stress response for bystanders

(content warning for witness precursors of interpersonal violence)

I’ve been doing bystander education on my campus for about four years (as I mentioned about four years ago), and I like it a lot. We’ve adapted it beyond sexual assault prevention to other social justice issues like microaggressions.

One of the powerful ideas behind the bystander approach in general (and the Green Dot approach in particular) is the notion that it’s NORMAL to have barriers that prevent you from stepping forward, even when you know you should, and you don’t have to “overcome” your barriers, you only need to find a way AROUND them. Not comfortable with confrontation? Use distraction instead – “accidentally” spill your drink on the person. Worried about your own safety? Use delegation – tell someone what you noticed and ask for their help. Everyone can do something, no matter what your barriers are, to prevent sexual violence. It’s a message of hope and empowerment, with the added benefit of being evidence-based. It WORKS.

Having spent the last a month out of this year battling against Chapter 4 of my book, which is all about how your various motivational systems – especially the stress response and the attachment mechanism – influence sexual responsiveness, I had an additional thought about barriers:

When we witness the precursors of interpersonal violence, which vary from situation to situation but share that universal internal gut of of “eurgh, that just doesn’t seem right to me,” our own stress response is activated. That’s normal. That’s healthy. If something not okay is happening, it’s only right that our bodies should prepare for protective measures.

But none of the three basic categories of stress response, fight, flight and freeze, are particularly well suited to effective bystander intervention.

If your body goes to “fight,” then you’ll approach with aggression, which bears the risk of escalating the situation.

If your bod goes to “flight,” then you’ll be afraid and (reasonably) avoid the situation altogether.

And if your body goes to “freeze,” you’ll shut down – perhaps feel a sudden urge to go to bed and cry, or just lose all motivation to do anything at all.


All of this is just an additional reason why bystander education is such a good idea. Why do soldiers drill and drill and drill and drill? It’s so that when they’re under stress, afraid for their lives, they’ll still do what they need to, because it’s become automatic.

It’s just a different way of saying that it’s normal to hesitate, normal not see the situation as ambiguous, normal to want to avoid confrontation.

That’s why, in my bystander program, we walk through bystander scenarios and make contingency plans in order to create a map in our brains of What Happens Next.

Our emotional brain’s first response might be “get the fuck out of here,” but our rational brain can recognize that flight response and use it to our advantage, by approaching in a gentle non-escalating way.

Or our first response might be “Go kick that douche’s ass!”  but our rational brain can recognize that fight response and make sure to slow down and choose a safe strategy.

Our our first response might be to numb-out, and our rational brain can recognize that freeze response and make sure you choose self-care.


In all three cases, an important part of stepping forward is checking in with someone else – someone who can help you act while you’re afraid; someone who can be a backup when you’re angry; someone who can step in when you need to take care of yourself.

It’s normal not to feel totally calm when you witness the precursors of interpersonal violence. It’s helpful to know ahead of time what it might feel like. And it’s important to know that, even when it feels uncomfortable, there’s always SOMETHING you can do to create positive change in a situation, even if that change is simply noticing that you need to check in with a friend and take care of yourself.

And so that’s why my bystander education always includes training about the three major stress responses.