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May 06, 2016

Fight or Flight

What causes normal, intelligent people to act in irrational ways when facing a perceived danger or threat? Why do so many of us "go to pieces" when the chips are down? This tendency to panic results from the malfunction of a system known as the "fight-or-flight" mechanism. That is a neurochemical process designed to prepare us for action whenever we face an immediate crisis. When we are frightened or stressed, adrenaline and other hormones are released that put our entire bodies on an alarm-reaction status. Our blood pressure is elevated, we become stronger and more alert, the pupils of our eyes dilate to gather more light, etc.

It is a very helpful mechanism when it functions properly. But when it runs amuck, an individual can behave in very strange ways. You call that "freaking out." We call it "hysteria," and it can grip large numbers of people simultaneously.

In 1973, a strange illness swept through a junior high school in the community of Berry, Alabama. Within a period of about three hours, more than one hundred students and teachers experienced intense itching, fainting, stomach aches, tingling fingers, and other symptoms. Seventy persons were treated in the emergency ward of a nearby hospital. Health department officials rushed to investigate the puzzling epidemic. They considered the possibility of poisons, infections, or even allergies that would explain the illness. They checked out reports of crop dusters spraying insecticides near the school and rumors of chemicals being stolen from the National Guard Armory. No stone was left unturned in their effort to identify the source of the suffering.

Soon, Dr. Frederick Wolf, Alabama state epidemiologist, announced that they had found no cause for the illness. "There was simply nothing found," he said.

"We checked everything," said an epidemic intelligence officer from the Alabama State Department of Health.

A Mysterious Disease...Complete with Symptoms

So what caused the symptoms that afflicted so many people simultaneously? The researchers concluded it was hysteria, plain and simple. The students and teachers were victims of their own imaginations, which made them think they were sick when they were not. It is a very common phenomenon.

My concern is not only about hysteria and other types of irrational fear. The problem is with our emotions themselves. They are not to be believed much of the time. I wouldn't deny the importance of feelings or the role they play in our humanness. Indeed, those who have so insulated themselves that they no longer feel are very unhealthy individuals.

In the 1993 movie Shadowlands, writer C. S. Lewis loved a woman who died prematurely. Her death was intensely painful to him, causing Lewis to question whether he should have permitted himself to care for her. He concluded in the last scene that we are given two choices in life. We can allow ourselves to love and care for others, which makes us vulnerable to their sickness, death, or rejection. Or we can protect ourselves by refusing to love. Lewis decided that it is better to feel and to suffer than to go through life isolated, insulated, and lonely. I agree strongly.

I am not recommending, therefore, that we build walls to protect ourselves from pain. But we must understand that emotions are unreliable and at times, tyrannical. They should never be permitted to dominate us. That principle was generally understood in our culture for hundreds of years. During the revolutionary days of the late sixties, however, a major shift in attitude occurred, especially among the young. One of the popular notions of the day was, "If it feels good, do it." That phrase says it all. It means that a person's flighty impulses should be allowed to overrule every other consideration—including the needs of children, principles of right and wrong, a person's long-term goals, lurking dangers, and common sense. "Don't think—just follow your heart," was the prevailing attitude.

That is damnable advice. It has ruined many gullible people. Behavior has consequences, and stupid behavior often has terrible consequences. If you follow blindly the dictates of emotion instead of controlling them with your will and intellect, you are casting yourself adrift in the path of life's storms.

I once wrote a book whose title asked this question: Emotions: Can You Trust Them?. It took me two hundred pages to say, "No!" Emotions are biased, whimsical, unreliable. They lie as often as they tell the truth. They are manipulated by hormones—especially in the teen years—and they wobble from early morning, when we are rested, to the evening, when we are tired.

One of the evidences of emotional maturity is the ability (and the willingness) to overrule ephemeral feelings and govern our behavior with reason. This might lead you to tough it out when you feel like escaping—and guard your tongue when you feel like shouting—and to save your money when you feel like spending it—and to remain faithful when you feel like flirting—and to put the welfare of others above your own. These are mature acts that can't occur when feelings are in charge.

From Dr. Dobson’s book Life on the Edge.

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