Choosing Fight Or Flight Responses To Combat Stress

Article by Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ay) & Dr Manasa, B.A.M.S
We live in a stressful world. We are all stressed in one or the other way, by one or the other person or situation. There are many remedies for stress but the classic remedies are only two i.e. Go ahead and FIGHT or Step back and FLIGHT!! 

But most of us do not know when to fight or when to flight. We also do not know how to fight or flight.

The Fight Factor – Fight needs courage to take us ahead, it needs aggressiveness. We may have good quality and quantity of this virtue but we may not be sure if it would be a sensible decision to go ahead and fight. We are also not aware of the possible result. Winning is not a sure outcome. There is also a possibility to lose. This puts us in a condition of suspension. The strength of the enemy or the person against us on whom we are declaring the fight or the situation against which we are about to fight also matters. When we have lost many battles, ties and combats while fighting in the past, we may hesitate to take this step again!!
Read related: 24 Stress Management Tips: Pranayama, Meditation, Lifestyle Changes


The Flight Factor – Flight also needs a different courage. It is an outcome of our wisdom. It may be a result of recent and repeated failures while combating a stress causing person or situation. One may also opt to flight to play safe or to return back with more fortified strength and better game plan. Taking flight, as in fight, may also be an inborn attitude or quality or a virtue which has come due to practice, preaching, experience or influence of people having similar quality. The people who opt to flight in comparison to fight are not timid. They are often more sensible. They are trying to prevent bilateral or collateral damage. This virtue needs less aggression, a little presence of mind in understanding the strength and character of the opposite person or situation, a calm and composed mind.
Read related: Effect of Stress, Anxiety on Stomach And Intestines: Remedies

How to choose between ‘flight’ and ‘fight’ responses and what factors help us in doing so?
It is difficult to choose between ‘flight’ and ‘fight’ responses to a stressful event, person or trigger. This is because our responses, many times to stress is spontaneous and unplanned. But we need to respond to stress in one or the other way and we all do. Known stress or known impending stressful event is easy to handle because we can plan to combat these situations. But these situations hardly come our way. It is the unknown and suddenly appearing stressful events which keep visiting us often. We are not prepared for them but we need to answer these tough question papers also. If we are strong enough, we can handle them effectively. This also happens with the practice of handling them effectively or experience of encountering stressful situations at various junctures of life. Less courage, timid nature and in-decisiveness makes us victims of stress and we often land up suffering from stress of severe forms needing medical help or serious psycho-somatic diseases caused by stress.

The below mentioned factors, if effectively handled and also a proper understanding of stress and events related to it can help us to handle them in a better way. This will make our life easy and healthy.

Watch for your opponent’s strength and reaction before choosing to fight or to flight
Example – You see a snake in front of you. The snake is a stress or stress-giver or a stressful situation for you. How would you respond to it?

You have two options of dealing with this situation.

  1. You go ahead and attack the snake by hitting it to death. There is a chance that you hit it to perfection. You win. This is fight response. If you miss and if the snake strikes back and bites you, you lose and snake wins. This is a possible effect of fight response.
  2. You step aside or step back or wait till the snake passes away without meddling with it. Waiting for the snake to go away, by stepping back is flight response. Here you are not timid; you have taken an alternative way of getting over your stressful situation and a stress giving opponent by avoiding him. Here also you have played safe and it is a win-win situation for both you and snake.

Here we need to observe that your opponent (snake, in this context) is also at stress. Your opponent is also in a debate of choosing between fight and flight. Often it is wise to watch the opponent’s response to stress and take a decision and not go with pre-occupied mindset. Reading the opponent’s strength is also the key. If you feel that your opponent is weak and giving way, you can take an aggressive route and try to dominate with a fight response. If you feel that your opponent is strong and tending to attack you physically, mentally or verbally, you need to step back and behave submissive. If you respond, you will be the loser because you will be defeated all ways.

Wait for right time to fight or to flight
Example – Your boss shouts and abuses you. He has ruined your day. What is your response?

