Dennis R. McGoughFight or Flight?

Dennis R. McGough, Ph.D.

We are all familiar with the phrase, “Fight or Flight”.  It was popularized in the book, The Wisdom of the Body, written in 1932 by Walter Bradford Cannon, M.D., a department chair and professor at Harvard Medical School.  This reaction to stress occurs in many animals when they face a perceived threat or attack and they prepare to “fight” or “flee”.

The reaction is physiological and triggers an immediate secretion of hormones into the bloodstream of the threatened animal, preparing it to fight or flee from the perceived threat.  Heart rate and blood pressure increase, in order to send maximum blood to the muscles.  Skin veins may constrict, allowing more blood for muscles and causing the “chill” we may feel when we are under stress.  Large muscles tense, ready for fighting or fleeing.  Tiny muscles attached to hairs in the skin grow tense, causing the goose bumps we may experience during these times.

Picture a gazelle peacefully grazing on a savannah somewhere in Africa.  All of a sudden, the gazelle senses (sees, hears or smells) the presence of a lion.  This sensation triggers the fight or flight response in the gazelle.  Successfully fleeing from this threat will require all of the body’s systems to function at maximum efficiency to support the tremendous muscular exertion necessary.  Stress reactions are complex.  Many animals will attempt to flee if threatened.  However, they will fight to-the-death if cornered.

Prehistoric human beings faced very real threats from animals and even perhaps other humans.  Their survival depended upon their ability to respond immediately to potential threats.  Planning wasn’t all that helpful, responding instantly was.

Fortunately, we don’t have to outrun lions, but when we find ourselves in a conflict situation with family members, neighbors, contractors or merchants, we may experience our own version of the fight or flight response.  We may come to believe that our only options are “fight” or “flight”.

Interestingly, neither of these options typically leads to a satisfactory solution.  If we choose to “fight”, the conflict usually escalates, leading only to a more serious situation.  This escalation can cause a potentially manageable state of affairs to spin out of control, virtually eliminating any real hope of a meaningful resolution.  In addition, if the fight turns physical, possible injury and very real legal consequences await.

If we choose the “flight” option, we may indeed escape the immediate problem, but we are then plagued by resentment and anger, because the conflict still exists.  Escape, it turns out, is only temporary.

Great news!  There is a solution that doesn’t require fighting or fleeing.  It is mediation, a process whereby both parties in a conflict work with a trained mediator to develop a solution acceptable to both parties.  Mediation Services of Adams County is dedicated to helping people resolve disputes.  MSAC provides trained mediators, whose goal is to help individuals develop agreeable solutions to conflict situations.  To explore how mediation could help you, contact MSAC at 717-334-7312, online, or see our website at

Dennis R. McGough, Ph.D., is a MSAC board member, retired business executive and member of the adjunct faculty of the Graduate School, University of New Haven, West Haven, Connecticut.