The “Fight or Flight” paradigm and the Relevance to Human Confrontation

Since 1929 there have been many advancements in the understanding of stress responses within pan-mammalian species which leads to the question – Is the “Fight or Flight” paradigm still relevant and usable today for understanding the human stress response?

Recent research with nonhuman primates has clearly established the first phase of reaction to a threat is not to fight at all but to avoid confrontation, and in fact has revealed there are 4 stages to the stress/fear response. These responses are actually a sequence of reactions that have been genetically embedded to guarantee survival in extreme situations and in particular against aggression and attack. This new order of reactions was noticed by Jeffery A. Gray who established the order as Freeze, Flee/Flight, Fight or Fright (Tonic Immobility).

The “freeze response” corresponds to what clinicians typically refer to as hyper-vigilance (being on guard, watchful or hyper-alert). This initial freeze response is the “stop, look and listen” response associated with fear. The survival advantage of this response is obvious, ethological research has demonstrated that prey that remain “frozen” during a threat are more likely to avoid detection because the visual cortex and the retina of mammalian carnivores primarily detect moving objects rather than colour. If you’ve ever been woken from sleep by a loud noise, you will most likely find yourself frozen listening intently rather than instantly jumping out of bed to confront the possible intruder.

After this initial freeze response, the next in the sequence is an attempt to flee, and once this has been exhausted (either by fleeing or leaving the chance to flee too long) there is an attempt to fight, in that order, although this attempt to fight is most likely through reflex than conscious action if this chain has not been broken. Thus, “flight then fight” is the proper order of responses rather than “fight or flight.” This reversal of order may have greater clinical implications and applications than the simple reversal itself.

To illustrate, consider a military combat situation. When a soldier encounters an initial sign of threat, the socially appropriate response, i.e., the response demanded by his military training and reinforced by other members of his unit, is usually the “stop, watch, and listen” heightened-alertness response. This behaviour is consistent with the biological predisposition toward the first part of the sequence: the freeze response. As the reality of a conflict grows imminent the biological and situational demands are no longer in concert. The evolved hardwired instinctual response to flee is in conflict with his/her military training. This hidden conflict is bound to further increase the intensity of this already stressful experience.

As an interesting side note, the chemical cocktail of adrenaline can be immensely powerful on cognition and motor reflexes. NYPD statistics from 1994-2000 showed that the hit rate percentage of an officer shooting a target under pressure at zero – two yards was 38%! So even a trained individual that would have no problem hitting a target 100% of the time on the firing range at 6 yards will miss 62% of the time. At three to seven yards they missed 83% and all because of the increase of adrenaline.

The next step in the sequence of fear-circuitry responses after freezing then attempting to flee is the possibility of fighting and or fright (tonic immobility). Tonic immobility was referred to as “playing dead” in the early ethological literature and has been referred to as peritraumatic “panic-like” symptoms in the post traumatic stress disorder literature. Tonic immobility may enhance survival when a predator temporarily loosens its grip on captured prey under the assumption that it is indeed dead, providing the prey with an opportunity for escape. It is also a response that may be adaptive in humans when there is no possibility of escaping or winning a fight. Clinical relevance of tonic immobility as a survival response may be illustrated best in relation to the behaviour of some victims of violence or sexual assault who exhibit extreme passivity during the assault. Here again, an understanding of the hard-wired nature of the response might help ameliorate one dimension of the painful memories that plague some victims who wonder why they did not put up more of a fight.

In reality, human conflict is far more complex than a simple 2 word phrase coined over 80 years ago. The understanding of hormonal responses is key to finding solutions of how we can break these patterns, in order to maximise our potential under pressure and allow the opportunity to protect ourselves and loved ones.