As human beings, we have natural instincts that help us to survive. The primal part of the brain (the brainstem, to be technical about it) takes care of these instincts. You know the brainstem is working because you don’t have to think “breathe in, breathe out” all day to remember to move oxygen through your body. A set of these instincts is commonly known as the Fight or Flight Response (or for those of us who have spent a little more time paying attention to it, Fight/Flight/Freeze response). An example of this response is evident when you touch a hot stove. Your primal brain has moved your hand away before you even feel your finger burning. This automatic response is great. Can you imagine what would happen if you had to go through the thought process, “This feels hot. The stove must be on. I should move my hand because it is burning?” Our instincts will respond similarly when we have bears chasing us or waves pulling us under. We will stop thinking, so that our body can fight off an attacker, run away, or stay really still so that the danger passes us by.
These instincts serve us well when it is truly about survival. They can become problematic when our primal brain starts seeing our customers, our boss, or even our email inbox as a threat. Let’s talk about how the fight/flight/freeze response may be showing up in your work and how to manage these instincts in a way that propels you forward in your career. When these instincts are unruly and unmanaged, you can end up miserable, stressed out, and even in fear that you will lose your livelihood.
- Common Fight/Flight/Freeze responses in daily life. When the dangers we face are an angry boss, a dissatisfied customer, or bad news in an email, our fight/flight/freeze response (ok, this is getting ungainly, let’s call it FFF) can look different than if our life is at stake. We are not going to be able to lift a car, but we will have extra adrenalin pumping through our bodies. This is often just called stress. If you explore a little deeper, there are different reactions to stress that really are evidence of FFF. For example, snapping or starting an argument is a mild fight response (whereas blackout rages are the full response). Some people will physically run away from what is stressing them out or even avoid the problem (think about how much time is spent on social media or going through emails rather than facing a big project). Others will run away mentally. We often call this kind of flight “spacing out,” but the response can go even further like when you mechanically go through the day without feeling present and connected to the people around you. Finally, freezing is most evident when you feel stuck or make sure to keep your head down. Maybe you don’t let your boss know when you are struggling or maybe you just don’t complete the work. You might also experience this as the “deer in headlights” when you are called on, feeling frozen and unable to make a coherent sentence. FFF is something that we all face. Take a moment to identify what you typically do when faced with stress or some sort of threat.
- Prediction. When will FFF hit you? If you pay attention, this can actually be fairly easy to predict. What triggers you? You may have the answer right now. You might know that every time your boss comes into the room, you feel frightened and start making snarky comments or maybe you space out every time a customer starts complaining. On the flip-side, you may have no idea when you are triggered. This could be for several reasons. First off, when you are truly in FFF, you do not have your logical brain working. For survival, our bodies have determined that our logical, human, part of our brain just gets in the way. So, when we are in FFF, we will not be able to think rationally and, frequently, have only fuzzy memories of how we got into that state. Another reason you might not be able to identify your triggers is that you may be triggered most of the time. A “high stress” job may mean you are constantly in FFF. (We can talk about how unhealthy constant FFF can be for you another time…) For our purposes here, let’s look at ways to move forward in identifying triggers. Pay attention to your reactions to different types of interactions at work or to different projects. Figure out which people, projects, or types of interactions set you off and how you respond. For example, if you have been snapping at everyone, trace it back to the last time you remember not snapping at people. Walk your day (or week) forward from there to see if there was a specific event/person/etc. that triggered your frustration. When you have several of these, you can look for patterns in what triggers you and how.
- Preparation. Once you know what triggers you and how you respond, you can prepare for them. If you are well-prepared, you might just avoid FFF. In preparing, you must match the plan to what it needs to address. If you space out, listening to New Age Meditation music is NOT going to help. If you are ready for a fight, calling a loved one may calm you down, but it may hurt the relationship if you just snap at them. Make sure that if you need to calm down, you do something soothing. If you need to focus or stay present, do something that activates or energizes you. Another important part of your preparation plan is to determine when you can avoid your triggers and when they are unavoidable. If you can legitimately avoid them (this does not mean running away from your boss), you can stay more focused on your daily tasks. If they are unavoidable, plan some sort of coping strategy to do ahead of time. If you know that a customer is going to complain and you are worried about spacing out, stand up when you talk on the phone or do some physical activity (jumping up and down) before meeting them. You can even hold something in your hand (like a worry stone, a stress ball, a pen, etc.) that will keep you grounded in the present.
- Managing FFF. When you cannot predict a trigger, it is important to be able to cope with it as it’s happening. Pay attention to the signs that you are going into FFF. For example, does your face get red? Do you get a headache? Does your stomach hurt? Do you notice irrational thoughts (Really?! I’m going to smack my boss in the face. That’ll show her!)? Do you realize that you have been staring at your computer screen without typing for several minutes? If you notice these things happening, immediately start re-balancing yourself. If you are ready to fly off the handle, soothe yourself. If you are starting to space out, do something to get you back in the present. If you feel like running away, find a way to take a break. When you are in a work setting, it may seem incredibly awkward to start soothing yourself when you are in the middle of some sort of transaction. I find that if you excuse yourself for a break (even to the bathroom, if you must), most people don’t pay much attention. Taking a deep breath can be pretty discrete as well. It is better to navigate through a little awkwardness than to lose a sale (or your job) because your brain shut down during FFF.
- A comment about Fight/Flight/Freeze in hyper-drive. If you are reading this and thinking, I am in FFF all the time, I have a few words on the subject. When you have had a traumatic experience at work (work place violence, getting fired, etc.), your FFF response will be in hyper-drive. This overworking of FFF can also happen when you have had other types of traumatic experiences in your life (attacks, accidents, abuse, etc.). When we experience trauma (especially repeated or numerous traumas), our FFF response is super sensitive. We have seen the true dangers out in the world, so our body is on the lookout for more, all the time. Managing FFF is especially important in this case. Proactively cope with your typical response (soothing yourself if anxious or ready to fight, energizing yourself if spacing out). Don’t wait for a trigger because work may be the trigger. If you find it difficult to manage FFF on your own, please seek out a trained mental health professional to help you work through the trauma and make an individualized coping plan.
- Using FFF to your advantage. So, most of the time, we want to mitigate the effects of FFF. Why would I add a section on using it to your advantage? Well, the bold truth is that the Fight part of the response is activating. That means it can help drive your ambition and motivation. If you are out of control, the fight response pops over into blackout rages or jumping off into irrationality (leading to risky decisions). If you can have your fight response percolating while you keep your logical brain present, you will have energy to seek out new leads, go for that new project, or take calculated risks that can lead your company to the next level. How do you access the fight response without taking on all of the irrationality? Well, my first suggestion is to do something you are passionate about. If you are passionate about your work, you will want to fight to serve more clients, distinguish yourself from your competitors, and do high quality work. Secondly, you must take good care of yourself (physically, emotionally, spiritually), so you can readily calm yourself down if you start spiking into true Fight mode. Also, make sure to have good down time. If you keep your fight response simmering and work all of the time, you will burn yourself out. Rest well, so that you can fight another day.
I find that I use a wide variety of FFF responses. I am apt to snap, space out, or run away if I don’t take good care of myself. If work is stressing you out, consider whether you are being impacted by your natural instincts. Manage your responses so that they help rather than harm your career.
Find your path.. away from stress and into balance!
If you need help identifying how the Fight/Flight/Freeze Response is impacting your career, feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org; 424-241-3205