The Fight-or-Flight Response and Tough Conversations

In Glacier National Park, there’s a mountain overlooking the lodge called Mount Cannon. It’s named after a physician and his wife who summited it for the first time in recorded history during their honeymoon.

Dr. Walter Cannon was a truly remarkable man. In addition to being the first to summit several mountains in North America, he’s also the scientist who introduced the case-study method to medical schools.

As the head of the Department of Internal Medicine at Harvard Medical School in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, he found that the textbooks were incredibly boring. Students were drifting off to sleep in class. He knew something had to change, so he brought in his colleagues and patients to talk about the work they’d done that week… and students stayed awake.

Other faculty started to notice, and pretty soon Harvard formally adopted the case-study method of teaching medicine and attributed it to Dr. Cannon.

He’s also known for bringing X-ray technology into medical research. Until then, X-rays were useless for studying internal organs. Dr. Cannon invented what we now call the Barium Meal which makes the digestive tract visible to X-rays.

As impressive as all of that is, he’s most known for his work during World War I.

A Dramatic Discovery

When World War I broke out, Dr. Cannon decided he could serve his country better by quitting his job at Harvard and going to France to serve as a battlefield physician.

He soon discovered that more people die in battle due to shock than from their wounds alone, which is still the case today. At the time, though, there wasn’t a model for understanding what shock really was, so he developed one.

He found that when you’re in shock, the body’s flooded with adrenaline and blood rushes to the major muscle groups.

This is great if you’re facing a vicious predator but horrible if you’re gravely wounded, because you have a catastrophic loss of blood pressure, which causes you to bleed out and die. He then coined the phrase “fight-or-flight” syndrome.

This is Your Brain on Stress

Scientists have been building off his research ever since, and we’ve made some fascinating discoveries.

Amy Arnsten is the director of Arnsten Lab at Yale Medical School and studies the effects of adrenaline on the brain. (Any time you have a lab at Yale University named after you, you know you’re doing something right.)

In her article The Biology of Feeling Frazzled, she describes what happens in a stressful (even minorly stressful) situation.

Adrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine) floods your brain and acts like a switch. It turns off your prefrontal cortex — the logical reasoning part of your brain — and it turns on the amygdala, which is the gateway to the lower brain — the part we share with reptiles.

When that happens, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is, when you’re operating out of your lower brain, your reaction time is much quicker. Your hearing is enhanced and your vision becomes more acute.

The bad news is that your verbal skills drop to almost nothing.

This is fine if you’re squaring off with a vicious predator, but if you’re facing your boss or spouse, it’s not a good thing.

Tough conversations in high-stakes situations can often put us in this “fight or flight” state where we’re likely to turn to silence or violence — to withdraw and avoid the conflict or lash out in a hostile way to defend ourselves. Neither way is healthy, and almost always makes the problem worse.

We need to develop skills and strategies for leveraging out of our more primitive reptilian brain back into our prefrontal cortex where we can come up with logical, rational, and understanding based solutions.

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