How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

The fight or flight response is a physiological response to a stimulus which our bodies consider dangerous or life-threatening. This response—also called the acute stress response—is familiar to most people as the intense feeling of anxiety, shaking, and fear that can occur when our bodies prepare for a possible emergency.

First described in the 1920s, the fight or flight response is the first part of the involuntary general adaptation syndrome. In the fight or flight response, stimuli result in stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system then sends a message to the adrenal glands which result in the release of the stress hormones, epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and cortisol, among others. These hormones, in turn, lead to the symptoms associated with the response.  

The counterpart to the flight or flight response is the relaxation response, in which the body goes back to normal. The “recovery period” between a fight or flight response and normalization of body functions is variable but often lasts for 20 to 60 minutes following stimulation if the perceived threat disappears.


The fight-or-flight response is a stress reaction that likely evolved out of the survival needs of our early ancestors living with the daily dangers of the time. To demonstrate, imagine you’re a prehistoric cave dweller relaxing one evening and enjoying the daily catch.

Suddenly, a large and hungry saber-toothed tiger appears on your doorstep. To him, you look like a tasty morsel on the food chain. But, human design kicks in with a surge of strength and energy, increasing your chances of surviving this encounter.

Fight or Flight and Panic Disorder

Some theorists believe that this stress reaction is seen in the common fears associated with modern day panic disorder, specifically, in the fear of large open spaces or being in situations without an easy escape route. In the dangerous world of our ancestors, crossing a large open field leaves one vulnerable to attack. The same can be said for being cornered without any means of escape.  

When the Response Is Triggered

Researchers have identified numerous physiological changes that occur during the flight-or-flight stress response. As noted above, these changes are believed to be triggered by the sympathetic nervous system through the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream.   This release causes immediate physical reactions in preparation of the muscular activity needed to fight or flee the threat.

Some of the changes during this process include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Changes in blood flow: Increased blood flow to muscles necessary for escaping, such as skeletal muscles, and decreased blood flow to tissues not necessary for escaping, such as the smooth muscles associated with digestion
  • Dilation of pupils
  • Auditory exclusion, also known as hearing loss
  • Tunnel vision, or a loss of peripheral vision in order to fully focus on the danger at hand
  • Sweating to cool the body in response to the heat generated as your body gets ready to contend with a predator

These physical changes occur rapidly and automatically. If one were experiencing a life-threatening event, they would be expected. But, when they occur while picking up a few groceries for dinner or sitting in a meeting at work, they can be quite frightening. Since much of the stress in our current day society is psychosocial stress, this prehistoric response which once was necessary for survival could even be detrimental.

Fear Without Danger

During a panic attack, the body’s alarm system is triggered without the presence of any danger. It is the absence of identifiable danger that actually intensifies the fear associated with panic attacks. If there is an identifiable danger, we can fear the danger, not the symptoms.

However, if there is no danger and someone experiences sweating and changes in heart rate, breathing, vision, and hearing, it would seem logical to fear the symptoms, even believing they are life-threatening. Physically, your body is telling you to get ready, because you are in grave danger. But how do you prepare psychologically for certain danger that is unseen?

It may be that you assign the symptoms mistaken meaning. It may be that you immediately flee the situation as if it were dangerous. But these thoughts and actions don’t get you out of danger. They only reinforce and strengthen the association of a fear that is not based on an actual threat.


Since the fight or flight response underlies many of the symptoms common with panic disorder, researchers have investigated ways of taming this response. It doesn’t work to just say “I’m not stressed,” since the response is involuntary.

The treatment for panic disorder most often includes several modalities, including both medications and cognitive behavioral therapy.   One method of treating the disorder, desensitization, takes into account the fight or flight response. In this method, people with panic disorder are gradually exposed to anxiety-causing stimuli while learning to control their anxiety and panic simultaneously.  

Breathing exercises and other stress reducers can be helpful to help calm the body after the initial fight or flight reaction has occurred. Since many people, even those without panic disorder, cope with a level of stress that could be detrimental rather than helpful to the body (unlike “eustress”), taking a moment to check out ​stress management techniques may be just what the doctor ordered.

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How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

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In 2003, Aron Ralston went hiking alone in southeastern Utah. An experienced outdoorsman, the trail didn’t seem to present any danger for him. Things were going well until he slipped, dislodged an 800-lb. boulder, and was pinned to the canyon wall by it. With limited supplies and no way to call for help, he realized that the only way he’d leave the canyon alive was if he amputated his arm. Using a dull multi-tool and leverage, he managed to free himself after five days. [1]

How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

Aron could have lost his wits and died in the canyon. He had to be willing to fight for his life.

