Extreme Violence Part II: Fight or Flight, It’s Not Your Only Choice
By Ernest Emerson
I am sure that all of us have heard of and aware of the “fight or flight” reaction. Did you know that there was more, much more, to it than just those two words?
When the brain is triggered by a spontaneous, unexpected and surprising stimulus, certain autonomic functions go into action. I use the term “surprise” to denote that it must be something of distinction to trigger the action. In other words – a loud noise, perhaps a gunshot, explosion, or scream is more likely to trigger the response than a whisper or a cough in a theater. However, that same cough will trigger the response reaction if it comes from downstairs at two o’clock in the morning and you and your wife are both in bed. So, just remember that the same stimulus can produce completely different results in different contexts. For the purpose of discussion I’m going to be referencing the loud, scary types of stimulus to trigger your response.
Let’s use this example; It’s two o’clock in the morning and you are alone in your pitch black hotel room. You’re just drifting off to sleep when you hear your hotel room door close. I guarantee, no matter who you are, fight or flight is going to kick in at that moment. So let’s see what happens. Your body immediately tenses up, your eyes open wide, your pulse jumps dramatically, your breathing becomes shallow and your ears strain to hear any micro sounds in the room.
This is the first phase of the fight or flight reaction. Most people would call this terror or at least a moment of stone cold fear, but it is really not. It is merely a physiological response to a perceived threat. Whereas the OODA loop is a reaction to all forms of stimulus, the fight or flight response is activated by a perceived threat. Just what happens when a perceived threat is received by the mind? There are dozens of things that begin to take place but I will be dealing with the most obvious and the most dramatic aspects of the response sequence.
The first response is the trigger into action of the amygdala, the primitive section of our brain dedicated almost solely to keeping you alive. It is where most of our “survival instincts” reside.
One thing to understand first is that the amygdala acts much like a reflex. As you know when a doctor strikes your knee to “test your reflexes” the strike stimulus goes right from your knee to the base of your spine and back. It doesn’t even involve the brain. It’s also the same reason you can jerk your hand so fast off of a hot stove top. You don’t get the chance to “think about it.”
It’s the same with the amygdala. When it is triggered by a perceived threat stimulus, the signal goes straight to the amygdala without higher brain function interference. One thing to note though is that because this is a reactive, direct stimulus/response equation, excluding higher brain processes, the amygdala does not know if a stimulus is an actual threat, perceived threat, imagined threat, or no threat at all. It just sees threat, each and every time. This, I venture, is your body’s ultimate failsafe mechanism. It just kicks in. You figure out what to do, after it’s done its job.
So, what does it do? Please understand that a lot of these things are happening simultaneously even though I am discussing them singly.
Cortisol and various Adrenaline hormones are immediately dumped into the organs and muscles. The major function of the cortisol is to increase blood sugar levels for quick energy bursts and to lower sensitivity to pain.
And the effect of the adrenaline is to super charge the body, to give it the ability to go to afterburners you might say and as a resultant strength and power to move quicker, hit harder, lift more or, run away faster. It also gives you the shakes, the nervousness, the butterflies in your stomach and the rush that you feel after an adrenaline dump which can last for 20-60 minutes after the threat has been removed.
Your breathing becomes more rapid, bringing more oxygen into the body. Your heart rate jumps dramatically pumping more blood to the muscles. The blood vessels near the skin and to an extent the extremities, fingers, toes, etc., constrict, restricting blood flow, making more blood available to the core, strength, muscles.
The eyes dilate allowing more light in thereby increasing your ability to see. Your hearing becomes more acute increasing your ability to hear. The stomach muscles tense up to protect the middle organs. The shoulders hunch up to protect the vital neck area. Your hands come up to the front to provide protection of the eyes, neck and face and to form a roadblock in front of the eyes. And, your legs tense, flex, and bend slightly so that you may spring into action, whether it is to run or stand and flight.
Then there are the “other” effects, depending upon the type of confrontation and duration of the threat, for example in a gun fight, you may experience tunnel vision (hyper-focus on the threat) selective auditory exclusion, not-hearing the explosions of gun fire, yet still hearing the bolt of the gun racking back and forth or only the sound of shell casings hitting the floor.
And, the most puzzling of all effects – time distortion, when things seem to be moving in slow motion. Although things do not slow down, the brain seems to go into a hyper-speed processing mode, clearly at a much higher rate than normal thereby taking in much more data while the data stream of the real time event itself does not increase or decrease. I would describe it like watching a normal event filmed by an ultra high speed camera and then played back in regular speed. I’m sure you’ve seen the films of drops of water hitting the top of a puddle. There’s more to that drop than meets the, “normal” eye.
However, these “other” effects that I just described usually only take place if the “fight” is actually engaged, as opposed to the initial effects of Fight or Flight, before the fight starts.
So now what happens? The amygdala went into action giving you all these wonderful tools to keep you alive. What do you do with them?
This is where the higher brain starts to be engaged, past the pure, instinctive reactive mode. It’s not quite a fully conscious decision yet but this is when you decide what to do. So far I have only talked about two options, fight or flight. Did you know that there were more; three more in fact? There are a total of five options that become choices as a result of the amygdala turning its switch and as they are: fight, flight, posture, submit or freeze.
