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Learning to Operate Our Extra Fancy Fight-or-Flight Survival System

cockatiel laptop desk
Pearl is always ready to bounce right back into enjoyment of his life again, no matter how scary whatever-it-was happened to be.

I love living with companion animals for many reasons.

But one of the most compelling of these reasons (other than “cuteness,” of course) is this one:

When one of my trio gets startled, spooked or scared, their fight-or-flight survival response only lasts for long enough to shake it off and move along.

It’s pretty marvelous, actually.

Let’s take Pearl, my 21-year-old cockatiel. He is without a doubt our most anxious flock member….save perhaps for yours truly.

On an average day, I probably apologize to him one or a hundred times when some little micro-movement I make sends him into a tailspin yet again.

But he shakes it off with equal rapidity. One minute he’s on high alert, crest flattened, beak open and sharp, shrieking with the intensity of a petite prey animal desperate to avoid being somebody’s lunch.

The next minute he’s so over it… the point where I’m still cuddling him and reciting “I’m so sorry” like a mantra and landing one apologetic belly kiss after another right in the middle of his soft feathery chest and he is clearly at a loss to understand why.

It really is that quick.

I mention this because I have recently realized our brains are wired quite differently in this particular area, which I think is why he is so consistently happy and I am often so consistently unhappy.

Sure, Pearl and I share the same ancient so-called “reptilian” brain stem, the part that registers and reacts to fight-or-flight stimuli with the same basic pattern of system shutdown and reboot.

But for me, sitting right on top of that trusty and amply tested survival system is a large and pesky prefrontal cortex, jam-packed with features I will mostly never begin to comprehend or use.

I’ll give you an example.

In my family, we love Toyota. For those of us on a budget, the basic Toyota brand is fine. For those of us with a little more spare scratch, we like to upgrade to Toyota’s premium brand, Lexus.

I have driven Toyotas since I got my first car in college. I am still driving Toyotas. And they are still for the most part the sparse, utilitarian systems I know and love – cars built for driving and little else.

To this point, earlier this year when my 14-year-old Toyota RAV4 finally put its foot down and insisted on retiring, I upgraded to a new-to-me version of the same.¬†Want to know what its big extra-special “bells and whistles” feature is that still has me so excited? The auto trunk-pop button. This is the height of luxury to me – my old Toyota certainly didn’t have it.

My folks, on the other hand, have been Lexus lovers since around the same time period.

Lexus, of course, is just a Toyota in formalwear. After hurricane Harvey blew through two years ago and flooded their home, they were forced for the first time ever to purchase a brand-new (instead of a several years used) Lexus. They chose the new Lexus SUV – the slightly larger and lots grander version of my Toyota RAV4.

Wow. All I can say is, that thing has more features than my MacBook Pro. Even after two four-hour tutorials, neither parent feels well-equipped to do much more than turn the ignition and the radio on and off. I am not any better. Driving their car, with its full in-dash touchscreen computer and Siri-equivalent control system, it is all I can do to remember its main purpose is for driving.

So here’s my point. In my sweet interspecies trio of one cockatiel, one redfoot tortoise and one box turtle, I have observed time and again how well-served each one is by their more spare and eminently functional Toyota brain systems.

In other words, Pearl, Malti and Bruce don’t have to wade through loads of fancy extra features to find their respective fight-or-flight system’s on/off buttons or operate the system as a whole.

I do.

Thanks to the addition of a prefrontal cortex, which essentially is like popping a fancy Lexus frame over a utilitarian Toyota body, my survival system is packed with plenty of extras I don’t want, need or use.

For instance, I can put my fight-or-flight on pause, mute its alarms, turn the volume down or up. I can set auto-reminders to stay extra-watchful for certain types of threats. I can operate it in “offensive” or “defensive” mode. I can add emojis, expletives, customize its color palette, hashtag and share it if it seems appropriate. I can even go “stealth” and keep it running during the night while the rest of me is fast asleep.

This is waaaaaay too much detail for my reptilian brainstem to handle.

As a result, my fight-or-flight system operates constantly, always remembering past threats even while scanning the horizon for future threats. When something unwelcome happens during the course of the day, it is not at all uncommon for my reptilian brain to play it back for me, frame by frame, in excruciating technicolor detail that night in my dreams, just to make sure I don’t miss any opportunity to learn from that experience so it never ever happens to me again.

I do realize here that my enhanced brain system’s extra survival features are really just trying to protect me.

Like a super-computer mining for big data from a packed file cabinet chock-full of 49 years worth of stored information, they want to glean every scrap of information and knowledge from every single moment of every single memory of any time I have ever felt even the slightest bit threatened, in danger, angry, regretful, embarrassed, in the wrong, etc, etc, etc., so I can avoid ever going through that same experience again.

And I appreciate the sentiment. Truly, I do.

But where Pearl, Malti and Bruce get over whatever-it-was nearly instantly and get back to being the happy, cheerful, loving and lovable little beings I simply cannot live without, I often marinate for hours, days, weeks, sometimes years of self-recriminations, resentments, fears, forebodings, memories.

Thankfully, I have their example to remind me of what my overly sensitive survival system consistently fails to factor in: there is a whole life to be lived out there full of joy and wonder and delight if I will only follow their lead instead of my own.

With great respect and love,


Learning to Operate Our Extra Fancy Fight-or-Flight Survival System

Shannon Cutts

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

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2019). Learning to Operate Our Extra Fancy Fight-or-Flight Survival System. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Nov 2019
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