We’d all like to stay calm under pressure, but the reality is that some of us panic, while others among us have the drive to fight for what they want.

“Fight or Flight” Keeps Us Alive

When faced with challenges, people tend to panic. Our brains do everything they can to keep us alive. When we’re afraid, it sends us the signal to either fight or flee.

When you are afraid, your amygdala sets off a chain reaction in your brain. [2] Your amygdala is responsible for making you fight or flee, and it can even play a part in self-defeating behaviors and resistance. [3]

When your amygdala perceives that you’re in danger, it sends a distress message to your hypothalamus. The hypothalamus overrides the normal way your brain handles incoming information. It activates the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers what you feel when you are afraid. [4]

How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

We usually respond to a distress signal by fighting or fleeing. When your survival is at stake, you react without thinking. Your brain either tells you to stay on the path and fight through it, or give up.

The Pitfall of Flight

When you are in physical danger, your flight response can save your life. It’s not that flight is bad, but sometimes our brains tell us to flee in situations that aren’t life-threatening.

You may feel the urge to flee when you face something that seems overwhelming. You might tell yourself a negative story about how you won’t succeed if you continue on your current path. With that mindset, failure is almost guaranteed. You don’t believe that you can make it, so you won’t. Flight can keep us from reaching our potential.

How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

People who always choose flight give up quickly. At the first sign of a challenge, they jump to another task. This is the person who runs away from difficulties in their personal and professional lives because they don’t think they can deal with them.

How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

Make Fighting the Only Option

You may have the impulse to run away, but you can re-frame your thinking. Next time you panic over some challenge at work, choose to fight by telling yourself a positive story. Replace your negative self-talk with hopeful internal dialogue.

Even if your positive story doesn’t end up being true, it can be enough to keep you going. People who beat the odds often do so by visualizing an excellent outcome. When you know that your intention is to keep going, it makes you more persistent and keeps you motivated. Hope carries people through the toughest times.

How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

Fight Like You’re in a Video Game

If you take a moment to reflect on your situation, you can imagine a positive message that will override the negative story you’re telling yourself. Any time self-doubt creeps into your head, play your positive story.

Make overriding your fear a game. Games are fun, and they break challenges into more bearable parts. Playing games that are too easy is boring, which makes challenges the perfect thing to turn into a game. Challenging games are more difficult, but they’re more fun and engaging.

The best games have multiple levels, enemies that increase in difficulty as you become a better player, and achievements along the way. When you get an achievement, it motivates you to strive for the next level.

As you play, you can look back and see your progress. You either fail and have to try again, or you succeed and get something good for all your effort. This process is addictive to players.

One of the best ways to turn challenges into games is to break your big goal into smaller steps. Milestones help you check your progress and stay motivated. Achieving a milestone is like entering a new level of the game. Give yourself rewards and punishments so that you have extra motivation to move forward.

Ralston’s brush with death wasn’t a fun game by any stretch of the imagination, but he did have certain milestones that he reached in order to decide what to do next. At first he tried to survive with the limited supplies he had. He hoped someone would find him.

When his supplies ran out, and it became clear that nobody would find him, had to take more serious action. After he discovered that his hand was dying from being trapped under the weight of the boulder, he realized he would lose part of his arm anyway. This knowledge combined with his ultimate goal of survival led him to do what he had to do.

Even though his work was gruesome, he described grinning when he realized he was going to make it out of the canyon. When he freed himself, he got over the largest hurdle in his ordeal.

Keep on Playing

If Aron Ralston decided not to fight, he would have died. For him, there was nowhere to run, but if he fought he stood a chance at making it.

People who reach their fullest potential don’t give up easily. They don’t run away at the first sign of trouble. They take the hits and keep going.

However, there are some times when you do have to quit in order to win. Be on the lookout for my next article on when you should quit in order to get ahead.

Can “fight or flight” make us less likely to survive disasters?

