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The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Fight-or-Flight


Ready response. An emergency reaction in which the body prepares for combat or escape from potentially dangerous situations, animals, or people.

Usage: Many nonverbal signs (e.g., dilated pupils, sweaty palms, bristling hair [piloerection], and a faster breathing rate--along with squaring the torso for battle or angling awayto prepare for flight) are visible in stepped-up visceral feelings and body movements of the fight-or-flight response.

Evolution. Fight-or-flight is an ancient sympathetic response pattern which, in the aquatic brain, accelerated heartbeat rate, raised blood-sugar level, and released hormones from the adrenal gland, preparing an alarmed fish to chase-and-bite, or to turn-tail-and-flee. 

Facial color. Also called the "fight, fright or flight" response, the sympathetic nervous system may telegraph its state of mind in the whiteness (i.e., pallor) or redness (flushing) of the face. Pallor, associated with extreme fear or anger (rage), is caused by vasoconstriction of the facial blood vessels, brought on by the release of large amounts of adrenaline and noradrenaline. Associated with embarrassment or slight-to-moderate anger, a flushed face (which may begin with a faint blush at the top of the ears) is caused by vasodilation of the facial blood vessels, due to adrenaline. (N.B.: Currently, the physiological differences between fear and anger are not well understood.)

Observation. Fight-or-flight cues (see, e.g., CUT-OFFEYE-BLINKEYEBROW-RAISEFACIAL FLUSHINGFLASHBULB EYES, and HAND-BEHIND-HEAD) are visible not only in warfare and physical combat, but also in corporate meetings around a conference table.

Waiting. Human beings are easily angered when they are kept waiting in airline terminals, hospital emergency rooms, and heavy traffic. As adrenaline and noradrenaline levels rise, flyers, patients, and commuters may be more prone to aggression and violence than when permitted to move freely about. (N.B.: In England, more nurses are attacked in emergency departments than in psychiatric wards.)


E-Commentary: "I'm really interested on getting information about nonverbal language in aggressive people, fighting aggressors, flight-or-fight behavior, etc. I teach adrenaline conditioning training here in Mexico, and I really want to learn more to give more professional classes to my students. If I understand more about the body language of aggressors, attackers, and street people, it will help me a lot." J. M., Mexico (9/21/00 1:02:09 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes1. In the 1920s, physiologist Walter B. Cannon identified the sympathetic nervous system's emergency reaction, which prepared the body to exert high levels of physical energy (Cannon 1929). 2. In the 1930s, while stimulating regions of the hypothalamus of the cat, physiologist W. R. Hess identified the defense reaction, which included tendencies to fight or flee. 3. The fight-or-flight response is coordinated by central command neurons in the hypothalamus and brain stem which "regulate the sympathetic outflow of both the stellate ganglion and the adrenal gland" (Jansen et al. 1995:644). 4. ". . . the threshold for release of noradrenaline [the 'anger hormone'] to psychological stimuli is generally higher than that of adrenaline [the 'fear hormone']" (Mayes 1979:37).

Antonym: REST-AND-DIGEST. See also FREEZE REACTION.


Photo of Canada geese in flight (Spokane, Washington, USA) by Doreen K. Givens (copyright 2007)