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Fight-or-Flight Responses Unleash Our “Reservoirs of Power”

Reframing stress arousal as a tool (not an obstacle) can optimize performance.

Key points

  • Persistent overactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is linked to chronic stress, which can be detrimental over time.
  • However, short-term activation of the sympathetic nervous system can trigger an acute fight-or-flight response with many benefits.
  • New research suggests that teaching students to reframe acute stress arousal as something positive improves their academic performance.

"In times of strong excitement, a sense of overwhelming power sweeps in like a sudden tide and lifts the person to a new high level of ability. There is intense satisfaction in these moments of supreme elation when the body is at its acme of accomplishment." —Walter B. Cannon, Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage (1915)

Source: HaseHoch2/Shutterstock

Over a century ago, when Walter Cannon coined the term "fight-or-flight response," he asserted that the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system could be stimulated by both eustress ("good" stress) and distress ("bad" stress).

In his 1915 book, Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage, which recapped that era's latest research on the function of emotional excitement in people's daily lives, Chapter XII focuses on "the energizing influence of emotional excitement" and a "feeling of power" that is often unleashed by the fight-or-flight response. Cannon writes:

"The [extraordinary] abilities, both physical and mental, which men have exhibited in times of stress were dealt with from the psychological point of view by William James in one of his last essays (The Energies of Men). He suggested that in every person, there are 'reservoirs of power' which are not ordinarily called upon, but which are nevertheless ready to pour forth streams of energy if only the occasion presents itself."

Notably, when James writes about tapping into "our unused reservoirs of power" in this 1907 essay, the phrase is introduced in the context of a storytelling narrative about a friend who'd become a yoga devotee and learned to hack his nervous system using breathing exercises.

In the early 20th century, James wrote, "I am glad to have a European friend who has submitted to Hatha Yoga training and whose account of the results I am privileged to quote. I think you will appreciate the light it throws on the question of our unused reservoirs of power."

Flip the Script: Think of Stress Arousal as Something Positive That Unleashes Your Unused Reservoirs of Power

A new study from the University of Rochester found that teaching adolescents and young adults in community college classrooms to reappraise the physiological signs of a fight-or-flight response during stressful circumstances as an achievement-enhancing tool improved students' academic performance. These findings (Jamieson et al., 2021) were recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

In addition to improving exam scores, when compared to a control group, students who learned how to "reappraise stress arousal" had less math evaluation anxiety and more adaptive neuroendocrine responses, indexed by lower cortisol (i.e., "stress hormone") on test days. Reappraisal students also learned to reframe high-pressure exams as doable challenges, not debilitating threats.

"Whereas stress is typically perceived as having negative effects, stress reappraisal informs individuals about the functional benefits of stress and is hypothesized to reduce threat appraisals, and subsequently, improve downstream outcomes," the authors explain in their paper's abstract.

Reappraising Stress Arousal as Something "Good" Has Many Benefits

"We use a type of 'saying is believing' approach whereby participants learn about the adaptive benefits of stress, and they are prompted to write about how it can help them achieve," first author Jeremy Jamieson said in a September 2021 news release.

"People experience increases in sympathetic arousal—which can be sweaty palms or a faster heartbeat—during stressful situations. Instead of thinking of everything as 'bad' stress, stress responses, including the stress arousal, can be beneficial when it comes to psychological, biological, performance, and behavioral outcomes," he adds.

Take-Home Advice: According to new research from the University of Rochester, "reframing a stress response like sweaty palms or a racing heart can make a big difference to a person's mental health, general wellbeing, and success."

The latest 21st-century method of "reappraising stress arousal" aligns with how Walter Cannon and William James framed the fight-or-flight response over a hundred years ago when they spoke of the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system having an "energizing influence" that facilitates empowerment.


Jeremy P. Jamieson, Alexandra E. Black, Libbey E. Pelaia, Hannah Gravelding, Jonathan Gordils, Harry T. Reis. "Reappraising Stress Arousal Improves Affective, Neuroendocrine, and Academic Performance Outcomes in Community College Classrooms." Journal of Experimental Psychology (First published online: July 22, 2021) DOI: 10.1037/xge0000893

Walter B. Cannon. Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement. D Appleton & Company. (First published: May 13, 1915) DOI: 10.1037/10013-000

William James. "The Energies of Men." Science (First published: March 01, 1907)