Posted Oct 05, 2016


  • What Is Anxiety?
  • Find a therapist to overcome anxiety

On December 24, 1913, a Christmas party was being held on the second floor of a hall in Calumet, Michigan. The party had been organized by the Western Federation of Miners for the families of mine workers who were in facing what would prove to be a lengthy strike. Despite the tense mood, the party was meant to lift the spirits of everyone present. At least, it was until someone (nobody knows who), suddenly yelled “Fire!” and triggered a panic. The four hundred people present all rushed down the stairs and began searching for exits. Though there are differing accounts of what happened and why people panicked, seventy-three men, women, and children died, mostly by being crushed to death during the mad rush for escape. There was no fire.

On June 6, 1944, a fire broke out at a performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut. About 168 people died, many of whom were trampled by audience members trying to flee the scene. Others were found to have asphyxiated due to being buried under dozens of bodies. Only a small percentage of the casualties actually died from fire or smoke inhalation.

In January, 2005, 291 Hindu pilgrims attending the annual Kalubai Jatra pilgrimage at the Mandhardevi Kalubai temple in India’s Maharashta district died when a stampede broke out. Witnesses later stated that the stampede began with a fire caused by exploding gas canisters in nearby shops. There were far more deaths from the stampede that followed than the actual fire.

In virtually every natural disaster, terrorist attack, or fire, there is always the risk of mass panic which can often cause more casualties than the disaster itself. While “fight or flight” is a natural human response when people think they are danger, this instinctual reaction may lead us to make very unwise decisions, especially if we are part of a large group of people trying to do the same thing. Even when fire escapes and exits are clearly marked, the danger associated with panic can’t be underestimated.

Unfortunately, researchers trying to study panic in emergency situations often have difficulty studying how people react in real-life situations. Along with the problems associated in questioning survivors after an actual disaster, there are also the ethical issues involved in studying panic behaviour in laboratory experiments. To get around these difficulties, researchers have been working with computer simulations intended to mimic actual emergencies. An intriguing new example of this was recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. This new study examined crowd behaviour in a virtual environment and made some surprising findings about how people can react to danger. Conducted by a team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Disney Research Zurich, ETH Zurich, and Rutgers University, the study consisted of different experiments using 36 participants interacting in a 3-D virtual setting which could be manipulated in different ways. This allowed to researchers to simulate crowd behaviour in high and low-stress conditions..

Each participant was placed in front of a computer screen that provided a first-person view of the environment, including the avatars of the other participants. Using a computer mouse and keyboard, they could navigate freely in the virtual environment. By offering financial compensation and setting time limits, the researchers were able to create high-stress conditions in which each participant was expected to carry out specific tasks. What they found was that the way people behaved in the virtual environment greatly resembled how people often behave in real-life.

To simulate a real-world emergency, the researchers had the participants evacuate from a large virtual room through exits that acted as bottlenecks. As the researchers expected, the density of participants leaving the room grew as the bottleneck grew smaller. Still, under non-stress conditions, participants showed little difficulty exiting in an orderly fashion with little real conflict.

To simulate an emergency evacuation under high stress, the researchers set up four exits from the virtual room but, unknown to the participants, three of those exits were blocked. For some of the participants however, arrows were provided showing the correct exit and all other participants were aware that some would be given this information. In this experiment, participants were paid in points that could be converted into money afterward. The more points you had, the more money you could collect later. To add to the stress, the participants evacuated the room under different conditions. In the first condition, participants only had fifty seconds to leave the room and would receive 50 points if they succeeded. They were also penalized points if they ran into anyone else while evacuating. In the second condition however, participants were penalized 100 points for failure (with no reward for succeeding). There were also simulated fires at several of the blocked exits along with flashing lights and lower lighting overall to boost the tension participants experienced.

Results showed that participants were far more likely to collide with one another under high-stress conditions, even if it meant losing a considerable amount of points, in order to escape the room in time. The level of crowding was also much greater under high-stress conditions, often to the point of violating safety standards. The greatest amount of crowding occurred in (i) areas where a decision needed to be made, (ii) areas surrounding the exit where bottlenecks occurred and caused congestion, and (iii) dead ends where the flow of people returning after exploring a wrong option encountered the flow of those moving in the opposite direction. Since everyone knew that some participants would have correct information about which exit to use, there was also considerable “herding” behaviour with most people deciding to go in the same direction, even if the direction happened to be the wrong one.

Though there is no way to be sure whether the behaviour seen in simulated experiments like these exactly match how people really behave in life-threatening situations, it seems clear that bottlenecks and lack of information can often lead to dangerous outcomes in emergencies. More research is definitely needed but these results highlight the critical importance of well-marked exits and good emergency planning to avoid the kind of serious injury and loss of life that scan often occur in situations where people need to evacuate in a hurry.

