Stress Response-Ability: Beyond Fight-or-Flight

About eight years ago my life went through a bit of an upheaval. I was in the middle of a demanding Masters program, I was working in a job that really wasn’t fulfilling, I was in a relationship that had an uncertain future, and I was in that “phase” of life where I was questioning everything.

My stress was high and my resilience was low. Let me tell you, it was not a winning combo.  Despite my type-A, success-at-all-cost mentality, my body shut down. Stress was oozing from any available outlet. Meanwhile, my b*tch-of-an-inner-critic was saying: “get it together,” “you’re stronger than this,” “successful people don’t break down!” (Doesn’t she just say all the right things?)

With so many changes (real and potential) going on, my mental and emotional capacity was tapped out. I was at my max. And, what I’ve realized is that I’m not alone. Stress isn’t something we casually talk about… especially as a leader. It has a stigma, and can be seen as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. Though I can tell you, I’m stronger now for having lived through and experienced that low point.

The truth is, stress is real and it’s everywhere – at work, at home, between work and home… With our current world, some say we might even have a stress epidemic on our hands: leaving people with an out-of-control feeling more often than not. But what we do have influence and control over is growing our capacity and resilience to deal with it.

Physiologically, we are wired to respond to threats with our automatic stress reaction of “fight, flight or freeze” – a response that is very useful in predator-prey situation, not so useful in a corporate office.

In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world-renowned expert and teacher on mindfulness-based stress reduction, says that rather than falling victim to our stress reaction, we can develop adaptive strategies for coping: “you do not have to go the route of fight-or-flight reaction nor the route of helplessness every time you are stressed. You can actually choose not to.” Simply by bringing in mindfulness, or moment-to-moment awareness to what happens to us when we are stressed we reduce the strong-hold that our stress reaction can have on us.

When we’re in the grip of stress, we’re not at our best. And as a leader, when you’re not at your best, your team can suffer.

So what can you do? Start with simply noticing.

  • What is it that triggers a stress reaction in you?
  • What is your “typical” full-out stress reaction?
  • Can you pay attention to the subtle cues that are the start of the downward spiral of stress?
  • What can you do to re-calibrate and re-energize?

When I get that antsy, anxious flutter in my tummy, I know it’s time to hit the woods on my bike and get grounded. It fills up my tank emotionally, physically and mentally, and gives me the re-fresh I need to face the challenges that are part of life and leadership.

What are your stories around stress? What’s your re-fresh routine? Do you have one?

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4 thoughts on “Stress Response-Ability: Beyond Fight-or-Flight

  1. I had a life coaching session Monday and came up with a step-by-step action plan to clarify and deflate a trigger, and it sure looks a lot like this article I just read by you! This is great. Thanks for sharing.

  2. My steps are:
    1) Body check – am I triggered? Am I physically feeling something? Where? What emotion is it?
    2) Ask myself: is it me, the other(s)/situation or both that is triggered? What may have been set off? Do I have a story attached to it? May they (sometimes I can tell of the response is disproportionate to the action)? Was it an old pattern, a fear, etc that triggered me?
    3) Presence myself: I may or may not know for sure in the moment. (sometimes it takes a whole to “come down” and see through the mud of a trigger or accumulated stress)
    4) Once trigger/stress is deflated: Ask myself who I want to be in the moment for me and who I want to be in the moment for the other person? Ask myself how I can be in my essence with the person I’m in relationship with and was triggered by?
    5) Be compassionate. What are they feeling? Where are they at? What do they need?

    As soon as I wrote this down, a lovely opportunity to be triggered presented itself so I could practice this. It took at least 20 min to cool down enough to share space with the other person. It took about 18 hours (sleep and reflection time with coach, journaling, and a bath included) to get through it all and come to a place of clarity, essence, grounding, love and compassion.

    Then it went smoothly and both of us were able to speak from our hearts.

    1. Thanks for sharing Rebecca. It takes such awareness to be able to move skillfully through these situations… nice work. Interesting that you noticed that it took at least 20 minutes for you to cool down — I think I read somewhere that brain research shows that it takes this amount of time (at least) for us to simply get out of the amygdala hijack.

      1. I would certainly agree about the 20 minutes or more!! I went through at least four or five cycles of different emotions in that time. First shock and then fight or flight. Next was some sort of anger that quickly turned to hurt and sadness. Self soothing began after that via silence and a protective wall that flew up, then disassociation! It took until the next day for the clarity and understanding to come, and that took a couple coaching sessions and conversations and journaling to find. Whew. Amygdala hyjack.

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