The Fear Effect: Fight, Flight… and Maybe Something Else


You are standing as nonchalantly as you can, your back pressed against a tree a few yards from the edge of a cliff that drops down a thousand feet to a dry riverbed. You know that only because your friend is describing it to you.

“Come. Have a look,” she says.

She is standing at the edge, at the very edge. The toes of her shoes are actually over the precipice. You cannot believe how foolish she is being. A gust of wind might be enough to send her over. What the hell is she trying to prove?

She looks back at you, smiling, and waves you over. “Come see this! It’s amazing!”

You feel like screaming at her. Instead, you inch towards her, your pulse quickening. Your neck is stiff. Your movements are awkward. You feel tightness in your arms and shoulders – even in your face.

You think of yourself as a courageous person. You’ve had pet snakes. You’ve been in fights. You once swam out into the ocean in a raging storm to save a drowning man. Yet right now, right here, you are absolutely terrified.

You move forward to a point where you can peer over the edge but not straight down. Despite your friend’s urging, you won’t go any farther.

“I get it,” you say, almost angrily.

You retreat to where you were, back against the tree, watching your friend standing there, at the end of a flat rock cantilevered out into an abyss of certain death. Her posture is relaxed. Her body movements fluid. Her voice is soft and playful. It only makes you feel worse.

“Okay,” you think, “driving home later that day. “So I’m afraid of heights. Isn’t that normal – even healthy? Isn’t it a perfectly intelligent fear, one that will keep me alive?”

The next day you spend an hour researching fear. And yes, it turns out that fear has an evolutionary purpose. It is an “adaptive behavior” developed over millions of years to help humans survive.

In fact, fear is among our most useful emotions. Without it, says Martin Rossman, author of The Worry Solution, we would be doing all sorts of life-threatening things… such as driving against traffic or stepping inside the gorilla cage at a zoo.

“Evolution has wired us to pay attention to things that are scary,” Rossman says. In fact, he says:

The number one function of our brain is to keep us alive, so we worry as a way to anticipate possible dangers and problem-solve our way through them. All of us come from vigilant ancestors – if they hadn’t been vigilant, they wouldn’t have survived.


The Biology of Fear

Our fear response is located primarily in the amygdala, a part of the brain that plays a key role in coordinating the behavioral, neuroendocrine, and prefrontal cortical monoamine responses to psychological stress.

Blood flow is diverted from the digestive organs and face, head, and neck and directed to the heart, lungs, and muscles. The heart races. Blood pressure increases. The muscles tense. At the same time, fear flushes us with adrenaline, which prepares the body for flight (running to escape) or fight (fighting to protect self/property).

Fight or flight. That is the popular notion.

But in fact there is a third survival response. And sometimes, when the threat is either far away or overwhelming and inescapable, that’s the one our brains opt for: giving in.

You know the feeling. You want to run or fight but you cannot. You are stuck, frozen. Your muscles go slack. You can barely stand. You may even faint. Neurobiologists have also noted that the body becomes numb and unreactive to pain.

As with the flight and fight responses, giving in has a biological cause. It happens when the blood flow is diverted to the heart, lungs, and muscles too quickly. This is accompanied by autonomic inhibition (hypotension, bradychardia), and a more pronounced increase in the neuroendocrine response (activation of the hypothalamopituitary-adrenal axis and increased glucocorticoid secretion).

What’s the evolutionary purpose of this?

It could be a last-hope response…

You’ve accidently wandered close to the den of a big, brown bear. The safety of her cubs is threatened. She attacks you. You run. And as she closes in on you, your body goes limp. You fall to the ground. She grabs you with her teeth, shakes you, and drops you. You know her teeth have cut into the muscles of your back and shoulders but you feel nothing. You lie there waiting for the end, but it doesn’t come. The bear has turned around and gone back to her cubs.

Or it could be something else: a giving in to death.

The fear of death is universal and it is deep. It could be said that all fears are rooted in the fear of death, the fear of the extinction of the self.

So perhaps this third response is some sort of ironic natural blessing: nature’s way of allowing us to surrender to the inevitable.

Fight/flight on the one hand. Yielding on the other hand. Contraction and expansion. The two opposing energetic impulses that are everywhere and always in our universe.