see them coming.
    • Step 4: “I am choosing the best course of action.” This all takes some time. You are building new habits here. But once you have developed the habit of noticing before something drives you into fight or flight, you can decide to take a different path. Now is a good time to take a break for a bit of mindfulness, or to disengage from a conversation that is about to turn unproductive. And again, just the fact that you are thinking about your vulnerability to fight-or-flight helps make your brain less vulnerable to fight-or-flight in the first place!
  • Bite your lip. When you feel the adrenaline coursing through your veins and you crave the visceral pleasure of tearing someone a new one… don’t. When you are in fight-or-flight you can’t think straight, and you aren’t going to accomplish anything useful. So don’t try to. When you catch yourself running headlong off of that cliff, opt for flight instead of fight. Use your last ounce of calm to find an excuse to disengage.
  • Whatever you do, don’t hit return on that late night double-barrelled email dripping with invectives that felt so good to write. I’ll admit it. This one is my own special weakness. Enough said.
Businessman, Caveman. Comme ci comme ça.

Sometimes one of the best ways to find success in the modern world is to understand the evolutionary pressures that shaped our brains. Just because the human brain grew up in the Pleistocene doesn’t mean that we have act like it still lives there.

  • Don’t wear your feelings on your sleeve, and don’t expect other people to be perfect. There is a flourishing cottage industry these days of people who wrap themselves in holier-than-thou and go through life looking for excuses to lash out at the world. The real world doesn’t come equipped with safe spaces or trigger warnings, and what real purpose is served by turning a “micro-aggression” into a Federal case? What good does lashing out in a fit of self-righteous fight-or-flight indignation do? You are choosing to surrender your own grip on reason, and at the same time driving your target into a state where they can’t even begin to hear what you have to say. How does that accomplish anything? Choose to accept responsibility for your own emotions. It always helps to have a grown-up in the room.
  • Treat mind racing as self-perpetuating fight-or-flight. Everyone has had the experience during periods of stress and anxiety when negative thoughts keep going around and around inside your head. Speaking personally, the four-step process above has been a great tool for dealing with mind-racing. (1) I did it; my mind was racing. (2) I’m doing it; my mind is racing. (3) Here I go; the tape is about to start playing. (4) Here I am, choosing not to run around that counterproductive loop in my head.
  • Keep a journal. I often encourage clients to keep a daily journal. Coaching starts with awareness, and there are few things that build awareness like self-reflection with a pen in your hand. Clients who keep journals typically start a session with a better understanding of their goals, what obstacles they are encountering, and how plans and strategies are working out. Returning to a recurring theme, engaging your brain enough to write helps calm the amygdala. Just pick up a pen and start writing about what you are thinking and feeling. When journaling, sometimes what started as a rant becomes something more thoughtful and beneficial. By the time you put down the pen you might find that your episode of fight-or-flight anxiety is over, and that you have arrived at some useful ideas to carry you forward.

We live in a world that is radically different from that of our remote ancestors. Even so, we still have the brains that earlier evolutionary history gave us. Learning to understand, recognize, and manage fight-or-flight as an evolved response is a powerful step toward teaching our own brains how to serve us better.

 

Fight-or-Flight ^ How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threats  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118