Fighting OR Running Away is Super Functional

Picture of Tiger's Face

Fighting or Running Away is Super Functional .   .   .   .   .   But ONLY When There’s Real Danger.

We human beings do best and feel best when we live our daily lives within an optimal range of inner balance (homeostasis).  Inner balance is our natural & optimal state.  (see our article Inner Balance is Biological).

But when my life or your life or any human being’s life is in danger, when our survival is threatened in present time and space, it is optimally functional for our nervous systems go into the fight-flight-freeze response automatically.  It’s a biological/physiological, immediate, non-conscious, non-choice, reaction to danger.

And it happens very quickly – somebody’s shooting at you; a tiger’s chasing you; an earthquake’s happening – it’s quick.  It doesn’t last.  Clear and present danger to one’s survival is rarely something that goes on for a long time.  Danger lasts for seconds in most instances.  3 minutes is a long time for most danger situations.

The Automatic Physiological Changes of Danger

In those few moments of danger when your fight-flight-freeze system is activated (or mine or anyone’s), there are immediate dramatic automatic physiological changes that take us instantly away from inner balance (homeostasis):

increased central nervous system activity
increased mental activity
increased secretion of adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortisal (sometimes called the “stress hormones”)
increased heart rate, cardiac output, blood pressure
increased breathing rate and dilation of breathing airways
Increased metabolism and blood shunted away form the digestive tract and directed into the muscles and limbs
Increased muscle contraction which leads to increased strength
Increased blood sugar released by the liver to nourish the muscles
Increased oxygen consumption; increased oxygen to the brain
Increased blood coagulation
Increased output of blood cholesterol
Release of endorphins from the pituitary gland
Hair stands on end
Blood thins
Increased brainwave activity
Sweat glands increase secretion
Increased secretion from the apocrine glands resulting in foul body odor
Capillaries under the surface of the skin constrict, which consequently increase blood pressure
Immune system suppressed
Constriction of blood vessels, except to running & fighting muscles
Reproductive & sexual systems stop working normally
Digestive system stops metabolizing food normally
Excretory system turns off
Saliva dries up
Decreased perception of pain
Kidneys decrease output
Bowel & bladder sphincters close

That’s a lot going on in an instant!

The fight-flight-freeze response system triggers an incredibly complex and automatic biological system that uses up a lot of our available energy in those few seconds or minutes until the danger is over. (See the Research Support for our project SAFE TO BE YOU)

And while it’s most functional for us to be in balance (internal balance) (homeostasis) (see our article Inner Balance is Biological) most of the time, in those moments when there is real danger, it’s functional, even super-functional, even miraculous, for our bodies to go automatically, faster-than-thought, out-of-balance into fight or flight or freeze.

Anger, even Rage, is Functional When There’s Danger

Yes, it’s highly functional to fight when there’s danger — to get immediately angry, even to lash out furiously, enraged, if you’re being attacked, if your life is in danger.

Running Away, Screaming with Fright, is Just as Functional

Yet it’s just as functional to run away when there’s danger – to run screaming away, in fright, as fast as you can, or doing whatever else might save you/protect you, when there’s immediate danger to your life.

Neither response is morally or ethically better or worse than the other.  The fight-flight-freeze response is an automatic biological/physiological, non-conscious (or pre-conscious) response.  It is not a conscious “choice” to go into fight or fright or freeze in response to immediate danger.

It is not better or “braver” to fight when there’s danger; nor is it worse or is it cowardice to run away.  You’re not good or bad for having a fight-flight-freeze response to danger.  It’s not a choice.  The fight-flight-freeze system is neutral, biological, automatic.  It operates much faster than our conscious minds.  We don’t have time to assess whether fighting or fleeing would be the better option.

This is Not Rocket Science. It’s Human Science.

This is not rocket science.  It’s human science.  Actually, it’s mammalian science.  The nervous system of every mammal operates this way.

But when the danger is over, our internal body systems need to be calmed down and rebalanced to homeostasis — to aware, alert, ready, at-choice in present reality – to feeling safe and secure internally again – because we human beings (our internal body systems) need to be in balance for us to do our best.

Internal balance is our natural state, our optimal state, EXCEPT in those rare moments when there is clear and present danger (“rare” for most of us).

All the rest of the moments of our lives (the non-danger moments), it is NOT FUNCTIONAL for our nervous systems to be activated into fight or flight or freeze.

“The Culture” Needs to Be Educated that Anger and Fear are Functional . . . . BUT ONLY When There’s REAL Danger

I know I keep repeating myself here, but I now think it can’t be repeated often enough.   Our culture, “the human culture,” needs to be educated that the fight-flight-freeze system is optimally functional for us human beings — that fear and anger are “good” when there is danger — BUT ONLY in those seconds (moments at most) when there is real danger.

Parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, bosses, political leaders,  military leaders, religious/spiritual leaders, writers, film-makers, journalists, cultural leaders, “thought leaders”, everyone – needs to be educated about this basic biological/physiological truth.

The fight-flight-freeze response is an awesome, wondrous, built-in, survival tool that we and all mammals share.  Having a well-functioning automatic fight-flight-freeze response system is an important, fundamental survival capability.  Don’t mess with it.  Don’t suppress it.  Nurture it.  Respect it.

Yet how many of us have well-functioning fight-flight-freeze response systems?

