Apotheosis episode 28: To fight or not to fight. "Humans didn't arrive at the top of the chain by being the best lizards."

Episode 28: To fight or not to fight

Ryan D Thompson Calm, Modern, Neuroscience, Skills

Key ideas

The fight-or-flight response can keep us alive when faced with a threat. But our brains often prepare us for battle even when the threats are just words or thoughts. Pausing before responding to perceived threats helps expand our options.

  • When we’re under attack, we don’t always have time to think. When perceiving a threat, the body responds automatically, increasing blood flow, dilating the pupils, and shutting down non-essential systems in the body. The brain readies the body to fight or flee.
  • The fight-or-flight response has served the animal kingdom well for countless eons. However, humans face a far more complex world. Our brains don’t always differentiate between an actual, physical threat and one posed by words. An email, a social media post, or even a thought about a possible problem in the future can trigger the fight-or-flight response.
  • Yet the brain can rely on the context to flip between feeling threatened and feeling excited. A lion in the grass ahead could cause us to flee in panic – unless that same lion is behind a barrier at the zoo. Recognizing the context can diminish the grip of the fight-or-flight reflex.
  • Several actions can help create some space so that we can assess our options: pausing and taking a few deep breaths, labeling our emotions, and noticing sensations in the body. With this space, we can better see the context, question the threat, and devise reasonable responses.


You’re under attack. Your heart pounds in your chest so loudly you can almost hear it. You can feel your blood coursing through your veins. Your breathing speeds up. You feel your fists clench along with your teeth. Everything else falls away as your pupils dilate, and your vision narrows, focusing only on the threat in front of you. The response comes almost instantly – before you even have a chance to question your actions, you’ve lashed out at your attacker. They strike back, and the next thing you know, you’re locked in a full-on battle with this enemy in front of you.

Or wait, what just happened? Pause for a second. Rewind to the moment before the attack. Or was it an attack? You were reading a post on social media. You made a comment, and then suddenly, this dude – someone you don’t even know – came out of nowhere and said that you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about. Told you to “do your research” and “come back when you’ve found a clue.”

These were just words from someone who probably lives hundreds of miles away. They pose no danger, not really. And yet… your body responded as if you were being physically threatened. 

Just words, but the threat feels legit. Our brains don’t necessarily differentiate between a physical threat and a verbal or written threat. Or imagined threats conjured by the mind in the middle of the night as we ruminate about problems that might come to pass.

Perceived threats of any sort trigger the fight or flight reflex – and the physiological changes that accompany this ancient behavior. Our brains have been engaging in fight, flight, or freeze responses for countless millennia, which kept our species alive. But that same automatic wiring also means it’s hard to turn off – and to respond to challenges in more productive ways.

This episode is the last in a series on cultivating calm under fire. I’ll explore some ideas from neuroscience. I hope to gain insight into how we can avoid getting swept away by the fight and instead respond to inevitable challenges and conflicts with calmness and clarity. Our ancient lizard brain reflexes are still necessary when facing legitimate threats to our safety. But more frequently in the modern world, we need to be able to tap into the power of our advanced human brains.

Let’s go back to that threat. We experienced the effects on the surface: increased heart rate and breathing, dilated pupils, clenching muscles ready for action. But what’s happening in the brain? When we perceive a threat, a signal is sent to the amygdala and then the hippocampus for processing. If these regions detect a threat, they trigger the adrenal gland to release cortisol – often called the “stress hormone.” Cortisol increases the flow of blood and glucose while also slowing down non-essential organs and systems like the immune system – essentially readying us to fight or flee.

These responses have clearly worked, not just for humans but likely for the entire animal kingdom. So nothing to complain about here. Fight or flight works.

Problems with this ancient system only arise if you’re a human, so far as I can tell. Why? Because we’ve overgeneralized what we perceive as a threat. We see dangers all around us – although many of us rarely, if ever, face physical threats like lions or other predators. We might occasionally face threats like reckless drivers, belligerent drunks, or violent crime on the streets. But these threats are thankfully not nearly as common in this day and age. However, we also trigger the fight-or-flight response merely by hearing or reading the words of another human – even if they’re not in the same physical location. Clearly, our remarkable capacity to remember the past and envision the future is a tremendous gift – until we find ourselves unable to sleep, reliving an argument we had with someone last week or last year, or worrying about a possible conflict or problem in the future.

