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The Amygdala and Fight/Flight Reaction

The Amygdala and Fight/Flight Reaction

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand how the brain structure called the amygdala impacts people's behavior when they are in conflict.

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The Amygdala and Flight/Flight Reaction

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When we're under stress, afraid, upset, our body automatically reacts in certain ways. We've all felt it. I know I have. My heart will start to be faster. I might have shallow breathing. My body feels tense. Maybe I start to sweat, and when I go home at the end of the day, I might have a knot in my shoulders.

I feel exhausted even though I may not have done anything. So what causes this reaction? We might call it a stress reaction. There is another term for it. It's called fight or flight, and it's actually caused by a part of our brain called the amygdala.

I'm Marlene, and I'd like to talk about amygdala and the fight or flight response with you today and how it manifests itself in conflict and may influence our reactions and perceptions.

So first of all, what is this part of the brain that causes us to have such intense physical reactions when we're upset or nervous. Well, it's called the amygdala. And the amygdala is a structure in the brain which interprets stimuli as threat or non-threat and initiates the fight or flight reaction. So this part of the brain, which has actually been with us for a very long time-- was with the cavemen and is what allowed them to survive-- notices what a threat is.

Now, let's define threat. A threat is a stimulus interpreted by the amygdala as harmful to an organism. So the amygdala thinks harm only It doesn't do a very good job of distinguishing between real and perceived threats. It knows something is a threat, but it is not always accurate in saying how dangerous it is, which is why we might have these automatic, physical reactions when we're sitting in a conference room waiting to get up and give a speech.

And these reactions are the same as if we were out in the wilderness trying to defend ourselves from a wild animal. And that's because the amygdala perceives a threat, and it initiates this fight or flight reaction, which is a condition in the body, caused by the release of adrenaline, preparing the body to flee from or combat a stimulus perceived as a threat by the amygdala.

So getting up and giving that speech is perceived as a threat in the same way as running from the bear. And this is because of adrenaline. So what is adrenaline? So adrenaline-- let me step over here-- adrenaline is a hormone that causes physical changes in the body during fight or flight, physical changes.

So once again, this is automatic. The amygdala prepares us for real threats whether it's wild animals, fire, or tornado, or having to go in and talk to the boss about that new promotion. As I said, we have these automatic responses because the release of adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster. It causes more blood to come to the muscles, so we could run. It causes our breathing to become more rapid.

So we respond physically even if the threat isn't an imminent danger. So now, think about how this can play out in conflict. So the amygdala has these consistent, physiological responses to conflict, to stressful situations, and if we're in a conflict-- in fact, think about the last time you had an argument with somebody.

Did you feel like your heart started to be faster? Maybe your voice rose. You began to maybe have shallow breathing. You have these physical responses because you were upset. That's the amygdala. And when we're having that reaction, when we're in the midst of that kind of a reaction, it can really affect our perceptions, how we behave, even our ability to reason.

So the adrenaline response here, that hormone that comes in this fight or flight response, which is automatic when the amygdala perceives a threat can escalate conflict. Imagine multiple parties in a conflict, each going through their fight or flight process or response to something that is upsetting them.

If it's left uncontrolled, or unregulated, this automatic response will escalate conflict. Now, the amygdala, of course, is a part of the brain that's been with us a very long time. And it is there to protect us against very real threats. So we are in imminent, physical danger, the body gives us a rush of adrenaline, and we can flee or we can fight, if need be.

However, because it automatically operates this way, even in situations that are not of imminent danger because the amygdala can't tell the difference, we need to be aware of how this fight or flight response could alter our perceptions of behavior and conflict.

So in closing, the amygdala will respond to threats automatically. It's not always accurate. It causes your body to release adrenaline. You automatically have this fight or flight response. And if we don't control it, it will escalate conflict. Well, I've enjoyed being part of this tutorial with you, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know

A hormone that causes physical changes in the body during the fight/flight reaction.


A structure in the brain which interprets stimuli as threat or non-threat and initiates fight or flight reaction.

Fight or Flight Reaction

A condition in the body caused by the release of adrenaline, preparing the body to flee from or combat a stimulus perceived as a threat by the amygdala.


A stimulus interpreted by the amygdala as harmful to an organism.