When Fight or Flight Shows Up At Work

What happens when you feel physically or emotionally under threat at work? Are you able to face the issue? Do you freeze? Do you get defensive and activated, perhaps meeting aggression with aggression at times? Do you smile and comply? Or, do you just get up and run out of the room?


These are some defensive reactions over which we can get better control.


A threat could be literally an intoxicated client trying to attack you, or it could be something smaller, like feeling "put on the spot" by a manager's question. In both cases, we have a physiological defensive reaction. We get filled with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, and our sympathetic nervous system kicks in to get us ready to defend ourselves. Difficult conversations (conflict) have a way of testing our nervous systems.


In fight or flight, you don't need your brain so much as you need to get your body to move. A little sympathetic energy can be good, bringing your focus and energy to the problem at hand. Too much is not so useful. When people go into "fight" mode, they engage with the problem, but not in a very constructive way. Folks yell, stand up, clench their fists, and argue. As a consequence, they tend to repel others. Colleagues will end up avoiding them out of fear of their defensiveness. Some people become really dysregulated, and because they have little coping skills, they might even physically engage with the person they feel threatened by. Most people are trying hard to hold onto their jobs, so they stop themselves from getting aggressive. The body is still filled with all that sympathetic energy, so the body kicks into a different defensive mode.


When people go into "flight" mode, they (sometimes literally) run away from the problem rather than engaging with it. Folks tend to do more passive aggressive forms of resistance when they're feeling that "flight" energy - activated, but not feeling safe enough to engage. They might lie, omit, sabotage, slow down work, and behave very differently in person than they do in private. When you or your colleagues are avoidant, no one gets their needs met properly.


Going into "freeze" mode can happen to anyone, but some people are more prone to it. You want to run away or hit something, but obviously you can't. You're at work. You have to be professional. Meanwhile, though, the body is trying to protect you by trying to shut down your senses. Sometimes it gets stuck in "freeze," where you're kind of like a deer in headlights - scared but unable to act. You can't feel hurt by whatever feels threatening if you disassociate. That feeling where your body feels all hot everywhere and your brain seems to go blank? That's the "freeze mode" I am talking about. If your body goes into "shut down, you might literally faint. More likely, you get really disconnected from your feelings and you barely engage in the difficult conversation that you're feeling threatened by. It's pretty hard to solve a problem when you're constantly avoiding it through smiling compliance and silence. In "freeze" mode, folks are often disengaged with themselves (and the problem), while still trying to "attract" (maintain connection) with the other person.

Being able to "face" a difficult conversation is one part using your coping skills and one part feeling generally safe despite your fear of the conversation. When people have good rapport with and trust with heir colleagues, they communicate safety with their body and facial expressions - leaning in, smiling, using a warm and calm tone. They use eye contact - but don't give so much eye contact that it makes the conversation partner uncomfortable. (Feelings about eye contact can be pretty variable, and you have to read people's body language. You can give eye contact breaks or look at the person's nose, especially if it seems like that's what they're doing.) When both people in the conversation use these techniques, they calm each other. The internal state starts to produce the external signs of safe connection. Each person might think, "Oh this is not so bad." As the conversation progresses, they get closer to understanding and to the solution.


If you're feeling activated in a difficult conversation, notice your feelings. Saying them out loud in a calm voice (without making the other person responsible for your feelings) can sometimes provide relief for yourself and help your conversation partner understand what's going on for you. Breathe. This can help your heart rate slow back down. Your conversation partner's breath and heart rate will often naturally slow to match yours. Notice your body language. If your fists are clenched, release. If you feel that impulse to fly and rush to your feet, then sit down slowly. Sometimes the movement of sitting is calming. Or, explain that you want to engage in the conversation but you need a moment. i.e., sometimes you have to listen to the impulse to run away, and do so in a mature manner. You can also check in with yourself as to whether the situation is really as scary as it feels - "Yolanda is a nice person; she will want to know that I am feeling this way." You can reassure your body that you have the skills for difficult conversations.


You've got this.


Note: this infographic is inspired by one by Grace LaConte.

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