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?