The Great Fight or Flight Hoax: Why What You Know About Panic Might Be Wrong

Friday, March 28, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

Fight, flee, then find yourself a girlfriend. Because nothing is more effective than female to female support.

The fight or flight response is what people generally refer to when discussing high anxiety or panic. This reaction, mediated by the central nervous system, is what motivates self-defensive behavior through physical changes. It alters breathing, heart rate and emotional response, a combo which can lead to scary thoughts.

 However, in women, this response may more accurately labeled "tend and befriend". According to research published in "Current Directions in Psychological Science", the panic response is an evolutionary imperative that drives us to attach with those around us as much as fight or flee1

Get by with a little help from our friends? If by "get by" you mean don't freakin' die, then yes.

Tend and Befriend, Another Response to Fear Besides Fight or Flight

According to Taylor, ancestral women saddled with young children would not be able to simply fight or flee. Think how hard it is just to make dinner with a young child...or god forbid two.  Now imagine that instead of trying to chop onions you are trying to protect yourself and all of your curious offspring against a saber-toothed tiger with a club. 

Killing a tiger isn't super feasible even without kids. Some days, I can barely make dinner. 

So, instead, humans survived based on strength in numbers. And women were especially susceptible to this strategy because of our tendency towards cooperative breeding2, or raising children in groups.

"All the ladies in the house say, 'Hey!' No seriously, say it loudly so we can scare this fucker away."

Current hormonal input reflects this drive. In women, but not in men, the fight or flight response triggers the release of Oxytocin, a hormone involved in attachment and social connection. When anxious, women don't just fight; we are also hard-wired to seek social support and connection in order to feel more secure. While in the past we may have sought safety in numbers before attempting to beat the shit out of something, today we rely on conversation and other social connection models. 

Did you need another reason to hang out with your girlfriends? You're welcome.

The strong relationship between female social support and evolutionary survival cannot be overlooked. It mediates stress responses but also more debilitating conditions like Postpartum Depression. It may also be the reason that we are so susceptible to elements of female to female shaming and other forms of social imbalance. An ancestral women without support was one who was not likely to survive. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Mothers and Others
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explores the history of maternal drives and assistant caregivers

From Panic to Power: Proven Techniques to Calm Your Anxieties, Conquer Your Fears, and Put You in Control of Your Life
Techniques for reducing anxiety and living a happier, healthier life.

The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Primatologist/biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress and your brain. Good stuff.

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior
Useful information and tools for addressing obsessive or scary thoughts and the behaviors that go with them.

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns