Friday, December 7, 2012

Stress and Prejudice: The Fight-Flight Response

By now, everyone is familiar with the fight-flight response; that internal, brain-body reaction that occurs when we become afraid (flight) and angry (fight). It also occurs in more subtle ways when we become timid (flight) and defensive (fight). It’s the brain’s way of alerting us to a threat in the environment so that we can prepare to tangle with the danger or get the heck away from it. And this reflex - with all of its accompanying adrenalin rush - is often present when you don’t want or need it: giving a speech or trying to have an important talk with your spouse about the state of the “union”. 
T he stress reaction can leap out of nowhere: a current situation in your life taps an unconscious memory that makes you feel queasy. Your body is giving you a distress  signal that - once upon a time - this stranger you’re talking to reminds you of a guy/gal who bullied you in high school. You experience the feelings but not the bad memory that’s connected to him/her. You don’t know why but there’s an instant  dislike and aversion to this person. 
If we took ten people who stated openly - “I just don’t particularly care for people from that country” – and measured their brain-body reactions when talking about “those people”, we would find that their fight-flight response was activated at some level, from mild to extreme arousal. They might say, when asked about the origins of this dislike: “I don’t know, It’s just a gut feeling.” IF we investigated this response further, we would likely find some aversive memory associated with this automatic dislike that the group of ten was not aware of. This “memory factor” will be the subject of my next blog. For more info about stress and its effect on our lives, visit my website at

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