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Friday, April 15, 2016

Under stress? How do you respond?

I want you to imagine a stressful situation for a moment. At a weekly management meeting, you're suddenly asked to present an update on a project you've been working on but you're nowhere near ready, let alone have any kind of interesting insights off the top of your head to share. 

So the prevalent understanding is that your mind and body calls upon your survival system to rescue you by two possible reactions: fight or flight.

Fight - You try and get out of speaking by saying you're not ready and don't feel comfortable presenting at all.

Flight - If you have to present, you speak as fast as possible in order to quickly get it over with.

As first described in the 1920s by American physiologist Walter Cannon, these outcomes illustrate the two poles of the fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response. When we interpret a situation as intimidating or terrifying, internal processes that are built into the brain or have been learned prepare us by releasing hormones into the body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety.

This built-in survival mechanism served our ancestors well, but it can sometimes be faulty. Since it happens automatically, its interpretation isn't always accurate, at times being activated when there isn't any kind of real danger. Phobias, for example, demonstrate the sometimes flawed mechanism of fight or flight since even perceived threats can trigger changes in our nervous system such as heart palpitation and increased respiration rate, which result in behaviours we may be unable to control or regret later.

So the reason for this discussion is two-fold. To begin with, if we agree that this response to stress is prone to mistakes, then it's possible to manage and even rewire it. Secondly, why should we only acknowledge two opposing poles of reaction? Surely, between fight and flight, we have evolved sufficiently to demonstrate other reactions along that continuum, wouldn't you agree?

So here are some more possible reactions, both helpful and harmful ones, based on our example above. Read through them and think about which reactions you generally express.


. Freeze - Your mind is likely to go blank, you doubt yourself and when you do manage to string a few words together, your presentation sounds artificial and robotic.

. Fade - You remain quiet, avoid the issue and deny what is happening, hoping that it will just fade away or be forgotten.

. Flurry - In a mad frenzy, you leave the meeting room, demonstrating anger and insecurity. The situation is often left unresolved and people will have a negative impression about you.

. Fuss - You begin complaining and arguing about the injustice of what is being asked, creating a tense environment, hoping to get out of it by showing an emotional reaction to the request.

. Fool - You try and come up with a false excuse or use lies, such as having to go to another meeting soon, in order to get out of the situation.

. Fan - You use distraction tactics by pulling others into the discussion and moving the focus away from the requested task.

. Formulate - You professionally acknowledge what's been asked of you and at the same time you try and formulate a compromise of perhaps being given more time to prepare so that everyone could benefit from the discussion.

. Fix - A solution is reached, at the end of the discussion following 'formulate', where all people involved seem satisfied with the outcome.

As psychologists, we are always interested in helping people find ways to confront and prevent stress in order live healthier, more productive lives. Knowing that to a large extent we can manage both external and internal conditions creates a deeper sense of awareness about our level of controllability and predictability regarding our mental and physical health.

You have the ability to communicate and respond calmly to the changes that occur within your system so rather than being emotionally hijacked, make sure you're consciously involved in that process.

So next time when you're faced with an emotive situation, remember that between fight or flight there are numerous other paths you can take to arrive at a favourable destination.

 Dr Samineh I. Shaheem is a professor of psychology, and a learning & development specialist. Contact her Follow her on Twitter: @saminehshaheemInstagram: @wellbeing.psychology.awakePSYCHE
/Khaleej Times.

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