Science time: Why we resort to fight or flight at work – and how trauma-informed leaders can better support their teams

In last week’s post the true force of nature was explored as it relates to our nervous systems and more specifically, what this means for us in our workplaces and in our workplace relationships. The most important part is to know the nervous system is not only complex, but also adaptable. The nervous system evolved over millions of years and now follows a hierarchical pattern in humans.

I think it is important to understand that I come to the teaching/learning about the nervous system as an experientially based trauma-informed practitioner. I am not a scientist, or a doctor. I read the work of scientists and doctors and I think deeply about how we can use their findings to make workspaces and other spaces more comfortable, functional, and safe.

Here’s a walk through the science of the nervous system; we will keep it easy and understandable.

Dr. Cannon (1871 – 1945) was the first physiologist to notice, observe and record the dynamics of the “fight or flight” response in the nervous system. This part of the nervous system gets a lot of hype, it’s verbiage we are used to hearing. But what does it mean? And let’s get down to brass tacks, are we stuck here because it’s our nature?

To start to apply some of these concepts to yourself and your coworkers it is important to understand this foundational thought: the nervous system has evolved for one primary reason – to keep us safe. In the early days of evolution, it was to keep creatures safe from predators, the elements etc. Modern humans are still affected by the instinctual drive of these early life forms.

About 5 million years ago creatures on earth had one default built into their nervous systems when there was a threat or danger: collapse. Play dead so whatever was hunting you would leave you alone. This is a mediocre way to survive and creatures with only a collapse system to protect themselves needed more to survive.

So, the next part of the nervous system evolved (about 4 million years ago) to include some more reactions to keep safe: fight, flight, or fawn. Dr. Canon explored these responses in animals to further understand the instinct, then started looking at these as behavioral responses in humans when they have a great shock or fear-based experience.

But even before doctors and researchers started applying the concepts to human beings, we needed to evolve. About 2 million years ago as higher brains evolved, we landed on a perfect solution to the safety problem: connection. If creatures banded together to connect, share resources, and protect each other we could stay safe. Right? Right. Ideally this survival strategy is a good one and we see it play out in the kingdom of life from bees to lion prides. Humans are no different in our instinctual desire to form social bonds in families chosen or biological.

As we evolved to the safest state of connection, humans held on to those older safety mechanisms as well: fight, flight, fawn, freeze, collapse.

When basic connection between humans goes awry, we can experience trauma. When we experience trauma, our nervous system has a hierarchy of evolutionary processes to move though if connection has been irreparably ruptured: fight, flight or fawn (from 4 million years ago) or freeze and then collapse (even older responses from 5 million years ago). In general, we move through these automatic and responsive states many times in the day, and we don’t even know it.

Remember from last week’s blog that the nervous system is automatic. Just as a sneeze is automatic so is your urge to run far and fast from something at work that triggers you or why you find yourself starting an argument again…it is an automatic response. Until we bring it into our awareness and start to practice a shift.

When our nervous systems are regulated (click here for more info on regulation), we are in a flow state. Think of your best day; your most nourishing and relaxed day…. You are in a safe space, able to communicate, collaborate, and create. In this state you are alert but not anxious, relaxed but not exhausted, and able to be yourself. In scientific terms we call this state “ventral vagal”, and it is a state of connection.

When something happens to threaten us, be it bullying at work, getting stuck in an elevator, or losing someone very close to us, our nervous system does the one thing it’s evolved for: keeping us safe. When we leave that flow state we go to our next evolutionary choice: accessing the sympathetic nervous system to move. We fight our way out of the threat (or we scare it more than it can scare us), we flee from the threat (flight at work can also look like: constant smoke or coffee breaks, procrastination, unable to make firm decisions, and not being “present” in conversations or engagements), or we fawn to please and be submissive (at work this looks like perfectionism, over work to please others, never taking time for oneself). We will keep trying all of these things until our energy store is completely exhausted and then we have just one evolutionary choice left:



We see this ancient nervous system response happen when our minds and bodies truly believe that there will never be an end to our “to do” list, the demands on us physically and psychologically are unrelenting and we stop believing we have any fight left. Complete collapse.

At work this looks like: stress and mental health leave, quiet quitting, total lack of engagement, and quitting due to extensive burnout.

Although we all want to be in the flow state all the time and call this safe space home, we all tend to have what I call, “a home away from home” that is a place of chronic response in our nervous system. If we can’t resolve it we will have the same chronic problems over and over.

We all know people who are constantly stuck in fight mode: critical, road ragey, angry, condescending, and argumentative all the time.

Or maybe it’s a fawn state. We see this a lot at work because fawn states are an acceptable way to be seen as “productive”. But if that productivity and perfectionism comes at the cost of one’s own self it is damaging over the long term.

You might see yourself in one of these states all the time. Today may be the first time you ever recognized it.


All of this starts with a deep self-awareness, and not every leader is ready or willing to do the work of shining the spotlight on one’s own responses/reactions. Take a deep breath and remember a few things:

  • Knowing about your “home away from home” state is empowering to shift it and supports your understanding of others’ dysregulated states.
  • You are participating in a nervous system process that is akin to all human beings – this is normal. But your exploration can support shifting chronic problems and issues.
  • Shifts can happen as your awareness grows and you move towards post-traumatic recovery – a place where you learn and grow from what hurt and stagnated you.

Stay tuned net week when we dive into a model that will support all your communication with team members and other people in your life in any state you encounter them in. Together we can make work a place where our nervous systems can be anchored to trauma-informed principles; this is how we change the game and create wholistic workplaces where we can all thrive.