Your choice: read the article, and/or skip to the bottom to watch the video.
The Science Behind Fight or Flight
A fight or flight response is our natural response to stress or threats. We tend to respond with 1 of 3 options when things get really hard or threatening around us: we fight, we run, or, although you hear about it less because it doesn’t rhyme, in fact, our default response to intense challenge or a threat is to freeze, because, if you shut up and stay still, the mountain lion might not see you and you might get away that way. Great responses for dealing with mountain lions and not so great for dealing with colleagues and work challenges and the things that happen to us in the office.
The Fight or Flight Response is Faster than Your Logical Brain
You will get into the fight or flight response. I say that with confidence because the parts of your brain that are responsible for that response are very quick parts of the brain. If a mountain lion suddenly showed up in your office, you would not want to sit back and think about it for several minutes about how to respond. That doesn’t keep you alive. The fight or flight response is wired to very quickly get you responding in 1 of those 3 ways.
If something startling happens at work, your brain responds with the fight or flight response. If you tell yourself, “Oh, there’s no reason to get upset. That was just Scott Crabtree pulling a little stunt in this video,” that’s a slower part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, loosely speaking the part of your brain behind your forehead that is your highest level of logical human thinking. That part of your brain is a full second or more slower than that fight or flight response. You will get into fight or flight.
I would like to help you get out of fight or flight more quickly or more often because, when you’re in fight or flight, your brain is figuratively shrinking, so you only see those 3 solutions to problems. 1 of those 3 solutions is rarely the best solution at work. Usually, when we face work challenges, we need a more nuanced solution that involves stakeholder management and a slight redesign and a change of the schedule, and none of those are fight or flight or freeze.
Tips to Get Out of Fight or Flight
A couple tips on getting out of the fight or flight response. First is: Don’t stress about your stress. Too often, people respond to stress the way I did for decades, which is stress comes and then you stress about the stress and make sure that you push that level of stress to a really high level of stress that’s counter-productive. Stress doesn’t have to be bad. See Kelly McGonagle’s great TED talk on befriending stress. If you like science on how reframing stress is a helpful, energizing force, it can help you feel better and respond better to stress. Don’t stress about your stress. You might even relax about your stress as a helpful, energizing force. Keeping you in a moderate stress settlement is actually ideal for health, happiness, and productivity.
If that approached worked perfectly, I wouldn’t go on in this video. It does work. Reframing stress as a helpful, energizing force does work according to the science and according to my personal experience over the past year or so since I’ve come across that great science, but you’ll still occasionally get high stress, prolonged stress, stress you can’t control. As much as you try to reframe it as a helpful, energizing force, you’re still going to feel stressed.
What do you do? Cope effectively. Science says a huge difference between high stress and low happiness people and low stress, high happiness people is how we cope with inevitable stress and hardship in life. Please, bring to bear whatever healthy coping stress mechanisms you have. According to science, 3 of the absolute best are physical exercise; social support, that is, talking with a friend; and mindfulness or meditation. Whatever you choose, cope effectively with stress and hardship, and don’t stress about your stress so that you can minimize your time in fight, flight, or freeze and get back to ideal brain function that helps you truly thrive at work.