Fight or Flight

As a crisis counselor and hostage negotiator with my local police department and sheriff’s office I have seen many traumatic events and varied reactions to those events. From deceased infants and children, to hostage takings that ended in the death of the hostage and perpetrator, to traffic fatalities, to sexual assaults . . . though I have responded to many of each of these I continue to see varied reactions.


Most people are familiar with the information about reacting to threatening or traumatic events by either fighting or fleeing. Many people are confused when they react to a traumatic event like a death by wanting to run away or fight with someone, but it happens frequently. Then there are the less commonly discussed reactions of posturing or submitting. To posture means to look threatening and intimidating in an effort to communicate “you do not want to fight me,” much like the way my cat acts when another cat enters his territory. Similarly, people will paint their faces and wear excessively large helmets as they go to war, or lash out in anger when threatened and hurt.

I remember responding to the family room of my local ER at the request of law enforcement. An infant died that night and the family was very distraught. I dawned my khaki cargo pants, navy blue shirt with the city emblem on it (it looks similar to a police badge), a police department hat to cover my bedhead, and my police radio (complete with mic cord on my shoulder and earbud in my ear). I met officers in the hall and they briefed me on the situation, including the fact that the father had a long and rough history with law enforcement. I then entered the room and saw a large group gathered to console the parents. I was then greeted by the father who jumped out of his chair, came at me with his finger pointed and said he did not want the f’in police here. As I was met with his grief and his anger my natural and instinctual inclination was to submit to his posturing. I automatically put my hands behind me and started walking backwards. I noticed afterwards that I slumped a little and put my head down too (I am six feet, two inches tall and apparently I look intimidating even on happy days).

Another example of a fight-like reaction that will forever remain with me was the night I was called by a police sergeant to assist with a death notification. Earlier that night a teenage girl took her parent’s car and subsequently picked up two of her friends to go joy riding. Unfortunately, she ran a stop sign and was T-boned and her friend died on scene. As the sergeant and I walked to the front door of the deceased friend’s home at 3 am to make notification, we both knew this was going to be awful. After knocking we were met by the girl’s father and invited in. The sergeant asked if the deceased girl lived there and the father acknowledged this and said she is in her room sleeping. My stomach dropped as the sergeant informed him about the accident and fatality that occurred tonight. I interjected and asked, are you sure your daughter is in her room sleeping? The father went around the corner and I could hear him try to open a locked bedroom door. Then came the sound of him forcing the door open and finding an empty room and open window. His sound of grief was devastating. The rest of the family was now awake and he informed them of what happened. The family then joined him in his grief. I watched as this father looked and pointed up at the ceiling and said, F-you God repeatedly . . . his anger made perfect sense to me and was pointed at the correct source.

It is imperative that mental health professionals and law enforcement understand the impact of and reactions to deadly threats, trauma, and grief. These reactions are less disorienting when considered from the framework of fight, flight, posture or submit. For me it has been most helpful to remember that these root responses, and all the manifestations of them, are not to be taken personally, even when pointed at me or my God. Lashing out, running off and isolating, yelling and screaming . . . all make more sense to me now. In my experience, submitting is the least common reaction. For someone to experience a traumatic death or be the victim of a horrible experience like a sexual assault, and be able to accept that this happened to them, is an amazing thing to watch as a crisis counselor or therapist. This is not a traditional definition of submission, and acceptance of these situations is not the norm, but in my mind it is fitting to think of acceptance as submitting to the reality of the situation at hand because the person is able to accept their new reality, and this is the first step in being able to find ways to cope with it, and even grow from it and beyond.

I spoke with the victim of a sexual assault a number of years ago, and we met for weeks as she struggled to accept/submit to her circumstances. She knew she needed to, but acceptance was difficult for her. I remember vividly the day she accepted what happened and said to me, “I was raped.” Her tone, body language and affect were all congruent with someone who had just accepted/submitted to what had happened. And soon after this came resolve, fortitude, and peace regarding what had happened to her. She saw things differently and without any self-blame or guilt. This was something that happened to her, and she could now go about the business of healing and living her life. It was amazing to watch a strength come over her as she came to terms with what happened.

Traumatic events are often confusing, as is our reactions to them. Having a clear understanding of the road through and out of traumatic events provides people with peace, understanding, and gets them on their way to healing and even growth in the wake of these events.

Posted on October 5, 2016 .