  1. You give it back to him, shout and abuse him; you are happy and think that you have won. You haven’t considered your position of authority while choosing to fight. As a response you may be given a notice, a threatening or forced to leave your job. You lose. Alternatively you may throw back the job at his face and fell that you have won. But as a matter of fact you have lost.
  2. You just keep silent and ignore. If you do it constantly he may think that you are too thick skinned and may stop attacking you. He may also feel that you are arrogant, non-responsive or irresponsible or a person who doesn’t have any feelings or emotions. How does his thinking bother you? You are not timid in this situation. You have selected an alternative way of tackling your stress causing source, your boss in this instance. The method you have chosen is stepping back. There is also a chance that he may apologize to you at some point, after realization. There is also another possibility that you can wait and give your part of explanation when he is in a settled mood. If it is your mistake, you can take time until he settles down and then apologize. This doesn’t make you inferior. You have bridged the differences and kept a good rapport with your boss at the end of the day.

This may be a case when you have a hot discussion or quarrel with your life partner, a friend, a foe, your parents, neighbor, someone in traffic, shop or bus or anyone for that matter. You need to be a judge of the situation and learn when to cross that line and when to step behind.

Reading the situation may work in your favor, if not immediately but at a later point of time.

Remember, you don’t win always
It is a human tendency that we get happy and carried away when we win. When we lose we get disappointed. This builds stress in us. When failure becomes a continuous process and when we are not able to break its consistency, the stress becomes severe. We start identifying ourselves with failure. In such conditions we always think negatively and step back even when we encounter simplest of stressful conditions.

It may be against a person, situation or time factor, you don’t win always. You are always a part of permutations and combinations of the dice thrown by life. Sometimes you win and some other times you lose. Try to take them and accept them as they come. Respect them equally. When you win, try to be a strategist and plan how to win better. When you lose, analyze your loss and make better strategies. You may not win at the very next attempt, but you will learn how to win over a period of time. If loss plays on your mind in a negative way that will always cause an unbeatable stress, because you have accepted failure as a part of you. Be happy when you win. Also be happy when you lose because life gives lot of chances. Nothing ends just like that and none of us are born winners nor do we have a fixed formula to win.

Check your ego and hard emotions
Egoism is an important factor which restricts, concise and constricts our thought process and the openness to accept things with broad-mindedness. With egoism predominating our mind status we wish to have whatever we want and also see whatever we want to see. This adds to our stress because egoism doesn’t allow us to take the ‘flight response’ and often drives us to fight. When we fight with egoism we will not have control over our mind and senses, our thoughts will be preoccupied. We rush into the battle with least or no preparedness and ultimately end up losing. Loss will eventually hurt our egoism once again and there is loss of confidence inwardly. This further enhances stress levels.

Similarly other hard and high end emotions like greed, selfishness, lust; enviousness, anger and possessiveness lead to high level of stress. In these conditions we should have a self control over our burning emotions and egoism and practice ‘flight response’ gradually. High end emotions also lead to excessive inflammation, degeneration and early ageing and destruction of cells and body functions.

Anxiety and curiosity will keep us hanging between fight and flight responses, indecisively.

Fear, Panic, Grief and constant depression will on the other hand push one towards the flight response as these people are less courageous to fight even a small quantity of stress.

Just Before Finishing
The flight response to stress is often preferred by many as it is safe and less damaging. You also need a mentality to forgive, forget and move ahead to take flight. On the contrary the fight response may yield good results in your favor and prove that you are a hero, a courageous and progressive individual but not always, and not as a rule. It is many times damaging and dangerous in nature.

It is always ideal and wise to take a middle way, to strike a balance between fight and flight responses and play safe to lead a stress-free life. But practically seeing it is difficult to hit this balance button at the right time because we respond to stressful situations and people randomly and spontaneously as and when they come. If we have an idea of impending stress, we could plan our fight and flight responses well in advance. Planning to maintain and balance stress and knowing our limitations in handling fight and flight responses arising in us, learning to dictate our senses and mind and not allowing them to go out of control to take untoward decisions will make us and help us to live a serene and stress-free life, to keep ourselves and our surroundings happy. Stress-free life makes our life and also the life of others living with and around us easy.
Click to Consult Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ayu)

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