We have all heard of our Fight and Flight response. Check out most of the articles on stress and you will see headlines such as “Stress: The Number One Killer”, “4 Way Stress Is Destroying Your Body” and “How Stress Is Killing Your Libido”.
Is it an outdated system in today’s modern world? Does it still serve a purpose? What else can we rely on?
New research is helping us to further understand our stress response and we are learning that there is so much more that we have access to. Fight and Flight is not outdated. It serves a purpose, but as leaders, there are other systems that can build our resilience and that can help our team to THRIVE.
Our stress response is one of our most important resources and is the key to building our resilience.Click to tweet
Our teams are facing multiple stressors, from deadlines and more tasks to do than there is time, to personality conflicts and mental health challenges, and difficulties balancing personal lives. But most of these stressors are not threats to our life and do not necessitate our Fight and Flight response. Fight and Flight should only be activated in an emergency situation, like the fire alarms going off or the car in front suddenly coming to a dead stop. These other issues require a different response.
Our stress response is simply our body’s reaction to circumstances in which it feels it needs more strength, stamina, and alertness in order to survive, thrive and return our body’s physiological and psychological systems back to normal functioning. Our stress response gives us the power to tackle challenges and come out on top.
But like any power, it can be harnessed for productive ends or mishandled in ways that have destructive results. The amount of stress we feel given a certain set of circumstances is directly proportional to the degree in which we feel our skills and resources are adequate in addressing them. Far too often our interpretation of events around us involve inadequacy, personalization, and anger. When we see these issues in this way, we inappropriately invoke the Fight and Flight Response as if we were dealing with an ’emergency’.
If this happens, day after day, this chronic stress causes our bodies to dump out levels of stress hormones over and over again. Unfortunately, a steady dose of something that was supposed to be rare and fleeting can make us physically and emotionally sick.
Fortunately, our stress response includes two additional types of responses: the Challenge Response and the Tend and Befriend Response. Each of these can be turned on like the Fight and Flight Response and each involves a whole host of neurotransmitters and hormones working in conjunction to help us respond, learn and return to a normal state of being without being ‘damaged’.
The Challenge Response is similar to the Fight and Flight Response, but without the element of fear. During the challenge response, our body responds more like it does during physical exercise. Because we aren’t anticipating harm, like in a threat response, our blood vessels stay relaxed. Our heart has a stronger beat, not just faster. Like Fight or Flight response, a Challenge Response gives us energy and helps us perform under pressure. Our adrenaline spikes, our muscles and brain get more fuel, and we get a feel-good chemical surge. The challenge response give us self-confidence, motivates us, gives us energy and helps us to focus and problem solve. It differs from the Fight or Flight response in that we feel focused, but not fearful.
Research shows us that the best way to invoke the Challenge Response is to change the way we think about stress.
We need to see that stress brings awareness to things that we care about, it provides energy as a way to motivate us, and it can help us learn important information and strategies for future challenges.Click to tweet
According to psychologist and researcher Alia Crum, there is a three-step process to help switch to a “stress helps” mindset:
- Acknowledge stress when you experience it and notice how it impacts you psychologically and physically.
- Recognize that stress is a response to something you care about. We don’t get stressed over things that we don’t care about.
- Make use of the energy stress gives you. Utilize the energy in a productive way.
As a leader, helping your team invoke the Challenge Response during difficult times is critical to creativity, productivity and resiliency. Connect the current stressor with the bigger picture. How is it connected to the goals and values of the team and the organization? When you take this view, work doesn’t necessarily become less stressful, but it can become more meaningful. Seeing both the good and bad in the situation moves your team out of the threat response and into the challenge response. Build in down time to replenish the energy being used by the Challenge Response. Encourage breaks and monitor overtime.
Tend and Befriend Response
Stress doesn’t only motivate self-protection through the Fight and Flight Response. It can also unleash the instinct to protect the tribe. In a stressful situation, the Tend and Befriend Response releases oxytocin that helps us to build social bonds, provide motivation, increase intuition and reduce fear. It counterbalances our basic survival instinct to avoid harm. It is a biological state engineered to reduce fear and increase hope.
The impulse to connect is both a natural response to stress and one of the most important sources of resilience.Click to tweet
Any time you choose to help others, you activate this state. We can utilize this response by connecting with those around us, supporting others in need and by working towards bigger than self goals. Providing mentors, team events and volunteering projects can create a supportive community that reduces the risk of burnout and other negative reactions to stress. By focusing on others, we move out of fear and into courage and hope.
As a leader, we need to understand that our teams have more available to them than just the Fight and Flight Response when responding to stressful situations. We can help our teams utilize their Challenge Response and their Tend and Befriend Response as a resource that helps them to navigate their way through the daily stressors at work and reduces the negative impact of stress. When utilized appropriately, we help our teams to become smarter, stronger, more courageous, happier, healthier, and more resilient.
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If you have some strategies to share – comment on this posting!