Emotions in Students

Is the expression, “Fight, flight or freeze” a myth or science?


There’s an assumption that if a student in school feels threatened in any way, there’s going to be an immediate response we’ve all heard of before. Those might include “fight” (talk back to teacher, argue or even get physical), “flight” (try to get out of the situation, change seats, rooms or get out school), or “freeze” (quit participating and disconnect from learning).


However, recent research tells us there’s far more going on. In fact, you might be surprised what researchers have discovered about student emotions (and your own)…


Recent Discovery


There are many things you should know about our emotional system, but we’ll focus on just one area (the amygdala) and only the relevancy to school and your own life. Just maybe we can help out your relationships and add joy to your life!


First, there are gender differences in our emotional system.


You may have heard of the amygdala as if it’s singular, but we have two of them (on the left and right side of the brain). Technically, it should be referred to as the amygdalae (plural). Known as small, almond-shaped brain structures, they are highly involved in the fear response. These structures are located deep in the temporal lobes at the foot of the hippocampus in each hemisphere. And, they operate differently in males and females.


The male processes emotions in the right amygdala and, hence more globally. It helps you understand why those with male traits (usually boys and men) often are comfortable with the “gist” of things for an explanation of an emotional event (“That sucks!”). The female amygdala processes emotions in the left hemisphere. This results in memories encoded more in parts and sequentially. Those with female traits are more likely to want to unpack an emotional event and process it, often in some detail (“She told me…and then I…but she…”). Women are more likely to want to “unpack” an intense emotion and men are more likely to “bundle” them (Cahill et al., 2004). In the classroom, help boys write more easily by using emotional story starters, word prompts and provide opening sentences for paragraphs to help them get going. In a relationship, it might be a good idea for each person to appreciate the other’s tendencies.


Second, there are speed differences in our responses.


The amygdala can be activated fast or slow. Fresh studies provide evidence of an early survival-oriented response to threats regardless of task load or attentional focus. Super-fast amygdala processing is specific to only fear during attended processing, like when you’re feeling threatened. It can also activate slowly, like when you’re trying to fall asleep but you keep hearing strange sounds in your house. In this case, cortical processing is undiminished, and more broadly tuned to threat during unattended processing.


This initial fear activation response is an electrical and chemical process. This fast-operating high threat system is your hard-wired (fight, flight or freeze) defense activation (Pichon, et al., 2011). Once started, it cannot be stopped like flipping a switch. It’s going to “run it’s course.” If you scare someone, then tell them you were “Just kidding”, their brain may still not recover quite so quickly from the fearful reaction. It will take time to “settle down”.


Third, our amygdala is not all that automatic; it is regulated by attentional bias and personality differences.


The more scattered our attention, the less likely our amygdala is to be activated. The delayed amygdala response depends on attentional bias. This means, if we are distracted or simply don’t pay attention, we delay the secondary response.


This why our amygdala works BOTH fast and SLOW. Our emotional responses to a situation CAN work like an on-off light switch; but they more often work like a dimmer switch, slowing brewing and unfolding. In the classroom, more student engagement will increase student focus on the learning and work at hand. Students are less likely to get their “uncertainty response” activated when they’re excited.


It is also regulated by whether you are a low or high anxiety subject (Brosch and Wieser, 2011). The same stimulus does NOT always provoke a fight, flight or freeze response. Higher anxiety means stronger arousal. Originally, it was thought that our amygdala was designed only for threat detection. Today the research suggests, ‘It’s way messier than we thought.’ It actually is designed to detect uncertainty, NOT JUST FEAR. You don’t have to instill fear to provoke it, just high uncertainty. Those that have higher anxiety will likely activate their amygdala (uncertainty) more often than those with low anxiety. Do you know someone who is more fearful? A higher anxiety level will facilitate that response.


So, how do we help our kids in class better regulate their emotions while we live a life of serenity and bliss?


Let’s reveal our three immediate applications.


First, when it’s time for either oral or written assignments where males must express their emotions, you’ll often get a “gestalt effect” (meaning they are all in one “package” in their brain). Help the boys ‘unpack the emotions’ through leading comments, more structure in the writing and story starters. That means, you can put leading sentences in the text for writing such as, “The first thing I felt when I arrived was _______. Then I knew ________…” (from here on they can write).


The second is geared towards the fight, flight, or freeze notion and the amygdala. If you, or a colleague, activate the student’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response (accidentally, we hope) here’s what to know.


First, there’ll be an automated activation of a cascade of responses. The chemicals (like cortisol) will be in the body at elevated levels for 1-2 hours. What you can do in the classroom is give your students something they can have control over immediately. Give them an object to work with or manipulate, a process to complete, a puzzle to solve, or an experience at a learning station to get their minds on action they can control. Why? The sense of control over one’s life is the best antidote to the “uncertainty experience” that triggered the “fight, flight, or freeze” response in the first place.


This is why, if you or your spouse get mad at the other, one of you will often wander off and start doing something routine, like busywork (e.g. putting away dishes, working in the garage, cleaning, fixing something, laundry). These are ‘high-control’ tasks which enhance the sense of having ‘say-so’ over one’s life. It might irritate the other spouse, but it does slowly settle the brain down.


Third, how else can you apply what we know about emotions? The key is learning how to manage and regulate your own emotions. Many books suggest ways to do this. The best chunk of research I’ve seen on positivity probably comes from the work of Martin Seligman (Learned Optimism) and Barbara Fredrickson (Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity). Both give you the lab-tested tools necessary to create a healthier, more vibrant, and flourishing life. Both are researchers you can trust.


Seligman suggests: 1) extend your existing positive states, 2) find more meaning in your life, and 3) stay more engaged in life. Frederickson suggests that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine.


The beauty of both of these resources is that you are not a victim. You can learn to manage your emotions and have a great day nearly every day of your life.


Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

Leave a comment