One problem for human beings in modern times is that many of us (maybe most of us) live in environments where we are insulated from real danger in our daily lives.  How often in the past five or ten or twenty years were you or any of your loved ones in real danger?   I can only remember a two MOMENTS in my life when I was actually in in the midst of real danger – and they were all in my 20’s – once in a car accident (seconds) and once when I was mugged by a group of hoodlums (again seconds).

As a result (well I don’t really know if it’s “as a result” — I have no specific research to back this up), but I know from my own experience growing up that I didn’t need to be vigilant/ready/alert for possible danger — and I still don’t.  My “present reality awareness muscles” were able to “atrophy” to some extent and I was/am able to “go/live/be unconscious” — “spaced out” without any negative consequences to my survival.

I also know that our children and grandchildren in the developed and rapidly developing areas of the world don’t need to be aware in present reality to “get by” at home or at school — and  I know (O.K. strongly, confidently believe) that “aware in present reality” is the only “awareness place” or “awareness state” where you can really be optimally aware if there is “real danger” going on in the moment.   Awareness in present reality is a basic, basic, basic survival skill for us human beings (and all our mammalian cousins too!)  If I’m spaced out, not aware of what’s going on inside of me and around me in the moment, I won’t be able to respond optimally when there is real danger.  (For more about our ideas about the fundamental importance of “present reality awareness” skills, see the Project OUR CULTURE NORMALIZES MINDLESSNESS).

Another problem is that many “civilized” modern cultures (maybe most of them) send an absolutist message that anger and rage are bad, and anyone who gets mad is bad and has a bad character — you should never get angry and never fight.  (I’m including “parent cultures” here – not just spiritual/religious/moral cultural teachings.)

It certainly is good/culturally desirable to teach young children and all the rest of the “human culture” that anger and rage is NOT a good thing for us human beings to be doing to ourselves or to each other MOST of the time.  It’s not functional to get angry or enraged at our team mates, our loved ones, our co-workers, the most important people in our lives, or even the not-so-important people in our daily lives, such as, bus drivers, taxi drivers, clerks in the stores where we buy our food and clothes, customer service reps on the phone, neighbors, etc. etc. etc.

Curiously and unfortunately, “the Culture” also sends out the mixed message that “fear is bad” too and only wimps or weak people get scared.  And men, especially, shouldn’t get scared.  It’s kinda O.K. for girls and women to get scared — but that’s because they ARE weaker.  Bullshit.  (Sorry, but strong language is called for.  Fear and anger are basic human emotions.  And I feel confident to say they are basic mammalian emotions too, even though some (maybe even many) human nature or animal nature scientists would say I am “anthropomorphizing” other animals to say they have “emotions.”  I’ll say “bullshit” to that too.   Never seen a “scaredy cat” or an “angry dog”?)

I’m not out on a limb to say that anger and fear are basic human emotions.  That’s not controversial at all to most human nature scientists and should not be very controversial to very many human beings, except those who somehow have gotten the message that “human nature” is “bad”.

Obviously “the Culture” hasn’t succeeded in wiping out anger and rage or fear — despite the thousands of years of cultural teachings that these human emotions are “bad.”

Anger is still alive and well in the world.  The problem is that anger is so often misplaced, not appropriate, not functional.  It is not functional to get angry and yell at your wife or your kids or your co-workers or your employees or your team mates — and yet that’s where most of the anger and rage is going on (sad to say!)   And yet anger is not “bad” in any absolute sense.  Quite the contrary:  it IS functional — SUPER FUNCTIONAL — to get furiously angry with someone attacking you or your loved ones. (Look for our future project: “Anger is for Fighting” to explore this important human culture issue).

We human beings, however, have a problem that most other mammals don’t have (as far as we know).  We have the incredible ability to think ourselves into danger – to think ourselves into fight-flight-freeze – when there is no real danger  .  .  .  .  .  .  with all (or at least some) of the automatic, non-conscious, physiological consequences outlined above.

In the next article, Fear is NOT FUNCTIONAL when there is NO DANGER, we explore the biological truth that it is not functional to go into to fight-flight-freeze when there is no real danger, when there are only thoughts of danger.  We use the terms “thought danger” and “thought danger fear” to distinguish between “real danger” and “real danger fear.”

The Culture (the Human Culture) really needs to be educated about the super functionality of the fight-flight-freeze response when there’s real danger and that internal balance or homeostasis is our natural state in all the other moments of our lives when there is no real danger.

Can you help us Educate the Culture about this biological truth?

  • Are you a human nature scientist or human nature science geek who can share research and real-life stories about the Super Functionality of the fight-flight-freeze response system for us human beings?
  • Are you a developmental psychologist who knows the importance of inner safety and security (inner balance) for us humans from infancy through adulthood — as well as the importance of the full range of basic human emotions, including anger and fear?
  • Are you a mindfulness, attention, or self-regulation researcher, teacher, or coach (or geek) interested in helping to educate the culture that the purpose of mindfulness, self-awareness, self-regulation practices is self-management, self-leadership in daily life . . . not the avoidance or suppression of the fight-flight-freeze response when there is real danger?
  • Are you a science writer who wants to help educate the culture about this truth that we human beings need for our nervous systems to be within a range of inner balance (or “inner peace”) for us to perform our best, but always ready and alert in present reality to detect and respond quickly to real danger . . . even with anger and fighting or fear and running away when those emotions are biologically appropriate for the situation?