Fight, Flight, or Cope.

How we Respond to Stress.

We have all had feelings of panic bubble up when we are a hair away from missing a deadline. We all have experienced some type of nervousness before a big occasion like a speech or entering a new school. The point is that most of us, at some point, have had to carry a hefty load of dread on our shoulders while navigating life’s unexpected circumstances. But what exactly makes us feel so bad that we want to run away? That our main objective is to get away from the perpetrator as quickly as possible? Why is covering our eyes and ears easier than just facing the problem from the start? 


On a biological level, our response to stress seems perfectly rational. When the body experiences stress the sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of our fight or flight response, activates, releasing hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline. Next, the body undergoes a chain reaction where our heart beats faster, our blood pressure rises, and our breathing speeds up (Cherry). As you can see these changes enhance our survival mechanisms, an adaptation that has allowed humans to surpass obstacle after obstacle in an effort to survive. However, what happens when this stress response is triggered over and over again is less than ideal. Hence, why we have coping mechanisms to prevent this stress response from firing 24/7. 


Although we still face the occasional life-threatening event, we are no longer faced with imminent death on a day-to-day basis (excluding special circumstances). However, this fight or flight response is still very active as we face psychological threats from a variety of different fronts. The modern-day fight or flight of an average college student is a battlefield of academics, relationship problems, identity crises, health aggregations, and other challenges.  

We all handle these battles in different ways. Some battles are easier than others, while some we may feel as if we are on the precipice of losing. The skills we take on when stressed are coping strategies. Coping strategies make the difference in whether our stress progresses into long-term mental health problems like depression and anxiety. To understand the different ways we respond we must look at the three main categories of coping: primary control coping, secondary control coping, and disengagement coping (Coiro).


Primary control coping is coping that involves directly facing what is causing stress in your life. This can be either putting a stop to the stressor or changing how we feel about the stressor. Coping strategies in this category include problem-solving and emotional modulation3. An example of this would be: you are stressed that you are not understanding the class material, so you meet with the professor after school to develop a learning strategy.  Secondary control coping includes an attempt to adapt to a stressor which consists of cognitive reappraisal and acceptance (Coiro). An example of this would be: you are stressed because your co-worker doesn’t like you, but you come to terms that not everyone will like you and that it doesn’t mean that you are a bad person.  Disengagement coping involves trying to run away or avoid the stressor (Coiro). This may also prompt wishful thinking (Coiro).  An example of this would be: you and your parents disagree on what you are pursuing as a major, so you avoid their calls and refuse to speak with them.  

A study looked at the link between interpersonal stress, coping strategies, and symptoms in 135 undergraduate students from 2 universities. The results showed that college students that used primary coping strategies such as reevaluating thoughts or creating a plan of action were less likely to experience an increase in depressive symptoms (Coiro). It also showed that using secondary control coping was also associated with lower depression and anxiety symptoms (Coiro). However, it was seen that students that have high levels of interpersonal stress tend to use less primary and secondary coping strategies and more disengagement strategies.

In conclusion, the more we avoid what is stressing us the more stressed we feel, and conversely the more we interact with that stress the more we are able to put that stress to rest. Given all that we have seen, it’s easy to see that fight or flight has a large influence on how we deal with our stress but if we can avoid setting off the response as much as possible for small stressors, the better. Thus, coping strategies that allow us to interact with and come to terms with our stressors will help us be successful in facing life’s challenges. So next time you feel stressed out by a paper or a date, reach into your coping toolbox and be prepared to feel more relaxed. 


Cherry, Kendra. “How the Fight-or-Flight Response Works.” Verywell Mind, 18 Aug. 2019, www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-fight-or-flight-response-2795194. 

Coiro, Mary Jo et al. “College students coping with interpersonal stress: Examining a control-based model of coping.” Journal of American college health : J of ACH vol. 65,3 (2017): 177-186. doi:10.1080/07448481.2016.1266641

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