So pay more attention to your surroundings when you go out, especially if you are in a crowded theatre or stadium.. Know where the exits are, be alert to fire alarms and emergency broadcasts, and, most of all, don’t panic. The life you save may be your own.

Have you ever been so paralyzed by fear that you simply dissociated from it all?


  • What Is Trauma?
  • Find a therapist to heal from trauma

How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

Almost everyone is familiar with the fight or flight response—your reaction to a stimulus perceived as an imminent threat to your survival. However, less well-known is the fight-flight-freeze response, which adds a crucial dimension to how you’re likely to react when the situation confronting you overwhelms your coping capacities and leaves you paralyzed in fear.

Here, in brief, is how the survival-oriented acute stress response operates. Accurately or not, if you assess the immediately menacing force as something you potentially have the power to defeat, you go into fight mode. In such instances, the hormones released by your sympathetic nervous system—especially adrenaline—prime you to do battle and, hopefully, triumph over the hostile entity.

Conversely, if you view the antagonistic force as too powerful to overcome, your impulse is to outrun it (and the faster the better). And this, of course, is the flight response, also linked to the instantaneous ramping up of your emergency biochemical supplies—so that, ideally, you can escape from this adversarial power (whether it be human, animal, or some calamity of nature).

Where, in what you perceive as a dire threat, is the totally disabling freeze response? By default, this reaction refers to a situation in which you’ve concluded (in a matter of seconds—if not milliseconds) that you can neither defeat the frighteningly dangerous opponent confronting you nor safely bolt from it. And ironically, this self-paralyzing response can, in the moment, be just as adaptive as either valiantly fighting the enemy or, more cautiously, fleeing from it.

Consider situations in which, realistically, there’s no way you can defend yourself. You have neither the hormone-assisted strength to respond aggressively to the inimical force nor the anxiety-driven speed to free yourself from it. You feel utterly helpless: Neither fight nor flight is viable, and there’s no one on the scene to rescue you.

Say, you’re attacked by a ferocious dog who’s sunk his teeth into your neck and you’re totally at his mercy. In such an alarming instance, you’d experience trepidation, panic, horror, dread. And these extreme feelings would be so fraught with anxiety, so laden with terror, that almost no one is “gifted” with the resources required to stay fully in the present—which is precisely what’s needed to “process” emotional and physical completion, or release, of what so frighteningly besieges you.

Under such unnerving circumstances, “freezing up” or “numbing out”—dissociating from the here and now—is about the only and (in various instances) the best thing you can do. Being physically, mentally, and emotionally immobilized by your consternation permits you not to feel the harrowing enormity of what’s happening to you, which in your hyperaroused state might threaten your very sanity. In such instances, some of the chemicals you thereby secrete (i.e., endorphins) function as an analgesic, so the pain of injury (to your body or psyche) is experienced with far less intensity.

Additionally, if you’re not putting up a fight, the person or animal aggressing against you just might lose interest in continuing their attack. But whatever the provocation, if you can’t make the assailant disappear, you’re much better off “disappearing” yourself, by blocking out what’s much too scary to take in. So, in its own way, the freeze response to trauma is—if only at the time—as adaptive as the fight-flight response.

For a small child, the developmental capacity to protect is markedly limited. So, rationally or not, he or she would likely to experience a whole host of situations as threatening to survival. Merely a look of rejection or scorn in the eyes of a disapproving parent, for instance, can make him or her feel uncared for, unloved, and abandoned, compelling the feeling of numbing out. And this is why the freeze response occurs far more commonly in children than in adults.

Such “paralyzing” psychological phenomena as phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and various anxiety states can frequently be understood as symptoms of a freeze response that never had the chance to “let go” or “thaw out” once the original experience was over. And many features of post-traumatic stress disorder directly relate to this kind of unrectified trauma.

Though it’s almost always entirely unconscious, some circumstance in the here-and-now can remind you of a trauma suffered years (sometimes, many, many years) ago. Never fully “discharged,” the original fear or panic linked to that memory compels you to react to the current-day trigger as though what happened in the past is happening all over again. And so your original reaction of self-paralysis can’t help but repeat itself. Your mind goes completely blank, your rational faculties missing in action.

What was adaptive as a child, dissociating from an event vastly beyond your capacity to handle, can become frustratingly maladaptive as an adult. Paradoxically, at its extreme, a reaction of dissociation could be not at all life-preserving but, in fact, life-threatening. For when you’re stymied by inappropriate, exaggerated fear, you’re in no position to act sensibly to whatever might be menacing you.

