How To Use The Fight Or Flight Response To Make Better Decisions

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Self-awareness benefits all areas of your life. People who rate high in self-awareness are better at building and maintaining relationships, communicating, and making decisions.

Studies show that 83% of top performers rate high in self-awareness skills.

Unfortunately, self-awareness isn’t easy. Psychologist Tasha Eurich states that 95% of people think they’re self-aware when only 10-15% are. 1

So this article is about becoming more self-aware. In the following paragraphs, I’ll explain how the fight or flight response can help you become more self-aware and ultimately make better decisions.

Watch the video version of this article or scroll to continue reading.

Are You Thinking Logically?

To understand how the fight or flight response can help you make better decisions, you need a basic understanding of how your brain works.

Your brain has two regions that help you stay alive—a thinking brain and a reacting brain. The thinking brain is responsible for all high-level thought—like planning, processing language, and design. In short, the thinking brain is smart but slow.

The reacting brain makes lightning-fast decisions that keep you alive—like jumping at the sight of a snake. In short, the reacting brain is fast but dumb.

When you are threatened or feel strong emotions, your body shuts off the thinking brain and passes information directly to the reacting brain. I refer to this process as flipping the logic switch—a topic I discuss at length in “How To Control Your Emotions Using The Logic Switch.”

When your thinking brain is shut off, you lose your ability to think logically. As a result, you’re more likely to make poor decisions.

Therefore, learning to identify when your thinking brain is turned off is a valuable skill. And that’s where the fight or flight response comes in.

Whenever you experience the fight or flight response, there’s a good chance your thinking brain is turned off. Therefore, understanding the fight or flight response and its symptoms can help you identify when you’re not thinking clearly.

The Missing F

The name fight or flight response doesn’t tell the whole story. We also freeze in response to threats. For this reason, I refer to the fight or flight response as the 3Fs.

Here’s an overview of the 3Fs.

The Freeze Response

Fight Or Flight Response—Freeze
The Freeze Response

The freeze response protects you from threats because objects that aren’t moving are quiet and hard to see. For example, a bear that cannot see or hear you will struggle to eat you. “Playing dead” is also a version of the freeze response, and it works because it makes a predator lose interest.

The freeze response is an energy-efficient first layer of protection. If the threat is not immediate, the freeze response ensures you do not waste energy on false alarms. The freeze response also carries the lowest risk of injury.

Unfortunately, the freeze response is often ineffective if a threat is unavoidable.

You might have personally experienced the freeze response if you’ve ever frozen after hearing a strange noise in the dark or been lost for words after someone said something insulting.

The Flight Response

Fight Or Flight Response—Flight
The Flight Response

The flight response keeps you safe by increasing the distance between you and a threat. You create this distance by running away or avoiding the threat altogether.

The flight response is more effective than the freeze response when a threat is inevitable. And, when compared to the fight response, the flight response has a lower risk of injury.

You might have experienced the flight response if you’ve ever jumped at the sight of a snake or avoided a party when you discovered your ex would be there.

The Fight Response

Fight Or Flight Response—Fight
The Fight Response

The fight response refers to both verbal and physical fights. Fighting protects you by either disabling your opponent or scaring them away.

Both forms of fighting bring the added risk of injury. A physical fight can injure your body, and a verbal fight can damage your reputation and relationships. In today’s society, fighting also carries the harshest consequences.

You might have experienced the fight response if you’ve ever been in an argument or defended yourself from a bully.

The 3Fs Symptoms

When the 3Fs are active, your body directs resources to life-saving functions. For example, muscle energy increases, and the pupils dilate to improve vision. At the same time, your body shuts down non-essential functions like digestion and reproduction.

This shift in resources produces physiological symptoms. You can use these symptoms as clues that suggest your thinking is impaired. 2 3 Here is a list of physiological symptoms you might experience when the 3Fs are active.

Body SystemSymptomBenefit/Effect
HeartIncrease in heart rate and blood pressure. During freezing, heart rate may decrease.Increased blood supply to the muscles. During freezing, a reduced heart rate can keep you calm.
LungsIncreased breathing rate and dilated bronchi. During freezing, the breath may be held or restricted.Increased oxygen supply to muscles. During freezing, restricted breathing assists in keeping you still and quiet.
BloodBlood thickensIncrease in clotting factor in preparation for injury.
Circulation1. Red face. 2. Pale Skin 3. Cold or clammy hands and feet.1. Increased blood flow to the brain. 2 and 3. Reduced blood flow to the skin, hands, and feet reduces bleeding in the event of injury and makes more blood available for critical functions.
MusclesTense musclesTense muscles are primed and ready for action.
EyesDilated pupilsDilated pupils let in more light and improve peripheral vision.
EarsIncreased focus directed toward hearingSharper sense of hearing.
DigestionNauseaReduced blood flow to the digestive system makes more blood available for critical functions.
BladderLoss of bladder controlMore energy is made available for vital functions.
LiverIncreased production of glycogen.Increase in available energy supply.
Nervous SystemDecreased pain perceptionAllows you to perform living-saving actions without the presence of pain.
Endocrine SystemShakingIncreased stress hormones like adrenaline keep you primed for action.
EmotionsFear, anger, anxiety.These emotions trigger the 3Fs response increasing your chances of survival.
AppearanceClenched jaw or fist, flared nostrils, aggressive posture.Aggressive body language can scare away an attacker.
MotivationAn increased desire to run, raise your voice, or physically attack.An increased desire to take these actions can save your life.

How The 3Fs Symptoms Can Help You Make Better Decisions

As you’ve learned, your thinking shuts off when the 3Fs are present. Therefore, by becoming aware of the 3Fs symptoms, you can identify when your thinking brain is impaired.

