When ‘fight or flight’ isn’t right – how to be objective in a stressful situation

Picture the scene – you’ve had a busy morning at a client site, you’re just crammed yourself onto a delayed train to get to your next meeting, there are no seats so you’re clinging onto an overhead rail for dear life and your phone flashes up an email from your boss. You just see the heading: ‘Urgent – stats needed’. You open the email – it’s just a single line: ‘Need all the latest stats on Acme Corporation account asap’.

In the midst of all this chaos and busyness, how do you react?

From conversations with my coaching clients and friends, I’d say a pretty common reaction is increased heart rate, maybe feeling a bit sick, perhaps even anger. Thoughts like ‘oh no, what’s happened now?’, ‘what have I missed?’, ‘doesn’t she realise what else I’ve got on my plate today?’ might be rushing through your head. In some cases, your mind even creates a film strip starring you in all the possible negative scenarios that could arise from your boss’s request: a stressed out and sweating you explaining to the client why sales are down this quarter, a doleful you carrying the contents of your desk out of the building in a cardboard box, a miserable you eating cold baked beans from the tin as you search online for a new job.

The bit of your brain that’s causing that reaction is your amygdala – it’s the part of the brain that provides the ‘fight or flight response’. Whilst there are situations in which that response is essential, that’s not the case for most of our everyday lives, thank goodness. When our emotions take over, it’s known as an ‘amygdala hijack’. The bit of the brain we want to use to deal with these situation is the pre-frontal cortex: it’s the ‘thinking’ area of the brain where we can be more rational in our responses.

How do we move our thinking from the amygdala to the pre-frontal cortex?

Name your emotion
Is it anger? Is it fear? As you name it, you are activating your pre-frontal cortex and taking a step back from the immediate emotional response, thus lessening its impact.

What’s provoked that emotion?
In this example, getting an urgent email from your boss in the middle of an already stressful day.

It’s a very short email which doesn’t explain why or in what format the information is needed or what’s meant by ‘asap’.

As you work through this, you are becoming more objective about the situation and your rational pre-frontal cortex is taking over from your ‘survival instinct’ amygdala.

emotional intelligence resilience emotions body scan fight or flight amygdala

In sessions with clients where they have brought up instances of an amygdala hijack response to a situation, we often work through the emotional body scan exercise. Then I have gone one step further with objectivity by asking them to imagine themselves in the third person –

So, Paul, you see Paul on the train, getting that email and you see the colour drain from his face as he reads it. What would you suggest he does next?

When we see a situation from a third person perspective, it’s easier to craft an objective response –

I’d advise him that there’s nothing he can do whilst he’s standing up on a busy and noisy train. He can use the time on the train to calm his mind rather than letting himself get all worked up imagining stressful scenarios. I would suggest that as he gets off the train, he finds somewhere quiet to stop for five minutes to call his boss and ask for more details – what exactly does she need, by when, in what format – and to make suggestions about who else can help if it’s physically impossible for Paul to get that information to her whilst he’s out of the office.

As Daniel Goleman says, the ability to pause and to not act on that first impulse has become a crucial emotional skill in modern lives. The third person perspective can help you to become more objective in a stressful situation.

Today’s pebble for your contemplation: can you use a third person perspective to tame your amygdala hijacks and respond to a situation more objectively?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life,
why not email me to see how we can work together?

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1 Response to When ‘fight or flight’ isn’t right – how to be objective in a stressful situation

  1. Pingback: Want a different outcome? Choose how you respond | Turning over pebbles

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