What Makes a Hero

Often, when we think of heroism and “fight or flight,” we think of what we’d do if we came across a wild animal or someone wielding a dangerous weapon. However, a heroic act doesn’t have to be a life-or-death situation for this response to kick in. It can be as simple as stepping up for someone who is being treated unfairly or pausing to lend a helping hand when you see someone in need.

The Modern Changes to Fight or Flight

Hyperarousal, what we call fight or flight, is a physiological response our body has to scenarios that cause us great stress, perceived harm, or a threat to survival. But unlike our ancestors, we don’t face physical danger or predators every day. Instead, emotional danger and stress can trigger this state. Heroic acts are often the result of someone stepping outside of their comfort zone and making themselves vulnerable to benefit others. When we see something that just feels wrong, we might step in even if it’s not our normal inclination.

The Physiology of Fight or Flight

When your brain detects danger, it sends a distress signal to your hypothalamus, which acts like a command center that oversees your nervous system. It notifies your body that it’s in danger, and your adrenal glands send out epinephrine, causing your heart to beat faster, your pulse to go up, your breathing to quicken, your senses to sharpen, and more. If your body continues to perceive stress, cortisol will be released to keep you on high alert.

The changes in your body prepare you to react to a dangerous situation. But the changes can also happen when you encounter an emotionally stressful situation that makes you scared or angry, such as seeing someone getting bullied by peers. Even if you want to “fly” away, you can learn to use this extra dose of alertness to help others.

However, if you encounter stressful situations all the time, it’s possible that you’ll be more likely to “fly” because you’re overstressed. Chronic stress can indeed wear you down physically over time, leaving you feeling fatigued and even sick. This can make it tougher to feel like fighting. Taking care of your body with sleep, healthy food, and exercise can help counter this. Some people who frequently encounter injustices can even learn to use those encounters to train themselves on how to respond and the best ways to stand up for others, making the “fight” reaction a little easier over time.

Teaching Yourself to Take a Stand

If you tend to “fly” from tense situations and want to teach yourself to stand up for others, there are a few things you can do. When you’re in an emotionally charged situation, if time allows, simply stepping away for 15 minutes or so can give you time to really think about what’s happening and reason through what you feel like you should do. This is similar to the advice people give about writing out an email or social media response and then sitting on it for an hour before you hit “send.”

To combat chronic stress, consider yoga to relax your body and give you greater mental clarity, or meditation to help you keep a level head the next time you encounter an emotionally demanding situation. Go through hypothetical situations in your mind and practice how you’d respond. You may also simply need to start out small by standing up for yourself or others in less-stressful situations and then work your way up. For example, if you find yourself often going along with what everyone else wants for dinner, try asserting your opinion about what you want. Or if you’re on social media and see a person making fun of someone else, stand up for the other person online. This can help teach you how to stand up for yourself “in person” too, when situations feel more stressful.

Also, take some time to consider how you carry yourself every day. Try walking and talking with confidence, as this can help you feel more assertive, which can affect how you act when a stressful situation presents itself.

Remember, standing up for others through a heroic act may not feel natural at first. You may want to hide, or you may feel like you’re overdoing it or overstepping your boundaries. Don’t judge yourself — it will only cause you to want to lean into the flight response more. Accept your actions, learn from them, and be kind to yourself as you seek to spread kindness and care to others.