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Managing Our Fight or Flight Instinct in the Modern World

The stormy sky over our tiny green tent pitched in the middle of Palo Duro Canyon – a totally bear-free zone.

We homo sapiens really have come a long way over the last century. Heck, even over the last decade we’ve progressed in leaps and bounds.

In some ways.

In other ways, I sometimes feel like we haven’t even begun to catch up to ourselves.

I mean, it’s kind of amazing to think about how, in just the time I have been alive – not even five decades to date – we’ve gone from living in a world without email to living in a world where email becomes nearly obsolete in favor of texting and social media messaging.

Yet, all change aside, certain far older and chronically super-stressed-out portions of my brain haven’t quite gotten the memo that all the saber-tooth tigers are extinct and no one of my kind has been eaten for lunch in centuries.

This became particularly relevant recently when my friend and I hiked a portion of Palo Duro Canyon up in the Panhandle of Texas. During the night, the wind picked up and began pushing the sidewall of the tent on my side into my body. It was a light wind at first and then grew more forceful. Every time the wind gusted and pushed the tent wall against me I woke up, thinking it was a wild bear trying to get into our tent.

Finally, I had to actually put my hand on the tent wall and sleep like that to remind myself it was just a tent wall and not a wild bear (this even though I was later told there are no bears in Palo Duro Canyon!).

Interestingly, I actually have the same type of startle reflex when my phone rings unexpectedly loudly or when a neighbor gets a new dog that barks in an unfamiliar voice. 

No matter what the trigger may be, my brain thinks, “Wild bear! Saber-tooth tiger! Run!” And I have to go through the entire process of calming it down, soothing it, reminding it that all the bears live at the zoo and the only saber-tooth tigers left are safely ensconced behind museum-quality glass.

In other words, I have evolved so quickly that my own instincts can’t even keep up with the change going on all around me. The stress of all these false alarm alerts is literally killing me off, one cortisol-laced anxiety attack at a time.

Oddly, counterintuitively perhaps, what seems to help is to actually put myself back into the food chain now and again to remind myself of why those instincts are there. Taking myself back out to re-enact my wild past (well, sort of, anyway) reminds me of what my fight-or-flight limbic survival instinct’s original purpose was and why I need to thank it instead of getting mad at it and then getting mad at myself for listening to it.

When I forget that those instincts evolved to keep me alive, I can get really irritated at myself for being constantly stressed over this or that.

But when I remember that, even a few decades ago, missing one survival instinct alert might mean that day is my last, I can be kinder and gentler to myself when the neighbor blares his stereo and I react like a lion just roared behind a nearby bush.

Even more importantly, instead of flying off the handle and calling the cops, I can take some time to calm down first and then head over to gently talk to my neighbor, asking him nicely if he would mind turning down the volume. It is not a saber-tooth tiger, after all. It is only an Alexa that plays Susan Boyle on volume level “max” when he asks it to.

Today’s Takeaway: Have you ever watched yourself literally flying off the handle over some relatively minor, unexpected event – whether a sound, a change in plans, a sudden storm – and wondered “why am I reacting this way?” Could it be your fight-or-flight system is genuinely confused about what the threat level actually is? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Managing Our Fight or Flight Instinct in the Modern World

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2019). Managing Our Fight or Flight Instinct in the Modern World. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 May 2019
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