Hyperarousal: Beyond Fight or Flight

In a crisis, your choices are limited, but it’s not as bad as you think.

You may not realize the ways you’re already responding to acute stress.

We all learned this in biology class. When an animal, such as a human, is threatened, adrenaline floods the bloodstream, and the animal goes into “fight or flight” mode, otherwise known as “hyperarousal” or “acute stress response.”

Why is it important to realize what “fight” mode looks like? If you find that your anger and fear responses are ruling your decision making at crucial times of acute stress, then it’s critical to recognize when you’re having such a response.

But there are more choices on the list than just “fight or flight,” it’s not exactly a choice in the usual sense of having free will, and you might not even recognize that what you are doing is a hyperarousal response to danger. The hazards of modern life go beyond what we can simply run away from or turn and fight against, and our responses are likewise more sophisticated. It no longer looks like the biology textbook responses of fighting and fleeing predators.

To begin with, in modern society the “fight” response doesn’t usually involve “duking it out.” It can be “lawyering up” or breaking out the rule book to make an argument in your favor. It can be sarcasm or humiliation. You might fight alone in your car by talking out loud about what a useless nitwit your boss is as you drive home from the job you hate. There are many ways of “fighting back.”

Why is it important to realize what “fight” mode looks like? If you find that your anger and fear responses are ruling your decision making at crucial times of acute stress, then it’s critical to recognize when you’re having such a response. Faster breathing, sweaty palms, or a knotted stomach may be physical cues that your amygdala is in charge of decision making. The other thing to know is that the amygdala has a limited toolkit for problem solving. Whether in yourself or when you can see that another person is in hyperarousal, you can better understand motivations, predict behavior, and direct the situation toward a positive outcome.

Say you’re a high school teacher, and you call on a student who you know isn’t paying attention. The student snaps at you, says they don’t need to know this stuff anyway, and that you’re boring and you smell bad. Everyone else laughs. The student “fought” and for some values of the word, “won”: the other students think they’re cool and daring. You can discipline the inattentive student, but if they’re less afraid of detention than of looking powerless in front of the other students, then fighting works for them.

Emergency response is handled by a particularly limited—I want to say “stupid”—part of your brain, the amygdala. There’s more to stress response than “fight or flight,” but “think” is not on the list. You want to be able to address your problems with more than just a short list of solutions. But you physically, mentally, cannot think—really problem solve—until you can relax. Only then will you be able to digest the available information and use higher mental function.

Driving home from work, the teacher who has been humiliated by his student might appear to submit in the moment, but later “fight back” by screaming at traffic and beating on the steering wheel. And just as “fight” mode doesn’t look like physical violence, every time, “flight” doesn’t always mean that you’re literally running away. You might be “running away from your problems” when you feel pressed against the wall by quitting your job, ending a relationship, or moving out of town. But most of the time, you can’t fight your way out of a situation, and you can’t run away.


Have you ever felt like “a deer in headlights”? It’s the “freeze” response to danger, and like fight and flight, sometimes it’s counterproductive. In the case of a deer standing in the path of an oncoming car, if it seems impossible to either fight off the approaching danger or flee from it, the deer’s amygdala goes down its checklist, past “fight,” past “flight,” to “freeze.” Sometimes in nature, “playing ‘possum” works. (Just not with oncoming cars.) Whenever you “lie low” to avoid someone who will punish you if they notice you, you’re employing the “freeze” response to danger. The danger doesn’t have to be mortal: it could simply be that you don’t want to be disciplined or embarrassed.

So how else do we handle stressful situations? After “fight,” “flight,” and “freeze,” there are other possibilities, including “fawn,” “befriend,” or “posture,” “submit,” “fidget,” and even “faint,” depending on which professional’s research is being used to compile the list. Fawning, befriending, and posturing are related to submission. They’re variations on endearing yourself to those in power so that they will not hurt you.

And just as fighting can be played out in privacy, to allow your ego to survive the things you must do to physically survive, submission can also be an overt or subversive defense in a crisis situation. If you’re standing at the convenience store counter and suddenly, someone is pointing a gun at you and yelling at you to lie down on the floor, you take in the gun, the gunman between you and the door, and you do it, without even thinking about it, you don’t freeze (hopefully) but lie down and wait for the robbery to be over. This is overt submission. But another kind of submission is when you justify your pain and degradation by accepting the terms of an abusive workplace or relationship. Whether it’s a convenience store robbery or living under a corrupt regime, even the stupidest part of your brain knows when resistance is futile.

The stress of daily living can grind you down without touching you, this way, because you always stoop lower, having internalized the expectations of the person or system that abuses you. In Japan, there is a word for dying of overwork: karoshi. There is so much ego tied up in working hard and stoically that people, primarily men, literally work themselves to death rather than lose face. Just because we don’t have a word for it in English doesn’t mean the same thing doesn’t happen in the West. There may be a force in your life that is stressing you out on a daily basis, and to which you submit, until you realize what it is, and believe that it is worth the risk to fight for your life.


Read more on Emotional Intelligence on The Good Life.

Image credit: KellBailey/Flickr

About Justin Cascio

Justin Cascio is a writer, trans man, and biome. His most recent publication is a short memoir, "Heartbreak and Detox," available on Kindle.
You can follow him on Twitter, Google, and Facebook.


  1. Well done Justin….
    A couple million years of evolution didn’t anticipate “the rule book”-


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