Communication 101: Amygdala in Control: Fight, Flee or Freeze

I have a story for you. It’s a beautiful sunny day. You are walking along a wooded path, and you accidentally step on something. It’s just a touch, not a squash. You look down and find a large snake. He looks up at you with his beady eyes and says, “Excuse me sir, but you almost stepped on me. I know you did it by accident so no worries. Good day to you.”
Isn’t this story stupid in so many ways? Even if snakes could talk, what would the usual response of a snake be when it gets startled by you stepping on it? Would it thank you and lie there, basking in the sun? No! When you walk by and actually step on it, it feels threatened. You are 50 times larger than it is. It can bite you. Or it can just slither away. Contrary to popular belief, snakes don’t bite people because they like to, they do it to defend themselves, to fight off danger. Frequently, they just take flight. All animals, even the smallest invertebrates flee instinctively upon feeling threatened or bite or sting. ‘Doe in the headlights’ is a cliché for the freeze reaction.
So are those circuits there in humans? Do we instinctively do things when we are threatened?
Of course! Through millions of years, humans evolved from lower animals with whom they share this set of responses. Early humans lived in caves and hunted for food. In jungles full of predators, fleeing without thought would be a frequent life saver for our early ancestors. You don’t stand and argue about the merits of elk meat versus deer meat when you meet a Saber toothed tiger, you run! Simple.
The part of that controls these essential survival instincts is one of the most primitive among the various divisions of our brain. It is called Amygdala, and is a part of the limbic system of the brain. When we sense danger through our eyes, ears or skin, the brain goes into an urgency to protect life and limb. It shifts from higher processing and thought centers in the cerebral cortex, to the default survival mode. It hands over control of the body to the amygdala. The amygdala knows only three actions. So, in the face of a threat, the default actions are to fight, to take flight, or to freeze in place.
These critical survival skills are not useless even in the present day and time. Let’s say you are crossing the road and a car appears out of nowhere. You don’t just stand there and cerebrate: calculating the velocity of the car and conditional probability of it not hitting you, given that the driver has seen you. Your limbic system takes over and you either try to protect yourself by standing there and putting your arms in front of your face (fight), or best, jump out of the way (flight). Unfortunately some people may freeze in place, but by and large, the system works well to protect us in a myriad of dangers of daily life.
This system is good in most cases but many-a-time, it goes horribly wrong. Let me give you a few examples of that happening. A friend asked me recently if as a presenter or speaker, it is acceptable to attack back, when an audience member attacks us verbally. The answer is obviously ‘No, it is not acceptable’. However, all too often we see presenters attacking back. With equal, if not greater frequency, we see presenters turning red, fidgety and perspiring profusely in the Question and Answer session following a confident presentation. A close friend once told me that by the time he reaches the middle of his presentation, he starts thinking that he is wasting the audience’s time and that they are waiting for him to get over with it; starts sweating profusely and has an overbearing urge to end the presentation abruptly and flee the stage. Ever felt stage fright yourself? I have, and I am sure pretty much everyone who reads this knows well what that is.
So what is going on here?!?!? Abuse in response to abuse? Fighting? Turning red and sweaty on a confrontational question during the question answer setting? Stuttering and going blank on stage? Freezing? Wanting to leave the stage abruptly? Fleeing?
The answer is really simple. We perceive a threat. In case of abusive feedback and confrontational questioning that threat is from a hostile audience member, and in case of the presenter wanting to run away mid-presentation, from the combined energy that the audience is beaming at him. As soon as we perceive a threat, our brain shifts to default mode and hands over control to the amygdala. We respond to abuse with abuse (fight) without thinking what the consequences would be for our image that the audience takes home. Our sympathetic nervous system, designed to aid us in fleeing from a threat, causes massive release of adrenaline from our adrenal glands. We breathe faster and shallower; the hearts starts beating faster, and our muscles tense up. Legs can feel like jelly and hands can spontaneously start fidgety movements. We start stuttering. This whole series of physical responses would be very appropriate if we were facing a lion in the jungle, but now we are not. We are facing an audience, and our body is acting as if we were facing a lion. This is really not going well, right? And the worst part is, these things have happened to all of us during public performances at some point in our lives. We have all attacked critical audience members and later regretted what we had done. The problem is, this is all drastically wrong and we know the cause now. Can we do something about it? Yes, of course we can.
