Fight or Flight

Fight or Flight:  What will you do?

If the truth be known, the fact is that no one truly knows what they will or will not do in extremely stressful circumstances until the moment of truth.  But, there are historical scientific studies that lend some aid in understanding animal and human behavior in response to extreme stressful stimuli.

The catch phrase, “fight or flight”, was first coined by Walter Cannon in 1929 or so.  It has been a phrase not only repeated many times in martial arts teachings, self-defense classes and military training, but used significantly by behavioral scientists, therapists and the like since its introduction over 75 years ago.  Since then, additional research studies has led to a necessity to modify the phrase somewhat to more accurately describe animal and human behavior in circumstances of extreme stressful stimuli – in the case of this book, when faced with immediate physical harm at the hands of another person.

In reviewing numerous works and studies performed in recent years, I discovered that there are additional factors worth noting here for the benefit of anyone desiring to better prepare themselves for the potential threat posed by other people.  Studies have shown that there are distinct differences between how men and women respond.  But, rather than get too technical and discuss the brain’s involvement in these predisposed psychological self-defense mechanisms, the resulting chemicals released and the overall effect all this has on you – I would prefer to leave it up to you to do your own research into such details while we simply outline the stages discovered by the more recent research.

“Freeze Response” = “Stop, Look & Listen Response” (Men & Women)

This can probably best be explained by thinking of how prey will ‘freeze’ when a predator is near to avoid detection.  This works primarily based on the fact that carnivores of the animal kingdom do not see color, but rely heavily on movement to detect prey.  Also consider how clinicians describe this phase in order to better understand how it helps in self-defense situations.  They usually refer to it as hypervigilence or being on guard or hyper-alert.  I think it is also important to keep in mind these specialists repeated use of the term ‘hyper’ under stressful conditions such as assault.  Many affects of the human body that occur naturally will put you in a state of ‘hyper’ this, that and the other thing.

“Tend & Befriend” (Women)

Numerous studies have discovered that women will protect themselves and their young as part of their nurturing trait, ie. the “tend’ term.  Another aspect to women’s behavioral response is “befriending” as seen in their forming of alliances in the group especially among other women.  In fact, it has been discovered that the brain produces a chemical in women under extreme stressful circumstances which has a calming affect and this chemical is not produced in men.

“Flee” not “Flight” (Men)

Notice here that the next stage is “flee’ and not “fight’.  This is the biological predisposed response order is the best way I know to explain it.  Because, social norms typically teach “fight’ next.  The fact that the biologically developed response is now in conflict with the sociocultural response order leads to many internal psychological challenges both during and after such overwhelming stressful encounter.  The last thing one wants is added stress or hesitation during a potentially deadly encounter with a predator.

“Protect & Fight” (Men & Women)

The next stage of in human behavioral response to extreme stressful stimuli is to “fight”.  Now, I add “protect” to my explanation merely because I have found that people – especially women (see notes above on “tend”) – are more likely to fight to defend their children than they are to defend themselves.  Knowing this helps to increase determination and motivation in students studying how to defend themselves.

“Or Fright” (Men & Women)

Sometimes fight is followed by or replaced by what is more easily thought of as ‘fright’ and clinically referred to as “tonic immobility.”  What?  Often times, many victims of rape or violent assault struggle with internal blame because they did not put up a fight or fight back harder.  Studies have shown that throughout the animal kingdom, animals seem to instinctively “play dead (tonic Immobility)” when struggling with a predator.  How does one know whether they will or will not fight back enough or not?  I tend to believe that you can’t ever know for certain until the moment of truth so to speak.  But, with sufficient training under reasonable adrenal stressed states, I have to believe that we can improve our chances greatly.

So, you might ask, what does this have to do with Gendai Goshin Jitsu or any modern self-defense art or instruction.  I say, it has everything to do with teaching and learning self-defense.  In all that we do, learning self-defense, should not go against our nature.  Anytime we attempt to go contrary to our nature we risk further hesitation in reaction, added stress due to the conflict between our nature and what we are taught and ultimately greater harm than good.  Like we state in other conceptual explanations in this book, we prefer to take ones natural tendencies and abilities and capitalize on them to improve the potential of all students when faced with extremely stressful encounters common in adversarial attacks.  And, although it may go against many martial arts teachings, instructing students to flee if possible not only complies with their biological wiring, but it complies with the laws in most states.

Doug Cobb


Go to Top