Fight or flight are obvious, so what about the other three? Remember one thing, we are humans but we are still animals, so we are subject to the same reactions as our animal relatives. These attributes are of course, more evident in mammals than most other creatures. The reason that I bring this up is that, if you’ve never experience the “other” three reactions, I’m sure you’ve seen them in animals. The remaining three reactions are, Posture, Submit or Freeze, and they are all possible options to a spontaneous, unexpected threat stimulus. How you will react depends on the threat, the environment, precursor events, the OODA Loop process, and your own life experience.
The word posture defines the action of one or both combatants or potential combatants taking action to intimidate the other. This could be called the face off waiting for the first one to blink. Many times in nature and quite regularly in humans, this is the moment where combat will be avoided by one of the parties simply backing down.
In the animal world, including us, the purpose of this mechanism is to prevent combat from taking place. The reason is that if two lions engage in actual combat there is the high probability of injury to both participants and in the wild, any injury more serious than a scratch is probably a death sentence. The “law of the jungle,” is that if you are sick, weak, old or injured, you automatically become prey, even if you once were the king.
Have you ever seen a cat that was startled or squared off against another cat? You may have seen the cat turned sideways, its hair all puffed up with its back arched high in the air, growling or yowling. This is a perfect example of the posturing process at work, where the cat, attempting to look larger, more intimidating and more formidable to its rival.
If you have ever been confronted by a growling, snarling, mad dog with its teeth bared, and hackles up, you were witnessing a posture process in action and when your fight or flight mechanism was activated you may have opted for the next option, submission.
This option is complete surrender to the will of the rival. There are times when the dynamics of the environment, the nature of the attacker, and severity of the threat combine with your own experiential processes to trigger a submissive response, the “please don’t hurt me” response.
I have personally witnessed individuals take a severe beating all the while offering no resistance other than, yelling, “Why are you doing this? Stop! Stop! Why are you hitting me?” I know this for a fact to be possible because one time it was me.
In nature, animals “dropping their guard,” lowering their head or gaze, turning their back, or exposing their soft under belly to their opponent, are exhibiting a submissive response. In pack animals this establishes the “pecking order” of dominant and subordinate hierarchy or rank within the social structure of the pack. Between two rival males it determines which one will be the one to breed and pass on his genes. The most dangerous aspect of falling prey to a submission response is that you are at the complete mercy of the “victor.” In the animal world the victor generally stops his aggressive actions, however with human beings all bets are off and the human sociopath may decide to terminate your existence and take your life.
The remaining option is the “freeze.” People have described it variously as being frozen with terror paralyzed by fear, or just scared stiff. These words are definitely describing the freeze response, and unfortunately it is all too real. The obvious danger in this case is that offering no resistance at all, not even raising your hands to protect yourself keeps you in a completely helpless, and vulnerable position in the face of extreme danger or violence. This is definitely the worst position to be in when your life is hanging in the balance. Nonetheless it does happen. In nature this is described as the “deer in the headlights” syndrome. I believe as do many that this is the result of an “event” so unexpected, and so far out of context that to an “inexperienced” individual the data pouring in is so overwhelming that their human computer just cannot process it and goes into a shutdown mode.
What do I mean by inexperienced individual? What I mean is that a person used to a high stress environment, lifestyle or job is not likely to be one who experiences the “freeze.” Very few combat veterans experience the freeze, or for that matter, ER Doctors, Policeman or fireman. It’s just that their personal experience has forced them to make decisions in situations that most people never, ever experience.
A majority of people misinterpret this reaction as one of fear or cowardice, when in fact it is just one of a set of normal psychological/physiological reactions to a threat. Anyone who has ever been in combat – any honest person, will tell you that have been scared and scared every time they have experienced it. If anyone they ever says were not scared they were either lying or they have brain damage or – they are lying. The difference is simply this. Combat experience is really the difference between being scared and acting and being scared and freezing. The veteran will be the one who acts and the rookie will be the one who freezes – at least in the beginning.
You may recall in my previous article on the sociopathic predator where I described their experience as “They’ve done this before” in explaining how they move fluidly through a high stress environment. People who have experienced ongoing exposure to decision making and actions in high stress environments are much quicker to “sort it out” in the face of spontaneous and quickly evolving life threatening situations.
However, most people do not have that historical experience and they never will. And this fact is exactly the reason that the 9-11 hijackers started their deadly scheme by cutting the throats of the innocent flight attendants to accomplish the takeover of the plane. They were counting on the fact that the paralysis of fear would strike the passengers and give them enough time and control to assault the cockpit, kill the pilots and take complete control of the planes.
So, how do you deal with all these processes that I have described here; the OODA Loop, Fight Flight, Posture, Submit, and Freeze? Well the first step is by education, merely by becoming aware of what will happen starts to shorten the time that you are caught up in them and controlled by them.
The other thing you can do is to imagine yourself being in these different situations confronting various threats and imminent dangers.
The best and most effective way is to engage in active training where you put yourself through high stress, realistic scenarios forcing you to work through decision making processes and active responses, under pressure and in the midst of a fluid, ever changing sequence of events.
What I’m describing here is the tool of Creative Visualization and how you can use this valuable tool to enhance the effectiveness of your training regimen.
In next week’s article I will discuss how you can add this little known and little used tool to greatly enhance your ability to confront danger and live to tell about it.
From the Editor: Thanks to Ernest Emerson for this series on personal combat. Ernest is a hand combat instructor and knife-maker – learn more about him here http://www.emersonknives.com/