Knowing this, making better decisions becomes relatively straightforward. All you have to do is re-engage your thinking brain before making important decisions. Here’s how you can do that.

Your thinking brain shuts off when threats or strong emotions cause specific brain chemicals to elevate. However, when these chemicals return to normal, your thinking brain turns on again. This process can take anywhere from 6 seconds to 20 minutes. Therefore, you can re-engage your thinking brain by waiting.

Here are two examples that illustrate how this strategy can help you make better decisions.

A Conversation With Your Spouse

Assume your spouse says something during a conversation that upsets you. If you lack self-awareness, you might react and say something hurtful. However, doing so will only make the situation worse.

Here’s how you can use an awareness of the 3Fs symptoms to improve this situation.

When your spouse says something upsetting, you feel your face flush, your heart rate increase, and an urge to raise your voice. Your awareness of these symptoms helps you realize that you’re not thinking logically.

Then, instead of reacting, you take a deep breath and wait six seconds before responding. This pause gives your thinking brain time to re-engage and allows you to respond constructively.

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A Ski Trip With Friends

Imagine you’re an intermediate skier, and your friends are experts. They take you to a black diamond run and pressure you to try it.

As you look downhill, you feel a strong sense of fear. As a result, your thinking brain turns off, and two things happen.

First, with impaired thinking, you succumb to peer pressure and decide to try the run. Then, without the ability to focus and concentrate, you forget what you’ve learned in ski lessons. Your lack of technique causes you to crash, and you injure yourself.

Here’s how to use an awareness of the 3Fs symptoms to improve this situation.

As you look down the black diamond run, your stomach drops, and you feel the desire to turn around. Knowing your thinking is impaired, you back away from the trail and take a deep breath.

As your emotions settle, you regain the ability to think clearly, choose a safer run, and avoid injury.

How To Overcome Problems When Following This Advice

Remembering to pay attention to the 3Fs symptoms is the most common problem you will face. That’s because when the thinking brain is not engaged, it’s hard to remember anything.

You can overcome this problem by becoming more aware of sensations in your body. Then, anytime you feel these sensations, you can take that as a cue to pay attention.

Here are some actionable steps you can take to become more aware of bodily sensations.

1. Focus your attention on certain bodily sensations a few times per day. For example, notice how your feet feel on the floor, your watch feels on your wrist, or your sheets feel against your skin. The goal of this exercise is to improve your general awareness of bodily sensations.

2. Notice how different emotions make your body feel. The next time you are feeling strong emotions, pay attention to the sensations in your body. For example, if you are stressed out, your shoulders might feel tense. If you are angry, you might feel a rush of energy. And, if you are afraid, you might feel a pit in your stomach. The goal of this exercise is to make you aware of the connection between your emotions and your bodily sensations.

3. Figure out what sensations turn off your thinking brain. The next time you recognize you weren’t thinking clearly, try to remember how you were feeling at the time. So, suppose you realize that you had sweaty palms and butterflies in your stomach. In that case, you can use those sensations as cues to question your thinking in the future.

Note: Meditation has been shown to improve self-awareness. So if you’re looking for a convenient way to become aware of your emotions, you could try meditation.

How To Know When You’ve Taken These Ideas Too Far

Here are two signs that you’ve taken the ideas in this article too far.

1. You never take action. As you’ve learned, it can be a good idea to let your emotions guide your behavior. For example, it’s helpful when fear prevents you from skiing down a dangerous run. But this doesn’t mean you should always let your emotions guide your behavior. The truth is, some fears are worth facing. Asking for a raise, a date, or feedback on your performance are examples of fears worth facing.

2. You overanalyze every sensation in your body. Don’t use every sensation in your body as a reason to question your thinking. Instead, only examine your thinking when the situation matches the feeling. So, if you feel your heart rate increase while relaxing at home, there’s no need to question your thinking. But, if you feel your heart rate increase in the middle of a heated argument, take that as a sign to question your thinking.

In A Nutshell

Here are the key takeaways from this article.

  • All areas of your life benefit when you are self-aware.
  • Most people lack the skills necessary to be self-aware.
  • Understanding the fight or flight response can help you become more self-aware and make better decisions.
  • You have a thinking brain and a reacting brain. Your body shuts off your thinking brain when you feel strong emotions, or you feel threatened.
  • Without your thinking brain engaged, you lose your ability to think logically.
  • Learning to identify the physical symptoms of the 3Fs can help you determine when your thinking is impaired.
  • If the 3Fs symptoms suggest your thinking is impaired, let your emotions settle before making important decisions.
  • You can increase your awareness of bodily sensations by (1) focusing your attention on certain bodily sensations a few times per day, (2) noticing how different emotions make your body feel, and (3) figuring out what sensations turn off your thinking brain.
  • You may have taken the ideas in this article too far if (1) you never take action and (2) you overanalyze every sensation in your body.

Books That Influenced This Article

The following book links are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase a book after clicking one of the links, I will receive a commission.

Thinking Fast And Slow
Book | Audiobook | Kindle

Emotional Intelligence 2.0
Book | Audiobook | Kindle

Book | Audiobook | Kindle

Book | Audiobook | Kindle

  1. Jeff Kauflin. Only 15% Of People Are Self-Aware — Here’s How To Change. (May 10, 2017).
  2. What Happens to Your Body During the Fight or Flight Response? Cleveland Clinic. (December 9, 2019).
  3. Kendra Cherry. How the Fight-or-Flight Response Works. (June 10, 2022).


Chris Thornham 80/20 Financial Planner
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