Fight or Flight–Evolutionary behaviour that has overstayed its welcome…

Many thousands of years ago humankind lived in caves, wore animal skin for clothes, and stalked deer (or whatever beast they found fit to consume) so that they could hunt them down with spears or other rudimentary tools, in order to get their daily dose of protein. And despite all that healthy living – they ate pit roasted steaks (Colonel Sanders’ chicken wasn’t quite the rage then), naturally grown fruits and got plenty of exercise – they would’ve been lucky to live till they were forty! The far unluckier ones often ended on the dinner menu of a saber-tooth or any other hungry large predator that was on the prowl and had a taste for slow moving claw-less, fang-less, two-legged animals.

We have come a long way since then – forget hunting, a fair number of people no longer eat meat, and those who do, mostly their meat from nicely stacked rows in supermarkets that they pay for in bits of fancy paper. And of course, we live far longer on an average and many of those savage things that hunted us are mostly gone for good – the few large predators that are still around are either showpieces in enclosures we pay to visit, or in pockets of jungles far moved from civilization posing no threat to humans. We are a few million times more likely to die from a collision with a metallic beast, driven by an idiot behind the wheel, than we are from the attack of a savage predator.

Ah! Modern times.

Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of our inbuilt behavior that has survived this larger drastic transformation.

Ever felt a sudden sense of heightened awareness that seeps through us when a stranger passes us in a dark creepy alley? That’s pretty much the same sensation that our ancestors possessed when they walked in the dark and heard a dry twig snap in the vicinity.

This sense of heightened awareness is called the ‘fight or flight’ response and it helps us identify dangerous situations and act instantly – gather either the strength to confront the danger or run away as fast as we can. This dramatic shift to ‘survival mode’ is often described as that instinctive feel that ‘something isn’t right’. This is also accompanied by a sudden feeling of cold (‘shiver down the spine’?), and an increase in heart rate and respiration rate.

This sense is an outcome of a rather complex mind-body process that involves the mind’s ‘fear-centre’ called the hypothalamus which advises the nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system to work together to create a mix of hormones and chemicals secreted into our blood-stream. Skin feels colder because blood is redirected to larger muscle groups to prepare them for confrontation or for flight. All other thoughts usually as discarded as the brain prioritizes the big-picture at that time – survival!

Of course, over the ages, human beings probably wouldn’t have survived had it not been for this response system that gave them the added advantage in a rough era where split second decisions could make the difference between saving oneself to live another day and ending up on a saber-tooth’s dinner plate.

However, it is rather ironic that in present times, where such instances of physical threats have drastically decreased, the activation of the fight or flight has supposedly increased because of mental frustrations.

You would really think of this as a problem when a life-saving system that was supposed to warn you in times of intense bodily peril such as the presence of a predator, or a falling tree, gets triggered because of a snappy boss or an argumentative spouse, or even a traffic-rule bending idiot who cuts your lane on the road. In such situations, the triggering of the fight or flight response aggravates the problem (rather than help the person, as it was originally intended to).

In the bygone times, the initiation of the fight or flight response was immediately followed by physical exertion (in all probability you’d be running for your life or would be in a violent fight).

But in present times, that vital element of physical exertion following the triggering of the fight or flight response is missing – you can’t really punch your boss in the face (even though you’re tempted to), or slam the erratic driver into a wall (though some people can’t just resist the urge). And this leads to something that is a major contributor to a large number of modern illnesses – stress!

So now that you realize, your daily stress can be partly accredited to your biological conditioning, the next question is what can be done about it?

Neil F Neimark, a stress researcher, actually recommends physical exertion as a really useful strategy (no, he doesn’t recommend bashing the boss though). The researcher suggests ‘fooling’ the body into metabolizing stress hormones by doing physical activities (such as hitting a punching bag instead of punching the boss). The brain isn’t smart enough to realize this exercise isn’t related to the original stress stimulus and hence carries out the metabolism of these stress hormones that help a person reach his normal stress-free state faster. A different set of techniques suggested by Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson were deep breathing, meditation and the repetition of affirmative phrases that help calm the nervous system.

So to sum up, next time you feel a sudden heightened blood boiling sensation triggered by a somebody’s callous statements or behavior, go punch a bag, or better still (since punching bags aren’t around all the time) take a deep breath and repeat to yourself ‘I’m a peaceful person who will not get triggered by my animal senses’ for a few times and you’ll feel much better at the end of it!

Oh, alternatively, go try screaming into a pillow – that really works too! Seriously!

PS: Also published on


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