Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Fight or Flight

Imagine, it is somewhat around midnight, you are walking alone down a dark deserted street and then you hear steps right behind you. Or imagine you are a student, doing your final exam; you turn over the paper and see the questions you have never seen before. In both situations your heart will probably start beating faster, skin will get gold and you will start breathing extensively. When you perceive danger, a part of your brain sends a nerve impulse and hormones are released into the bloodstream, causing these changes to hopefully sharpen your senses and make you perform at the best of your abilities. This is so-called “fight or flight” phenomenon.
Fight-or-flight response can be defined as a “sequence of internal activities triggered when an organism is faced with a threat; prepares the body for combat and struggle or for running away to safety; recent evidence suggests that the response is characteristic only of males”.
For many years the idea that in the face of stress, the organism either fights or  takes flight, was predominant and the only truth in psychology. However this universal low of Western psychology was once questioned by Shelly Tailor and her students (2000) at the University of California. Interestingly, they found that the hundreds of studies of the fight or flight response to stress were done on…males. Male albino rats, male monkeys, male humans. The outcomes of those studies were that in the face of stress we either fight (therefore are strong, “real men”) or we fail…Furthermore, we respond alone, we are either “lonely heroes” or “lonely wimps”.
When Taylor and colleagues replicated these studies on females, a very different picture emerged. Facing the stress, females tend to move towards others, they start taking care of, move towards close proximity, groom and communicate. This phenomenon was called “tend and befriend” response. It was suggested, that one part of it can be determined biologically, that there is a release of oxytocin (“bonding hormone”) for females when they are stressed or vulnerable. This hormone is released in pre- and post-birth in mothers and in all women when they during times of stress.
There is no doubt that biology plays an important role in our behaviours, but one can barely explain all the gender differences in that way. Doctor Judith Jordan (2010, p.216) points out that “the response to stress they found does not appear to be about just “getting support” or “calling a friend to complain” (nothing wrong with either of these), but there is a “befriend” piece. In our language, it is about something mutual–reaching out to give, reaching out to receive. It is about building connection, and to stretch it a bit, I think it is about the practice of building courage in connection”.
Being together helps us cope, helps us to feel that we are not alone, facing our vulnerabilities and anxieties, helps us to feel that we are part of something larger than our own particular fear. How many times have you heard as a compliment “you think like a man”? We are grown up in an individualistic society, cultivating courage and “being a man” is the highest exhortation in our culture, it carries a notion of courage, strength and pride. “Be a man” – you hear it so often. Regardless of who you actually are biologically and regardless of the mask you have chosen, ask yourself time to time: “am I a “real man” and do I really allow myself not to be one? Do I allow myself to be vulnerable and seek help?”.
Men and women…we are different, indeed, and perhaps different for a reason…

Taylor, S. E., Cousino Klein, L., Gruenewald, T. L., Guring, R. A. R., Lewis, B. P., & Upgdegraff, J. A. (2000). Behavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-andbefriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107(3), 411-429.

Jordan J.V. (2008) Valuing Vulnerability: New Definitions of Courage, Women & Therapy, 31 (2-4), 209-233, DOI: 10.1080/02703140802146399

By Anastasia Burelomov
Counseling Psychologist

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