It’s been postulated that dissociating in the midst of a traumatic experience is the foremost predictor for developing PTSD symptoms later on (see, e.g., van der Kolk & van der Hart, 1989). And, as already pointed out, young children are particularly disposed to dissociate during episodes of trauma. So, for instance, a child who “froze” during incidents of frightening family abuse is, as an adult, especially susceptible to experience the freezing reaction again. And sometimes the current stimulus for such retraumatization isn’t anything specific. It may simply emanate from being in a state of highly exacerbated stress, which itself serves as an unconscious reminder of the acute stress linked to the initial trauma.

So if any of the above descriptions describe you (or someone you care about), I can hardly overemphasize how useful it might be to seek professional help. That way you can finally “put to rest” what, at the time of its first occurrence, you weren’t able to. By combining psychology with basic principles of biophysics, what a large variety of trauma resolution methods make possible (e.g., Sensorimotor Processing, Somatic Experiencing, etc.) is the opportunity to release the residual tension (or internal energy) that was left unresolved even after the actual trauma was over.

Finally, many chronic, stress-related diseases are now postulated by trauma experts as representing somatic manifestations of past unrectified trauma. It may, therefore, be invaluable to find a qualified practitioner to assist you in locating just where in your body this frozen energy still resides. And then help you—at long last—to discharge it.

How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

Viola Corbezzolo / Getty Images

  • M.A., Technological Teaching and Learning, Ashford University
  • B.A., Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Cornell University

The goal of any individual living creature is to ensure the survival of its species into future generations. It is why individuals reproduce. The whole purpose is to make sure the species continues long after that individual has passed away. If that individual’s particular genes also can be passed on and survive into future generations, that is even better for that individual. That being said, it makes sense that, over time, species have evolved different mechanisms that help make sure that individual will survive long enough to reproduce and pass down its genes to some offspring that will help make sure that the species continues on for years to come.

Survival of the Fittest

The most basic survival instincts have a very long evolutionary history and many are conserved between species. One such instinct is what is referred to as “fight or flight.” This mechanism evolved as a way for animals to become aware of any immediate danger and to act in a way that will most likely ensure their survival. Basically, the body is at a peak performance level with sharper than usual senses and an extreme alertness. There are also changes that happen within the body’s metabolism that allow the animal to be ready to either stay and “fight” the danger or run away in “flight” from the threat.

So what, biologically, is actually happening within the animal’s body when the “fight or flight” response has been activated? It is a part of the autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic division that controls this response. The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that controls all unconscious processes within the body. This would include everything from digesting your food to keeping your blood flowing, to regulating hormones that move from your glands, to various target cells throughout your body.

There are three main divisions of the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic division takes care of the “rest and digest” responses that happen when you are relaxing. The enteric division of the autonomic nervous system controls many of your reflexes. The sympathetic division is what kicks in when major stresses, like an immediate threat of danger, are present in your environment.

Adrenaline’s Purpose

The hormone called adrenaline is the main one involved in the “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline is secreted from glands on top of your kidneys called the adrenal glands. Some things adrenaline does in the human body include making heart rate and respiration faster, sharpening senses like sight and hearing, and even sometimes stimulating sweat glands. This prepares the animal for whichever response—either staying and fighting the danger or fleeing away quickly—is the appropriate one in the situation it finds itself in.

Evolutionary biologists believe that the “fight or flight” response was crucial for the survival of many species throughout Geologic Time. The most ancient organisms were thought to have this type of response, even when they lacked the complex brains that many species have today. Many wild animals still use this instinct on a daily basis to make it through their lives. Humans, on the other hand, have evolved beyond that need and use this instinct in a much different way on a daily basis.

How Daily Stress Factors Into Fight or Flight

Stress, for most humans, has taken on a different definition in modern times than what it means for an animal trying to survive in the wild. Stress for us is related to our jobs, relationships, and health (or lack thereof). We still use our “fight or flight” response, just in a different way. For instance, if you have a big presentation to give at work, most likely you will become nervous. The sympathetic division of your autonomic nervous system has kicked in and you may have sweaty palms, a faster heart rate, and more shallow breathing. Hopefully, in that case, you would stay to “fight” and not turn and run out of the room in fear.