Once you understand that what your body is doing in such a circumstance is perfectly natural, only misdirected, then you can go about managing it. The objective of such management is to wrestle control of the body from the amygdala to the cerebral cortex. All our conscious thinking, analysis, cognition, interpreting spoken and written words, and fine motor skills (including speech) are controlled by the cerebral cortex and we want those back!
The first step in management is to recognize that you are shifting into the default fight, flight, freeze mode. This most often happens when we are facing a new situation, that the brain is not familiar with. A question we were not expecting, destructive feedback that was uncalled for, an uncomfortable audience reaction such as yawning.
The second step is to slow things down. Take a deep breath. Really deep! You have to take a full five seconds to inhale, and five to exhale. Now take another one. You are purposefully trying to give yourself time to recover from the default mode, as well as providing more oxygen to the brain, which had run out of it as a result of the shallow breathing.
When you have regained control of your body, then start analyzing the situation and rationally answer the unexpected question, or respond to the criticism in a civil and friendly manner. With full control, you can joke about the situation or simply choose to ignore the question and move to the next one.
If you are fearful about stopping in the middle of a presentation to breathe, consider this. In my personal experience, by the end of a 10-20 minutes presentation, the audience never remembers if a presenter stopped in the middle of the presentation to re-gain composure. They just don’t care as long as the content is interesting. I would suggest that it is much better to stop for 30 seconds in the middle and switch out of the default mode than continue the presentation with a face progressively turning red and legs wanting to quit.
Imagine, if the snake that I mentioned in the start of the post could think from his hitherto non-existent higher brain centers, he would probably thank you for the back scratching or at least tried to understand that you accidentally touched it and didn’t mean to harm him. Sadly, he couldn’t do all that so he followed the natural response and bit you. Please don’t act like the snake: don’t fight, freeze or run away. Analyze the situation and continue logically and reasonably.
In summary, humans, like all other animals, have a set of default physical responses of fight, flight or freeze that are vital for protection of life and limb. Frequently, these responses kick-in when we are presenting or performing in front of people. We need to recognize them, take our time to regain composure, and then continue, with our body’s functions firmly in control of the higher brain centers of the cerebral cortex, allowing us to think and act rationally and amicably.


About Dr. Hyder
Healthcare research specialist and communications skills trainer

2 Responses to Communication 101: Amygdala in Control: Fight, Flee or Freeze

  1. Salwa says:

    I have a huge stage fright issue I just cannot face a crowd. If I must I usually practice the content so well that I can look very confident as long as I am not interrupted, as a result of which absolutely nobody has any idea of what a stage-phobe I am. Even so, I find myself thinking later about the important points I missed out(even though I had worked on them, big bummer!) I guess the tactics you mentioned would help but still need courage and a LOT of practice. I suppose one way could be to move from presenting to smaller groups to larger ones at a pace one feels comfortable with. Once you get so used to being on stage its no different from everyday exchange, I guess that’s when you function at your most rational and aware self…

    • Dr. Hyder says:

      Preperation and rehersal are some of the most critical aspects of avoiding stage fright. A presenter forgetting the content of his or her presentation is like an actor forgetting a few dialogues of his. Rehersal, rehersal, rehersal! That is what will help you in not trying to remember what you had to say, mid-presentation.
      It seems easier to plan about going from smaller to larger groups, but the fact of the matter is that we frequently end up talking to groups of complete strangers. The more exposure we have had to formal presentations, the better we get at talking to complete strangers even if the content is unfamiliar to us.

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