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Wired for Survival

Understand and harness your body's natural stress response when it counts.

Matt Popovich/Unsplash
Source: Matt Popovich/Unsplash

Early Wednesday morning on June 14th, a gunman opened fire on a Republican congressional baseball team practice in Alexandria, Virginia. Five people were injured before police killed the shooter. This sobering tragedy reminds us how fragile life can be—but also that the human body is wired for survival.

Herb Jackson, a USA Today Network contributor, described the scene as follows: “A ball field became a battlefield and reignited the military training of some of the players, with one describing how he ‘Army crawled’ his way to safety while another, a former combat surgeon, worked to treat the wounded...” This brief excerpt highlights the involvement of the human body’s fight or flight response in survival situations.

Stress plays a critical role in life and death situations, and your body’s fight or flight response is essential to putting the odds of survival in your corner. Research suggests stress-harnessing strategies—situational awareness, mindfulness, and rehearsal—may help increase the chance of surviving an extreme event.

How the Body Responds Under Extreme Stress

The American Institute of Stress defines stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” When your body detects a threat, your autonomic nervous system sounds like an alarm telling you something is wrong. The amygdala, an area of the brain involved with emotions, memory, and survival instincts, is activated like a gas pedal hitting the floor. Stress hormones are automatically released, triggering your body’s instinctive reaction to danger. This stress response is one of the ways the body helps mobilize us to cope with survival threats, but it’s only helpful up to a certain point.

Sometimes the body’s fight or flight response is so intense that it can actually cause the body to lock up or freeze. In some instances, the freeze response is a good thing and could possibly save your life. For example, research on active shootings suggest that shooters are initially more likely to fire their weapon at people upright and running than people taking cover on the ground.

Yet, once the shooter begins approaching people lying still after the initial chaos stops, research suggests that one of the worst thing you can do is to remain frozen. A 13-year study of active shooting events in the U.S. suggests that your best course of action for survival at this point is to run away if possible—but escape is not always an option. In these situations, the Department of Homeland Security recommends that people try to subdue the intruder once they get close enough.

Then there’s the opposite of freezing under pressure. The body could kick into survival mode in situations where it’s not needed, setting off false alarms. For example, consider a veteran struggling to adjust to civilian life after returning home who hears a muffler backfire and dives for cover. The source of the noise was harmless, but this person’s body interpreted the loud noise as a combat threat.

Another danger is that your body might start to continuously release stress hormones like cortisol, which can become a threat to survival in its own right. This can result in a wide range of difficulties, from relationship problems caused by cloudy thinking to significant health consequences, like increased cancer and heart attack risks.

Ways to Harness Your Stress Reaction for Survival

Your body’s fight or flight response plays a valuable role in keeping you safe. But, as I’ve pointed out, sometimes your instincts may miss the mark and put you further in harm’s way. Thankfully, studies suggest that there may be some things you can do to hone your body’s stress response. Situational awareness, mindfulness, and rehearsal are three important strategies you can use to improve your chances of making good decisions and taking the right course of action when it matters most.

Everyone from first responders to military tactical leaders to survivalists swear by what’s called situational awareness. The US Coast Guard Training Manual defines situational awareness as the ability to "identify, process, and comprehend critical elements of information about what is happening...knowing what is going on around you.” Developing situational awareness fosters interacting flexibly with a threatening environment by anticipating potentially looming threats.

To engage with situational awareness, don’t try to focus on everything in your environment at once. Instead, be attuned to what doesn’t belong. Give your attention to what doesn’t make sense or is out of place around you. Next, scan your surroundings for pertinent information, letting the rest fall into the background. Loop in new information as it’s encountered. As well as you can, try to stay one mental step ahead of what is unfolding, anticipating obstacles or resources that circumstances might throw at you next.

Mindfulness is another way you can harness your physiological response in the wake of extreme stress. Simply stated, mindfulness is paying attention on purpose to one’s body, which is particularly important when encountering a threat. Though this may sound easy, it’s a lot harder than most people think. You likely spend a lot of energy and brainpower evaluating and judging your thoughts and feelings, this is especially true when catastrophe hits. Once the shock wears off, you are likely to experience some intense emotional, cognitive, and physical stress.

In practicing mindfulness, you might begin with some deep breathing; this can help start to calm your mind and body. Pay attention to how your body is reacting, especially to what your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are trying to tell you. Initially, try not to judge what is happening inside of you or around you. If possible, reach out to others to get their take on what is happening while listening between the lines to what is shared. Lastly, trust yourself and act on your intuition.

Rehearsal or practice is another way we can prepare for the worst. Did you ever have a tornado drill in grade school? If yes, you probably remember hearing an announcement come over the school intercom similar to this one: “Get under the desk, put your head between your knees, and fold your hands over your head.” It turns out your schoolteachers knew what they were doing.

Research has shown that there’s value in training for worst-case scenarios. It not only teaches us how to respond but also creates muscle memory or motor learning. This is the ability to perform movements without conscious thought. Neuroscience research has revealed that our brains prepare to move before we become aware of our intent to take action. The more you prepare for the unexpected, the more likely your training will take over when instinct takes the driver’s wheel.

My hope is that the closest you’ll ever get to an extreme event like the congressional baseball practice shooting will only be a drill. But if that's not the case, remember to be aware of your body’s stress response, practice situational awareness, and let your training take over if you encounter a threat and engage in mindfulness after the event. These steps cannot guarantee that everything will be all right, but studies suggest they may give you a fighting chance.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma.You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website

Copyright by Jamie D. Aten

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