Unfortunately, this response isn’t always the most productive. For one, prolonged exposure to cortisol wrecks our bodies. Stress shuts down the immune system, as the body focuses all its energy on protecting itself from the threat. Long periods of stress thus leave us vulnerable to all manner of illnesses. We’re also not exactly tapping into our brain’s full power when we repeatedly turn to this lizard brain strategy. Humans didn’t arrive at the top of the chain by being the best lizards. No, we gained our status by using our rational brains, relying on higher-order thinking.

How can we cool the fires of fight-or-flight and tap into our better angels?

To start, it might help to explore how the brain considers what is and isn’t a threat. How does the brain differentiate between the threat posed by, for example, a lion ten feet away in the grass versus a lion ten feet away behind a barrier at the zoo? In both cases, there is a dangerous predator within striking distance. The critical distinction is context. While we know the lion is dangerous, we also know that it can’t reach us. Likewise, we might love going to horror movies or thrillers, where the thought of the danger gets our hearts racing – but we know that we don’t face any real threat.

Knowing that context matters to how our brains perceive threats, perhaps we can use this to our advantage. When we’re not legitimately under threat, it’s conceivable that we can train our brains to switch from fight-or-flight to a more adaptive response. 

For example, imagine the social media battle at the start of this episode. I know I’ve been there, opening up my feed and reading a comment that sure feels like an attack. Feeling that intense, visceral reaction. I start to feel my heart pounding, blood rushing, and suddenly I’m launching into a knee-jerk counterattack. Instead, I could pause for a moment. Flip the script. Rather than automatically taking orders from the reptile brain, I could take a moment to question: Why is my heart pounding? Do I need to rush into battle right this second? Am I really under threat? With this pause, we create the space to engage in a more effective response.

And it’s not just social media cage matches, of course. It could be any non-physical conflict that provokes the not-always-relevant fight-or-flight response. Someone talking over you in a meeting or belittling your ideas. An unfair article criticizing your work. A donor calling you out for falling short on your objectives. There are countless opportunities for us to get riled up and swept away by the amygdala’s threat sensitivity.

Knowing what’s happening in the body and brain and recognizing these signals gives us the power to resist following those reptilian orders. We have some good options at our disposal.

For one, taking a long slow breath is a proven way to reduce the body’s threat activation and tap into the calming power of the parasympathetic nervous system. Doing so returns our body to a resting state, slowing our heart rate and letting the body and brain return to normal duty. Taking a few deep breaths gives us some space between the event and our reaction to it. We can use that space to assess the situation. 

What am I feeling? Where do those feelings exist in my body? The act of labeling emotions can reduce the grip they have on us. It’s not trying to force them to go away, as that often makes them stronger. Instead, we can simply bring awareness to emotions to reduce their intensity.

Likewise, we can notice the sensations in our bodies. Is your heart beating faster? Can you feel the flow of blood in your veins? Are you clenching your fists or your shoulders? Just notice these sensations. Be aware of the rising energy in your body.

As we create some space using these three methods – slow breaths, labeling emotions, and noticing physical sensations – we can then question the response we’re about to make. We can recognize our body and brain preparing the fight-or-flight reaction. And then ask: am I really under threat? Is what I’m about to do or say the right action for these circumstances

If not, then perhaps we have some alternatives. Precisely what those alternative responses are will depend on the situation. It could involve analyzing the factors involved and considering possible outcomes. For example, back to that social media battle, if my goal is to change someone’s beliefs, what approaches are likely to achieve that? Is it even plausible? Is it worth my time now? As they say, it’s better not to feed the trolls – as annoying as they might be.

These kinds of analytical responses are the domain of the prefrontal cortex and other more evolutionarily advanced parts of our brains. And tapping into these parts of the brain for rational decision-making will make for ripe exploration in a future episode.

That’s all for this episode, which also wraps up this series on calm under fire. Check back again next week as I shift gears to some other skills for impact leaders. In the meantime, I have a favor to ask. If you find any value in this podcast, if you could leave a review or add a rating on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or whatever your podcast platform of choice, that would help a lot to reach others who might benefit from these ideas and practices. Also, be sure to check out the Project Indra website for more content and skills for impact leaders. Until the next time, be well!

Further reading:

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License