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Theory Challenges ‘Fight or Flight’ Response to Stress

A new study from the University of Freiburg, Germany suggests that stress does not always cause aggressive behavior in men.

Moreover, positive social contact before a stressful event can reduce and even change the stress response.

The research finding refutes the nearly 100-year-old belief that stress triggers a “fight or flight” response in humans and animals.

In the investigation, Professor Markus Heinrichs and Dr. Bernadette von Dawans expanded a line of research from the late 1990s suggesting that women show an alternate “tend-and-befriend” response to stress – in other words, a protective (“tend”) and friendship-offering (“befriend”) reaction.

Heinrichs and von Dawans wanted to see if the stress response in men could also produce behaviors other than aggression. As such, they targeted their research to investigate male social behavior under stress.

In the research Von Dawans discovered that “men also show social approach behavior as a direct consequence of stress.”

The investigators used a tool they had previously developed to measure stress in public speaking engagements.

The researchers examined the implications of this stressor for social behavior using specially designed social interaction games. These games allowed them to measure positive social behavior – for example, trust or sharing – and negative social behavior – for example, punishment.

Researchers discovered that subjects who were under stress showed significantly more positive social behavior than control subjects who were not in a stressful situation.

Negative social behavior, on the other hand, was not affected by stress.

These findings challenge the belief that a stressful situation always results in an aggressive response.

Heinrichs believes the discovery has far-reaching consequences for our understanding of the social significance of stress.

“From previous studies in our laboratory, we already knew that positive social contact with a trusted individual before a stressful situation reduces the stress response. Apparently, this coping strategy is anchored so strongly that people can also change their stress responses during or immediately after the stress through positive social behavior.”

The results are published in the international journal Psychological Science.

Source: University of Freiburg

Theory Challenges ‘Fight or Flight’ Response to Stress

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Theory Challenges ‘Fight or Flight’ Response to Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 26, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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