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Can Our Fight-or-Flight Instinct Ever Be Harmful?

Adult survivors of child abuse sometimes overuse their internal panic button.

Key points

  • Adult survivors of child abuse may have relied on internal fight-or-flight responses to survive abuse in the past.
  • Fight-or-flight doesn't always serve us when reacting to everyday situations and can cause harm to personal and professional relationships.
  • A calmer outlook allows us to assess if a reaction is needed and, if so, what might help a situation rather than create more complications.
Anna Tarazevich/Pexels
Source: Anna Tarazevich/Pexels

We hear a lot these days about “fight or flight,” a concept credited to American physiologist Walter Cannon, and described as an internal response to the perception of a potentially harmful event. While this reaction to stress was perhaps useful during days when Neanderthals needed to quickly assess whether to flee from oncoming peril, its overuse in modern society can sometimes result in harm when we’re misperceiving an event as a threat that could endanger our lives. For those of us who are adult survivors of child abuse, which includes me, this can be even more true.

There was a time in my life when I relied on my internal fight or flight response to survive. I didn’t describe it like this at the time. I was very young and acting purely on instinct. But there were many occasions that my and my younger sister’s lives were in literal danger, and I had to react quickly and succinctly to stave off what could have been very grave results.

But that was then. This is now. And I have come to learn that my internal panic button (or fight or flight response) gets "hit" all too often—even sometimes when reacting to seemingly mundane situations. This has led to what’s been perceived as overreactions on my part that have resulted in the loss of a friendship or a professional setback. Yes, stuff happens that we don’t like. But we’re not always in severe jeopardy. This thought-out assessment isn’t always available to those of us who, as young children, were put into dangerous situations that could have resulted in real harm if we couldn’t somehow navigate our way out of them.

Recently, a friend of mine who also happens to be an adult survivor of child abuse was notified that a meeting had been scheduled between her and the head of her department at the end of the day, on the last day of the month. My friend was sure this equated to her being fired. She couldn’t imagine why. But she just knew that meeting with her department head with this kind of timing spelled “clean out your desk and don’t show up for work tomorrow.”

Despite being a savvy individual, my friend panicked—even as I and others tried to help her to be present and breathe through the situation. In other words, we were encouraging her to not overreact. Well, she didn’t want our encouragement. Aside from logging onto LinkedIn and sending out a few resumes, she also began to belittle her company and her department head. My friend became ugly in her discourse and suddenly everything was about getting revenge on this organization that was taking her for granted and unceremoniously dumping her.

Cut to the meeting, when my friend was told by the department head that her direct supervisors knew how hard she (my friend) was working and wanted to know if she needed any additional staff. They were so impressed and happy with her output, they wanted to do anything they could to make her position with the company more satisfying.

No dumping. No contempt. No taking my friend for granted. Yet her internal panic button (or fight or flight response) had indicated otherwise. In this case, she hadn’t verbalized her anger to her supervisors before the meeting. And she hadn’t enacted any of her revenge tactics on the company—but she had certainly planned them out. And while there was no harm done to her or her career in the long run, the mental state she was in for the days leading up to the meeting was very detrimental to her, both mentally and physically, in regard to stress on her body.

As I coached my friend through this situation, I recognized myself in many of her actions. As children being raised under extremely abusive conditions, we learned we could rely only on ourselves (often after seeking help from others). I remember there was a time when I was younger that I called the police to report my extremely abusive parents and ask for help. Not only did the authorities not believe me and refuse to intercede, but when I hung up the phone, I discovered my mother lurking nearby, fuming over what she had just heard. This memory gives me chills to this day. And reminds me why my own fight or flight instinct remains so prevalent.

But that doesn’t mean I should give in to it. This instinct can confuse us, lie to us, and even cause us to perform actions that result in us harming ourselves, friendships, family, career, or even our own health. Never has the need to be present and not necessarily respond in the way our initial impulses tell us to been more necessary.

A calmer and more accepting mind can create better solutions. And sometimes solutions aren’t even warranted, as in the case of my friend who thought her career was over when the exact opposite was true.

A first step can be recognizing when we’re hitting our own internal panic buttons too frequently. Our initial reactions aren’t always the most reliable. Just being aware that this might be a pattern is a beautiful first step. And this can be done without shaming ourselves for using an internal instinct that perhaps saved our lives long ago. Compassion for ourselves is as mandatory as not reacting to perceived obstacles quite so quickly. Only then can we begin to truly assess a situation and what might be done to resolve it.

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