Understanding the Brain

Fight-or-flight response

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The fight-or-flight response (also called the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response, hyperarousal, or the acute stress response) was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon.[1][2][3][4][5]

His theory states that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, priming the animal for fighting or fleeing. This response was later recognized as the first stage of a general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms.


Catecholamine hormones, such as adrenaline or noradrenaline, facilitate immediate physical reactions associated with a preparation for violent muscular action. These include the following:[6]

Psychology of the stress response

A typical example of the stress response is a grazing zebra. If the zebra sees a lion closing in for the kill, the stress response is activated. The escape requires intense muscular effort, supported by all of the body’s systems. The sympathetic nervous system’s activation provides for these needs. A similar example involving fight is of a cat about to be attacked by a dog. The cat shows accelerated heartbeat, piloerection (hair standing on end, normally for conservation of heat), and pupil dilation, all signs of sympathetic arousal.[6] Note that the Zebra still maintains homeostasis in all states.

Though Cannon, who first proposed the idea of fight-or-flight, provided considerable evidence of these responses in various animals, it subsequently became apparent that his theory of response was too simplistic. Animals respond to threats in many complex ways. Rats, for instance, try to escape when threatened, but will fight when cornered. Some animals stand perfectly still so that predators will not see them. Many animals freeze or play dead when touched in the hope that the predator will lose interest.

Others have more exotic self-protection methods. Some species of fish change color swiftly, to camouflage themselves. These responses are triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, but in order to fit the model of fight or flight, the idea of flight must be broadened to include escaping capture in either a physical way or in a sensory way. Thus, flight can be disappearing to another location or just disappearing in place. And often both fight and flight are combined in a given situation.

The fight or flight actions also have polarity - the individual can either fight or flee against something that is threatening, such as a hungry lion, or fight for or fly towards something that is needed, such as the safety of the shore of a raging river.

A threat from another animal does not always result in immediate fight or flight. There may be a period of heightened awareness, during which each animal interprets behavioral signals from the other. Signs such as paling, piloerection, immobility, sounds, and body language communicate the status and intentions of each animal. There may be a sort of negotiation, after which fight or flight may ensue, but which might also result in playing, mating, or nothing at all. An example of this is kittens playing: each kitten shows the signs of sympathetic arousal, but they never inflict real damage.

Behavioral manifestations of fight-or-flight

In the human fight or flight response in prehistoric times, fight was manifested in aggressive, combative behavior and flight was manifested by fleeing potentially threatening situations, such as being confronted by a predator. In current times, these responses persist, but fight and flight responses have assumed a wider range of behaviors. For example, the fight response may be manifested in angry, argumentative behavior, and the flight response may be manifested through social withdrawal, substance abuse, and even television viewing.[7]</blockquote>

Males and females tend to deal with stressful situations differently. Males are more likely to respond to an emergency situation with aggression (fight), while females are more likely to flee (flight), turn to others for help, or attempt to defuse the situation – 'tend and befriend'. During stressful times, a mother is especially likely to show protective responses toward her offspring and affiliate with others for shared social responses to threat.[4]

Negative effects of the stress response in humans

The stress response halts or slows down various processes such as sexual responses and digestive systems to focus on the stressor situation and typically causes negative effects like constipation, anorexia, erectile dysfunction, difficulty urinating, and difficulty maintaining sexual arousal. These are functions which are controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore suppressed by sympathetic arousal.[6]

Prolonged stress responses may result in chronic suppression of the immune system, leaving the body open to infections. However, there is a short boost of the immune system shortly after the fight or flight response has been activated. This may be due to an ancient need to fight the infections in a wound that one may have received during interaction with a predator.

Stress responses are sometimes a result of mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, in which the individual shows a stress response when remembering a past trauma, and panic disorder, in which the stress response is activated by the catastrophic misinterpretations of bodily sensations.

For potential positive meanings, reference can be made to Hans Selye's psychological concept of eustress or good, healthy stress.

See also


External links


  1. Some references say he first described the response in 1914 in The American Journal of Physiology. Others in the 1915 edition of Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage. Other sources say that he first used the term in 1929 or in 1932 edition of the same book. The issue needs further research.
  2. Walter Bradford Cannon (1929). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear, and rage. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. 
  3. H.S.Bracha; Ralston, TC; Matsukawa, JM; Williams, AE; Bracha, AS (2004). "Does "Fight or Flight" Need Updating?". Psychosomatics 45 (5): 448–9. doi:10.1176/appi.psy.45.5.448. PMID 15345792. http://psy.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/45/5/448. Retrieved 2010-10-04. "Walter Cannon's original formulation of the term for the human response to threat, 'fight or flight,' was coined exactly 75 years ago, in 1929.". 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Shelley Elizabeth Taylor, LC Klein, BP Lewis. "Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight". Psychological Review. https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://www.psych.ndsu.nodak.edu/hilmert/Classes/Psyc787/Week9/Taylor_2000.pdf. Retrieved 2010-10-04. "First described by Walter Cannon in 1932, the fight-or-flight response is characterized physiologically by sympathetic nervous system activation that innervates the adrenal medulla, producing a hormonal cascade that results in the secretion of catecholamines, especially ...". 
  5. Walter Bradford Cannon (1915). Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement. Appleton-Century-Crofts. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Henry Gleitman, Alan J. Fridlund and Daniel Reisberg (2004). Psychology (6 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-97767-6. 
  7. Friedman, H. S., & Silver, R. C. (Eds.) (2007). Foundations of Health Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Further reading

  • Sapolsky, Robert M., 1994. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. W.H. Freeman and Company.
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