Once in awhile, you may hear a news story about how a mother lifted a large, heavy object—like a car—off her child. This is also an example of the “fight or flight” response. Soldiers in a war would also have a more primitive use of their “fight or flight” response as they try to survive in such horrific circumstances.

Panic attacks are one of those things that are a lot of people are a victim of. Feelings of panic can be very scary, but the feelings you have are your body telling you to fight or run away from the potential danger. Most panic attacks suffers have the feeling like running away when panic attacks happen. So why?

Fight or flight response mechanism is an adaptive function placed in us for the sole purpose of self-preservation. For most people these debilitating symptoms taper off and the body is restored back to it’s normal state. However, for some individuals, the adrenaline is not metabolized as easily and it may linger in the body longer. Hence, we need to look at anxiety as a physiological condition that needs behavioral adjusting, as opposed to a psychiatric illness.

So they are mechanisms that evolved to protect you in our normal circumstance; but now, in this moment, there is no real danger. Your instinct to run away during an attack of panic is a normal reaction, but you really need to go through the feelings of panic, to move towards them willingly. All you fear are these feelings fact, it is a fear of how you will fear when you get there. In one word, it’s not a real danger, but followed the normal reaction.

As to psychological factor, When you have a panic attack, epinephrine is released by the body and floods your system. Epinephrine is a “fight or flight” chemical that makes a person able to flee or fight an enemy or danger, which is a very useful characteristic for human survival.

Whenever excessive adrenaline is in your body, the effect is to supply more sugar to muscle tissue, make you breathe harder, and prepare you for action, so of course you are ready to run, However, there is usually no immediate danger to you, since a panic attack is a false alarm. Instead of running away, you should try to sit down, breathe deeply, and use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. Giving in to the impulse to run away is usually a mistake.

Whilst this kind of running away feeling is harmless, and is also quite disturbing. The Linden Method has treated tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of which experience either running away or fighting at some time. For more information about anxiety and panic attacks issues, please go to my site now at Free Panic Attacks. Take a moment to picture in your mind and really feel a life free from panic and anxiety!

Feel Free To Explore!

Being anxious is a normal and pretty healthy human emotion. It all goes back to when humans first started out. Back in the day we had to be alert for potential dangers such as predators and any other incoming dangers. If a predator was to approach us we would get a rush of adrenaline to our brains which causes us to go into fight/flight response. This prepares us to either confront the danger or runaway from it. Our fight/flight response usually triggers our heartbeats to increase, sweating, raised blood pressure or sensitivity to our surroundings.

We all have a fight/flight response. It’s a natural human instinct and it links to our anxieties. Those who suffer with anxiety are often in fight/flight mode. The only difference is that now our anxieties don’t so much focus on predators but on work, money, social circles, health, the world and so on. So pretty much everyday life…

Our fight/flight response to our surroundings is natural. You can’t change that, but as we have evolved our fight/flight response has taken a bit of a step back as we now don’t have to worry so much about being eaten by apex predators roaming around. Instead we now worry about meeting deadlines, exams, going to social events, changes in our routines, paying the bills, wondering if the world is still going to be habitable in 50 years time and so on. We now worry about a whole load more of crap that we can’t easily escape from. We can’t flee from a mandatory exam that could determine our future (that is however very debatable…). We can’t fight with our bosses about giving a presentation because it could lead to us getting fired, which then leaves us with no income and how can we pay the bills with no income? And then what will happen to us! Our anxieties nowadays are never ending. So even though sometimes it may seem like those with anxiety are being anxious about nothing, I can guarantee there will be a reason behind it. The reason could be something that to you might seem small, pointless or stupid but fuck, it sure as hell doesn’t feel like that.

Anxiety isn’t something that isn’t easily controlled but what helped me was understanding what anxiety is, what sets my anxiety off and then finding ways to manage it. I found it extremely difficult to manage my anxiety before I had any understanding of. How can you manage something that you have no understanding of? You’re gonna struggle and it’s gonna feel like a losing battle.

When I had my mental breakdown, shortly after I began online counselling which was focused on providing me with information about my mental illness’s and changing my point of view on them, myself and my life. Not only did I find this interesting but it helped me out so much. A few weeks into the programme and I had already learned so much about myself and about what goes on in my head.

At the start of my anxiety journey I had suffered with a few different types of anxiety. These were:

General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). This is pretty much your everyday anxiety disorder. This form of anxiety makes you anxious everyday about anything and everything. This is the type of anxiety that makes it hard to pinpoint what it is that is making you anxious. It is probably the most common type of anxiety.

