Fight or Flight? Not So Simple
Miller’s use of the terms ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ is in reference to the fight-or-flight concept developed by Walter Cannon in the 1920s. Cannon described a survival mechanism that was favoured in the natural selection process of biological evolution because it gave the individual a survival advantage. This mechanism involves ‘emotional excitement’ that motivates instinctive survival behaviours and stimulates an automatic physiological reaction that prepares the body to act these out.
This fight-or-flight response is often associated with fear; however, Cannon referred to two distinct emotions as catalysts: fear and anger. Fear motivates flight and prepares the body to flee, while anger motivates fight and prepares the body to fight. This is an important detail, because if fight was associated with fear, then there would be no need to overcome fear when the desired behaviour is to fight.
FEAR = FLIGHT
ANGER = FIGHT
It has been argued that ‘fight or flight’ mischaracterises the ordered sequence of defences. The overwhelming observation in studies of animal responses to threats is that fight is only chosen when flight has been obstructed (other than when alpha males of the same species engage in ritualistic battles for mating rights). The idea that fighting is the natural response to a threat when flight is obstructed is put to use by ancient warrior-scholar Sun Tzu in The Art of War: “Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight.” They may not really “prefer to die”, but they will certainly experience an innate fight tendency according to the fight-or-flight model.
Training vs Stress Training
In a 2008 book that focuses on soldier stress and performance (Stress Exposure Training: An Event Based Approach, Performance Under Stress), James E Driskell and his colleagues distinguish between training and stress training. Training is the acquisition of required knowledge, skills and abilities, and stress training is designed to prepare the individual to maintain effective performance of such skills in a high-stress operational environment (e.g. amid violence). Basically, the difference between training and stress training is that training is learning to fire a gun, while stress training is learning to fire a gun when someone is firing at you.
The stress-training programme that Driskell et al refer to is called stress-exposure training (SET). A more common name used to refer to these kinds of programmes by the military and law-enforcement is stress-inoculation training (SIT). SET and SIT have the same basic structure, which consists of three stages:
Stage 1 – Educational stage in which information is provided to the trainee regarding stress, its symptoms and likely effects on performance in the relevant operational setting.
Stage 2 – Provision of the specific cognitive and behavioural skills required to maintain effective performance in the stress environment.
Stage 3 – Application and practise of those skills in a graduated manner under conditions that increasingly approximate the operational environment.
Randori, shiai, sparring, free-fighting, combat sport competition, scenario-based training, simulations, etc. could all be included in stage three of stress training. Learning to voluntarily control one’s breathing rate (also known as combat breathing or autogenic breathing) during a violent encounter is an example of a skill taught during stage two of stress training. As for stage one, that’s a different story.
The first question that should be asked and answered in stage one of stress training is: what is stress? If you think you know, you don’t. As Hans Selye, the father of stress research, famously said: “Everybody knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.” It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into the ambiguity surrounding the concept of stress, but it will suffice to say that the stress discipline hijacked the fight-or-flight concept and shifted the focus from its aim — survival — to the effects of ‘stress’ on health and performance.
Regarding the preparatory information provided in stage one, Driskell and co talk about physiological, emotional and cognitive reactions. Among those reactions are the feelings of confusion, anxiety and fear. Confusion is a state of mind, not an emotion; however, they nail it when they refer to anxiety and fear. ‘Stress training’ is actually anxiety-fear training.
So what is stress training designed to do about anxiety and/or fear? Driskell et al explain that SET reduces the negative effects of stress reactions. Stress training assumes anxiety and/or fear to be present during a violent encounter and attempts to reduce the intensity of the emotion. But that is just one approach.
Using Emotion Strategically
In a 2006 article published in The Journal of Military Ethics entitled ‘Countering Fear in War: The Strategic Use of Emotion’, Roger Petersen and Evangelos Liaras propose that the central emotion of war is fear. They offer five possible strategies to counter fear, four of which employ our emotions:
1. Changing terror back into fear through rational discourse.
2. Inculcation (instilling)of hope.
3. Threat of shame.
4. The creation of anger.
5. The creation of spite.
Let’s look at these in detail:
1 Changing terror back into fear: Petersen and Liaras explain that with this strategy, leaders try to take the minds of their audience off images of personal death and disaster and focus them on the concrete actions necessary for defence. The idea is to reduce the emotional intensity and thus mitigate the undesirable effects of emotions. This strategy is reflected in teachings where trainees are taught to focus on the task and not the outcome — that is, to focus on the tactics and techniques and not on defeating the opponent or survival per se.
2 Instilling hope: Petersen and Liaras suggest that hope confronts terror on its own terms by directly countering terror’s effects. They explain that because they are contradictory, hope and terror cannot exist together: one must drive out the other. Imbued with hope, one becomes confident of surviving rather than gripped by fear of death.
