Nursing: Fight or Flight?

We’ve all heard of the “fight or flight” reaction that humans developed aeons ago in order to allow us to quickly escape from peril (like a saber-toothed tiger attack, for instance). Well, in the last years, it has been expanded to be “fight, flight or freeze”, and that’s just what I want to talk about in terms of nurses and nursing.


When we’re backed into a corner, we sometimes react by fighting our way out of that corner, and while fighting may not always get us the results we want, sometimes it very well may.

Think about nurses who are up against an administration that doesn’t understand nurses’ and patients’ needs in terms of staffing levels and nurse-patient ratios. Sometimes, those nurses have to band together, go on strike, form a union, or otherwise fight the powers that be in order to have their demands met for safe staffing and other workplace issues. This is an example of fighting bringing about the results that are in the best interest of all.

On the other hand, fighting among nurses can be woefully counterproductive. Bullying, intimidation, “eating our young”, or otherwise creating a hostile work environment are examples of when the fight response is harmful to both nurse morale, team cohesion, and even patient outcomes.


Flight may be seen as running away, but when we’re faced with a workplace bully, flight may sometimes be our best alternative to fighting. You can’t run from a bully forever, but flight can be helpful when you feel cornered and don’t have the energy or wherewithal to fight in that moment.

When considering a hostile or unhealthy work environment, you may try your best to effect change, unite the team and bring everyone together, but you may at times be forced to admit defeat. In this case, flight from one workplace to a new opportunity may be called for (and be very appropriate, especially when your mental health is at stake).


Freezing may occur when we feel stuck, cornered, and unable to make a choice or take action. This may seem like a negative, but freezing is indeed self-protective. Now, if a saber-toothed tiger is sprinting towards you, freezing is definitely not your best choice of action in that moment.

If you feel stuck in your career or job but don’t yet know what action to take, this may be a time when you freeze, stay in place, mark time, and wait for an opportunity for change.

Freezing can be self-protective, but you don’t want to stay frozen forever. There comes a time for action, and if you do feel frozen in your career, that’s a great time to engage a counselor, career coach, or other professional who can help you plot a new path.

It’s (Almost) Always Your Choice

Whether you’re fighting, flying or freezing, it’s most often your choice in terms of your reaction. The next time you’re in a situation where you feel that sympathetic response kicking in, ask yourself which reaction is most appropriate for the situation, and make an active, conscious choice as to how to proceed.

Fight, flight or freeze. Neither is better than the other, and each has its purpose. The secret is being aware of the options, and remaining conscious of the choices on your plate.

Now, about that saber-toothed tiger……….

About Keith

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Keith Carlson is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, author, and popular career columnist.

With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s two podcasts, RNFM Radio and The Nurse Keith Show, offer inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful, satisfying lives and careers.

Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. Keith can be found on many social media platforms, as well as at