Panic Disorder. This links to panic attacks. Panic attacks tend to build up but then escalate very rapidly (I’ve written about a couple of my panic attacks which you can read here and here). Panic attacks can leave you terrified of going to certain places, seeing people or doing things again. They can happen with or without a trigger which can make the experience and aftermath confusing and frustrating.

Agoraphobia. This is often a misunderstood type of anxiety. Agoraphobia is the fear and avoidance of certain places, situations or events and is a anxiety disorder that manifests as a fear, especially where escaping may be difficult. It often develops after having a panic attack. My agoraphobia is linked to public transport, crowded places, public toilets and shopping centres.

Social Anxiety (or can be known as social phobia). This is the type of anxiety I still really struggle with now. It is a fear of any sort of social situation which could result in negative judgement, humiliation, criticism or embarrassment. It can make meeting new people, public speaking, catching public transport, forming intimacy or going to social events very difficult.

Knowing that there were different types of anxiety and knowing which types I had allowed me to categorise my symptoms, effects and causes (by doing this I also felt more organised and in control of my anxiety). I knew that when I had a panic attack whilst out with friends it was linked more to my social anxiety (the social anxiety flares up which then leads to the panic disorder). I knew that if I began to panic whilst on public transport it was to do with my agoraphobia. Knowing this made me feel better. It helped me feel closer to myself. I understood myself more rather than being confused about why I acted a certain way, avoided certain places/situations or why I panicked so much.

Understanding your anxiety is the best starting point. By understanding it, you allow yourself to see your anxiety in a different light which helps with the process of coping with your anxiety and helps you gain a new sense of control.

You don’t have to go to a doctor to be able to understand anxiety. There are so many books out there and endless amounts of articles available to you for free online.

Don’t be afraid of researching mental illnesses.

How to fight back the human instinct to flee when you panic

Conflict does not get resolved when the stress response takes over. Learn how to heal the fear that activates your fight or flight response.

The fight or flight response is a natural response to danger. Our bodies are created to fight or flee when danger is upon us, such as being attacked by a mountain lion. When faced with this kind of danger, the stress hormones pour into our body, causing some blood to leave our brains and organs and go into our arms and legs. This is vital to us if we are actually being attacked by a mountain lion or a mugger. The problem is that this same response occurs when we become afraid in other situations, such as conflict with a partner.

When in conflict with a partner, we need to have the full capacity of our minds to deal rationally and lovingly with the situation. Yet the moment we become afraid, some of the blood leaves our brain, we cannot think as well, and we automatically go into fight, flight or freeze. That is when partners tend to fight or withdraw, neither of which leads to conflict resolution.

Obviously, fighting, fleeing or freezing are not the best ways of dealing with conflict. Yet when fears are triggered – fears of losing the other through rejection or abandonment, or of losing yourself and being controlled by your partner – the stress fight or flight response is automatically activated and you find yourself fighting or shutting down. No matter how much you tell yourself that next time you will respond differently, the moment fear is activated you automatically attack, defend, yell, blame or shut down through compliance or withdrawal.

What can you do about this?

There are two solutions to this dilemma.

  1. The moment there is tense energy between you and your partner, it is best for both of you to walk away from the conflict for at least 15 minutes. During this time, you can calm down and do an Inner Bonding process. As the stress response leaves your body, you can think better. This allows you to open to learning about your end of the conflict. Once you are clear about what you are doing that is causing the problem and what you need to do differently, you can reconnect with your partner and talk it out. Sometimes there is not even anything to talk out, because the conflict was about the fight or flight reactions rather than about a specific issue. More often than not, it is the stress response itself that is the issue. When you take the time to calm down, you might be able to apologize for your anger, blame, defensiveness or withdrawal, and the conflict is over.
  2. The second solution is a longer-term solution. This is about doing enough inner work with Inner Bonding so that your fears of rejection, abandonment and engulfment gradually diminish. The more you learn to value yourself, rather than expect your partner to define your worth and lovability, the less fear you have of rejection. The more you learn to take loving care of your own feelings and needs, the less dependent you are upon your partner. When your fear of rejection diminishes, so does your fear of engulfment. People give themselves up and allow themselves to be controlled and consumed by their partner as a way of avoiding rejection. When rejection is no longer so frightening, you will find that your fear of being controlled diminishes.

