Responding with fight or flight

Oct. 1, 2008

     The fight or flight syndrome or, 'fight or flight reflex', happens when a person experiences drastic bodily changes when presented with a threat. It is important that those in law enforcement in particular recognize this condition, and know how to respond to someone experiencing it.

     Although most people could recognize the physiological changes in individuals faced with danger, the concept really wasn't developed (and the name "fight or flight" coined) until psychologist Walter Canon described it in the 1920s. Canon made some unique observations about the connection between bodily functions in extreme emotions.

     Fight or flight initiates in an area of the brain that is mediated by primitive or instinctual thoughts and emotions. The brain goes about its business in a normal manner until a novel stimulus is presented. This stimulus goes from the sensory cortex and eventually the brain stem. When a person is faced with a perceived life-threatening crisis, certain bodily functions are attenuated while others temporarily cease.

     The activation of the sympathetic nervous system includes response from the adrenal medulla, the part of the brain that puts adrenaline into the bloodstream. The adrenal medulla secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine, and the body goes into alert mode in seconds.

     The Rube Goldberg effect to the human body continues. The heartbeat increases and blood pressure rises. The respiratory system experiences a rapid improvement in efficiency as airway passages dilate and oxygen is exchanged at a rapid rate. Peripheral blood vessels constrict as blood is shunted from skin and external areas and moved towards skeletal muscles. Digestive muscles halt their rhythmic contraction of peristalsis, prioritizing bodily functions to the body's immediate need. The liver begins converting glycogen to glucose, adding to the instant energy equation. Besides increased strength, an individual's face might have a blushed appearance, owing to the blood moving away from the skin surface and rushing to the vital organs that need it most, including the brain.

     Finally, the pupils dilate and the cilia behind them accommodate to improve visual acuity.

     The officer with this response has a surge of strength that does not match his usual output. It reduces his ability to perform fine motor skills, but increases his overall speed, power and fatigue reduction of skeletal muscles.

     The reduction in fine motor skills is quite pronounced. Officers interviewed following shooting or hand-to-hand incidents have reported an inability to write in their notepads, button their shirts or insert their keys in the ignition. However, the officer may have flung someone his or her own body weight, forced open a heavy door or sprinted beyond the normal range of speed.

Train for it

     Tactical trainers have become intelligent in the gross/fine motor skill disparity. Intricate defensive tactic movements are less useful than take downs, and firearms trainers use body indexing movements like placing the fingertip on the front side of the magazine when performing a reload. Administrators should consider what training systems are used to train their officers and how useful they will be when fine manipulation skills are limited. For example, martial arts instructors teaching students to kick a knife out of the hand of an assailant is unreasonable.

     Avoid safety equipment that requires fine motor manipulation to make it work. For example, do not issue a flashlight requiring the beam to be adjusted each time it is turned on, and avoid devices that rely on tactile ability alone. An example of this is a remote illumination switch on a shotgun. If it can get caught somewhere and render the light useless, use another method.

     Training should include startle response safe handling of firearms. To a individuals with adrenaline in their system, a 15-pound long trigger pull is unnoticeable. Train with the finger off the trigger and immediately correct any officer who does not comply.

     The fight or flight syndrome is mediated by an officer's perception. That is, what one person may perceive as a threat, another may see as a routine incident. An excited neighbor who gets in the face of an experienced brawler may get a "ho hum" response. If the same excited neighbor gets in the face of someone unfamiliar with butting heads, the response may differ. This is an important training concept: The sympathetic response can be partially offset by training.

     Fight or flight is also a protective response. The increased strength and other benefits improve chances of survival. Blood is pulled away from skin surfaces to minimize bleeding when a person is cut. Individuals also experience an increase in the immune system. In an excited state, injured officers may not know or acknowledge their injury. Post incident, assume any injury is worse than the victim says it is.

     This response also alters perception. Officers can experience tunnel vision, where the focus is on the perceived threat; and visual acuity, where some things are seen with unusual clarity. Officers experience slow motion time or time distortion, and often a sense of disassociation or detachment. Some have reported automatic responses to certain things, memory loss and brief periods of false memory.

     Regular training helps officers manage perceived threats. Because the adrenaline dump should be used sparingly, agencies have a responsibility to give officers the tools for better threat recognition

     An officer's perception of administration should not be a factor. If a civilian has a breach in judgment, usually the consequence requires cleaning up a mess or doing some work over. If an officer makes a mistake, things can come to a screeching halt. If the officer perceives that he will not be treated fairly in a situation, especially a high-risk situation, his decision-making process will be similarly diminished.

Factors in altered decision making

     The concept of altered perception is an important aspect for the administrator. For example, consider taking cover in preparation to deploy, but waiting out non-compliant, non-physical threats. A person who just had an adrenaline dump may be inclined to force the hand. Supervisors should assume that a perceived critical incident has taken place and allow the involved officers to prove otherwise.

Sequester the officer

     After the incident, any words coming out of the involved officers' mouths will be tainted by their aroused system. Do not allow them to make any type of statement to anyone for any reason. Have a fellow officer with him and give that officer the authority to intercede on his behalf. Sequester them.

     Have a policy for a blood test, measurement of vital signs and control of involved weapons in place before an incident occurs. The policy should state that the officer's weapon should be entered into evidence immediately and a replacement firearm should be given to him in the same motion. Do not delay the replacement firearm, even for a minute, lest it be perceived as an afterthought.

     Anyone who makes a public statement concerning the incident should have a repertoire of "It's too early to tell … At this time, this is all we know" statements.

     It is the parasympathetic system that brings the body back to the "rest and digest" balance. Its triggering is also mediated by perception. If the officer feels like he needs to be on his guard post incident, the calming effect is delayed.


     Prolonged or repeated activation of the sympathetic nervous system results in stress disorders. A stressed person may experience loss of sleep, which only leads to more stress. Stress can also affect sexual appetite or performance, which can then compound other relationship problems. Extremes in stress disorders manifest themselves in the form of PTSD and panic disorders.

     The other parts of the stress equation are the post critical incident signs. These include fatigue, upset stomach, muscle twitching, headaches, shock, weakness and dizziness. The person can suffer mental confusion, which may show up as difficulty with problem solving abilities and unfamiliarity with familiar situations. How long these symptoms last may depend on the effectiveness of coping mechanisms used by the officer.


     Constant adrenal exposure is hard on the heart. Fortunately, there are things that administration can do to empower the officer:

  • Have a policy in place that encourages officer to use vacation time, rather than cash it in. Stress is cumulative and vacation is a good way to discharge it.
  • Have a physical fitness policy that encourages cardiovascular health and competency in defensive tactics. Fitness is effective against prolonged stress, and it will also give an officer an edge during critical incidents.

     Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches Administration of Justice at Hartnell College in Salinas, California.

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