Fight or flight at work

One of our most fundamental instincts is to run or fight for our survival when we feel threatened. It’s an instinct that is hardwired into our anatomy and entirely unconscious. When we become aware of a threat, our body automatically and simultaneously triggers a range of physiological responses via our sympathetical nervous system. Just some of the physical responses triggered include (source:

– Acceleration of heart and lung action
– Paling or flushing, or alternating between both
– Inhibition of stomach and upper-intestinal action to the point where digestion slows
down or stops
– General effect on the sphincters of the body
– Constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body
– Liberation of nutrients (particularly fat and glucose) for muscular action
– Dilation of blood vessels for muscles
– Inhibition of the lacrimal gland (responsible for tear production) and salivation
– Dilation of pupil (mydriasis)
– Relaxation of bladder
– Inhibition of sexual arousal
– Auditory exclusion (loss of hearing)
– Tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision)
– Acceleration of instantaneous reflexes
– Shaking

These physiological responses all work together to ensure that we are ideally prepared for violent physical action at short notice. When you think about it aren’t our bodies truly amazing things?!

During my Christmas holidays I was out fishing on my kayak and experienced the fight or flight response first hand. Things were going well and I had caught my first fish quickly. Even better still, I had the whole beach to myself and I was on top of the world! However, things changed when I caught my second fish. I was reeling it in and got it to within 2 metres of the boat when along came a large Hammerhead shark which ate my approximately 40cm fish, together with my 10cm lure, whole. It came and went within 2 seconds and the whole incident was so quick that I didn’t have time to think.

Initially, I was surprised at how composed I was. Panicking in the middle of the ocean, with no-one else around except for hungry sharks would not have been the best idea and I was proud that I had not done so. Although scared, I began to tie a new lure onto my line. The only problem was that I was incapable of performing such fine dextrous movements, thanks to my flight or fight instincts, and I promptly dropped my rod into the water. Ten minutes later, after struggling to retrieve my fishing gear, I was overcome with exhaustion and suddenly felt very sick. I was no longer scared of the shark at this stage, but I could physically feel all the adrenaline in my system. My body wanted me to run and I wasn’t letting it. Instead I did the next best thing and paddled to shore.

Although you could argue that in this instance my basic instincts to get out of there were correct, on one level, they also let me down and potentially got me into an even more perilous situation (attempting to retrieve an overboard fishing rod).

How often do our most basic, flight or fight instincts let us down at work?

When we go to work to do our jobs, we do not leave our sympathetic nervous systems behind and we can often experience similar difficulties to what I experienced while trying to tie my line. Even though most of us do not experience life threatening situations at work, many people do feel threatened at work. Feelings are unique, personal things and the situations that make people feel threatened at work will differ greatly from person to person. Maybe it’s an argument with a colleague. Maybe it’s speaking up at a meeting or public speaking. Maybe it’s something as simple as a supervisor watching you work over your shoulder. The things that make each of us feel threatened are different but when we do, we are likely to experience many of the physiological responses mentioned above. The problem with this is that, unless you’re a professional boxer, or one of those guys on the Deadliest Catch ( TV program, the fight or flight response is not going to be particularly useful. Here are some simple examples of when the fight or flight response can actually prevent us from doing our best at work:

– Reacting aggressively (and inappropriately) to colleagues at work
– Attempting to write or type with shaky hands and an increased heart-rate
– Experiencing difficulty listening to others
– Feeling burnt out or exhausted after a big meeting or difficult discussion

So… as amazing as our bodies are they do not always serve us well in the workplace. This doesn’t mean that we need to be victims of our fight or flight response!

Here are some tips about how to conquer the fight or flight response:
  • Be honest with yourself and be prepared to admit when you feel threatened
  • Identify any trends and patterns. What normally makes you feel this way and how do you typically react?
  • Identify the early warning signs. Do you start to feel hot or sweaty or are there other unique symptoms?
  • Identify any inappropriate behavioural response patterns
  • Practice delaying those predictable behavioural responses when you notice your early warning signs. Try delaying the behaviour for a little while at first and gradually increase this delay over time.
  • Once you are able to delay some of those inappropriate behavioural responses, you will find it much easier to change the behavioural responses and learn a new, more productive habit
  • Identify common inappropriate fears or feelings
  • Systematically challenge these fears or feelings and gain professional help if required
  • Share your struggle with a trusted colleague or your manager. You colleagues cannot support you if they are not aware of the challenges that you are confronting (eg. if you are afraid of public speaking, why not get some training and do a bit more practice?)
Of course challenging one’s fears and modifying ingrained behaviour can often be a long and difficult journey. As such, most people will need help from a friend, family member, psychologist or workplace coach to assist with their journey. However, as with most long-term journeys the first step is often the hardest one. Hopefully this article has made it a little bit easier for some readers to take that first step. We all experience the fight or flight response at times. It’s something we are biologically programmed to experience and nothing to be embarrassed about. However, some of us have the courage to confront and challenge those fears and behavioural responses that are not serving us well in the workplace and some of us do not.

Do you ever experience the fight or flight response in the workplace? Why not vote in our quick poll or share your story below?

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