The less fear you have, the less you will be triggered into the stress response of fight or flight. The more secure you feel within, due to learning to value yourself and learning to take loving care of yourself, the less fear you will feel in the face of conflict. This is when you stop being so reactive and are able to remain open and caring in the face of conflict, and this is what opens the door to conflict resolution.

There is no point in continuing a conflict when one or both of you are coming from fear. Continuing a conflict when the fight or flight response is activated will only erode your relationship. Until you can stay openhearted in a conflict, it is best to continue to follow through on the first solution – taking a time-out until you feel openhearted.

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The cerebellum causes the body to freeze in place when we’re frightened.


  • What Is Fear?
  • Find a therapist to combat fear and anxiety

When you feel scared, is your impulse to freeze in place, flee, or fight? All three responses have a neurobiological foundation that is necessary for survival. Obviously, depending on the circumstance, there is a need for each three of these instinctive responses to a perceived threat.

Fight-or-flight has been studied in depth. Exciting new research from the UK is looking into the neurobiology of the “freeze” response. Before deciding to flee or fight, most mammals freeze for a few milliseconds to assess the situation before making the next move.

Sometimes staying frozen in place is the best defense, sometimes it’s not. One problem with the freeze response in daily life is that it can cause people to become paralyzed by fear.

For the first time, neuroscientists at the University of Bristol have identified a brain pathway that may be the root of the universal response to freeze in place when we are afraid. Their revolutionary study—released on April 23, 2014—discovered a chain of neural connections stemming from the cerebellum. When activated by a real or imagined threatening stimuli, these neural connections can cause the body to automatically freeze.

The new study titled “Neural Substrates Underlying Fear-Evoked Freezing: The Periaqueductal GreyCerebellar Link” was published in the Journal of Physiology. The Bristol researchers believe that understanding how these central neural pathways actually work will bring us closer to developing effective treatments for emotional disorders such as panic attacks, phobias, and general anxiety.

What Brain Regions Are Involved in Our Fear-Evoked Freezing Response

The periaqueductal grey (PAG) is a brain region responsible for dictating how humans and animals respond to perceived danger. The PAG has long been known to receive various inputs about potential threats and trigger automatic reflexive responses that cause us to: freeze in place, give us the bloodflow to swiftly flee, or the adrenaline rush to fight.

The University of Bristol neuroscientists have identified a specific brain pathway leading from the PAG to a highly localized part of the cerebellum called the pyramis, which causes the body to automatically freeze in place.

The researchers discovered the pathway linking the PAG to the cerebellar cortex, which terminates as climbing fibers in lateral vermal lobule VIII (pyramis), in adult rats. If you’d like to read more about the cerebellum and climbing fibers check out my recent Psychology Today blog post, “Neuroscientists Discover How Practice Makes Perfect.”

The central neural pathways involved in fear-evoked behavior are similar in most mammals. If neuroscientists can identify how these pathways work in animal studies, it could lead to the development of effective treatments for human emotional disorders.

Conclusion: Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

These new discoveries on the neurobiology of fear responses are a first step toward better understanding the role that the cerebellum might be playing in the paralyzing power of anxiety, phobias, and fear in general.

As an athlete, I have always found it helpful to surf between a cerebral (or “top-down”) approach to navigating fear responses that are coming from the “bottom-up” via the brainstem, cerebellum, and the subsequent fight-or-flight reaction of the sympathetic nervous system.

The new findings from the research team at Bristol offer helpful insights for better understanding the root of paralyzing fear coming from deep inside the brain. Fear-evoked freezing is a universal response. Luckily, each of us can flex some cognitive muscle to override these innate neurobiological impulses.

Taking a few deep breaths in any fearful situation will stimulate the vagus nerve and the “rest-and-digest” aspects of the parasympathetic nervous system. This relaxation response unclamps the neurobiological grip of fear and allows us to “unfreeze” and move freely.

Although this research is in its earliest stages, the initial findings are promising. Dr. Stella Koutsikou, the first author of the study, believes that identifying the actual neural circuitry linked to fear-induced behavior is the key to developing more effective treatments for emotional disorders linked to a fear response.

In a press release, Bridget Lumb from the University of Bristol concluded: “Our work introduces the novel concept that the cerebellum is a promising target for therapeutic strategies to manage dysregulation of emotional states such as panic disorders and phobias.”

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

  • “The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure”
  • “Neuroscientists Discover How Practice Makes Perfect”
  • “No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect”

​​​​​​​Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.