Richard Lazarus explains that hope can galvanise efforts to seek improvement in an unsatisfactory situation and that without hope we are not likely to act on our own behalf (from ‘Hope: An Emotion and a Vital Coping Resource Against Despair’, Social Research, 1999). Fight activities (e.g. martial arts) are certainly interested in galvanising the efforts of a student to ‘seek improvement’ in a threatening situation by acting on their own behalf.
Psychologist Charles R. Snyder and his colleagues developed Hope Theory and provided a calculus for hope:
Hope = Mental Willpower + Waypower for Goals
Put simply, hope involves the will to get there, and different ways to get there. Without the will and the way, there is no hope. That does not mean that people do not attempt to seek improvement in an unsatisfactory situation and to act on their own behalves without hope. It simply means that they do so purely through willpower alone (see below).
3 Threat of shame: In this strategy, there is no effort to reduce or directly confront terror, no effort to change the calculation of death. The leader admits that death is a possibility, even a likelihood. Instead, the strategy is to transform the emotional frame to shift the focus to dishonour. Attention goes from the characteristics of the war and impending attack to the characteristics of the individual. The individual will be responsible for their own dishonour, which could be immense. In effect, the strategy of shame aims to shift the preference ordering to ‘death before dishonour.’
It is the threat of shame and not shame itself that is the driving force behind this strategy. And what’s our evolved response to threat? Fear.
William P. Nash (The Stressors of War, Combat Stress Injury: Theory, Research, and Management, 2007) explains that if death were truly the greatest fear of everyone in war, it would be impossible to motivate troops to stand and fight in spite of grave dangers to their personal safety. Warriors would never run toward danger instead of away from it. He suggests that it takes only a few moments of reflection for warriors to acknowledge that their greatest fear is not death but failure, and the shame that accompanies failure. More than anything else, warriors fear letting themselves down and letting their leaders and friends down at a moment when it matters most. They fear most not losing their lives, but their honour. It is paradoxical that with this strategy, fear is being used to counter fear.
What about actual shame and not just the threat of shame? After 35 years of working in prisons and prison hospitals, James Gilligan (‘Shame, Guilt and Violence’, Social Research, 2003) is convinced that the basic psychological motive or cause of violent behaviour is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation — a feeling that is painful and can even be intolerable and overwhelming — and replace it with its opposite: the feeling of pride. He explains that the steps leading up to acts of violence starts with a rejection, which elicits intensely painful feelings of shame to which the person responds with anger, which they then convert into an act of violence.
SHAME → ANGER→ VIOLENCE (FIGHT)
The shame anger fight process might also explain how the threat of shame works to promote fight behaviour. The threat of shame produces a fear of shame that is so painful it leads to anger, which is then acted out as violence.
THREAT OF SHAME → FEAR → ANGER → VIOLENCE (FIGHT)
4 The creation of anger:
Petersen and Liaras suggest that anger counters fear along many dimensions of emotion. They explain that anger creates a downgrading of risk, while fear increases risk-aversion. Anger increases prejudice and blame, as well as selective memory, but fear biases information-collection through an overemphasis on dangers. Anger heightens desire for punishment against a specific person or thing; fear may create a desire for fight that is less focused than in anger, or it may create a desire for flight from the dangerous circumstances.
The creation of anger is the most obvious strategy to promote fight behaviour, given it is anger’s natural ‘action tendency’. It is a tried and true strategy, as Sun Tzu suggests when he explains that in order to kill the enemy, men must be roused to anger.
A common strategy taught in women’s self-defence courses is to turn fear into anger. Anger’s action tendency is to fight, it reduces our inhibition to being aggressive, and the physiological reaction of anger also prepares the body to fight. It directs blood flow to the muscles required to fight and the sympathetic arousal and resultant hormonal cascade increases, among other things, our strength, speed, endurance, blood clotting (to prevent bleeding to death) and pain tolerance.
FEAR → ANGER → FIGHT
The use of anger to promote fight behaviour has a long warrior history. It is the defining feature of the cross-cultural ‘berserk’ tradition that spans some 3000 years. In his 2002 Journal of World History article ‘Berserks: A History of Indo-European Mad Warriors’, Michael P. Speidel explains that one had to be raging mad to do deeds of berserk daring. Berserk warriors would induce their rage by enacting behaviours that were designed to elicit that emotion. Shouting, singing, dancing (war-dances) and beating the chest were behaviours that berserk warriors used to rouse their rage. Speidel suggests that the psychological and physiological state of fighting frenzy with its rise of adrenaline levels could foster a belief that they were wound-proof, and that they were stronger and less vulnerable than others. The behaviour produces the rage that banishes fear, elicits the action tendency of fight, and produces a physiological reaction that is designed to prepare the body to fight.
5 The creation of spite:
With this strategy, the leader creates images of the happy, elated enemy after their potential victory. Under the sway of spite, the individual will fight to prevent the hated enemy from experiencing this undeserved joy. The soldier will wish to kill as many of the enemies as possible, even if victory is out of reach, just to diminish the level of the enemy’s exultation.
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Andrew Raynor New Hampshire