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How to deal with a fight-flight-freeze response in stressful situations

In times of stress, everyone reacts differently. A change or crisis initially triggers fear in all of us. This fear is our automatic defense mechanism. It happens because our brain encounters an unfamiliar situation and focuses on its task: ensuring our survival.

Due to the hormones released during stress, we naturally respond with a fight-flight-freeze reaction. This has been studied by American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon. How do you handle colleagues who get stuck in a fight-flight-freeze mode?

Fight Response

In a fight response, someone becomes defensive and confrontational. They leave little room for you and pass strong judgment on what is happening. They may become sarcastic and try to convince everyone that they are right.

Example: Someone is afraid to participate in video conferences because they don’t understand the technology. They strongly oppose the proposal, saying, “That will never work. We tried it before, and people who joined the meeting from home were only distracted or had poor sound quality. It doesn’t work.”

Breaking the Cycle

You can help someone break out of the fight response by allowing them to express their anger. Active listening is particularly effective in this case. Summarize the content and also acknowledge the underlying emotions. Show that you are just as resilient as they are. Match their strength in your tone (except when the other person is being aggressive, then remain firm). Make it clear that you can handle this, creating a safe environment for them.

Response to the above situation

“So, you had a negative experience with this in the past, is that correct? I can understand why you would be skeptical. What exactly went wrong back then?”

Flight Response
In a flight response, someone wants to escape or avoid the situation. Ultimately, they can’t escape, but their body language shows discomfort. They tend to avoid the topic and seek support from those who feel the same. Taking on a victim role is common in this response.

Example: The management team has communicated a change in direction to generate more revenue. As a result, your colleague’s project has suddenly become a top priority with a tighter deadline. Your colleague comes to you and says, “Did you see they shortened the deadline? I can never make it. Suddenly, the project is important. They should have consulted me…”

Breaking the Cycle

The person in front of you is primarily afraid. Inspire them to act as if they were not afraid. It helps to first acknowledge their apprehension (make a connection) and then paint a positive picture of the end result (share a vision).

Response to the above situation

“So, you’re disappointed that they made this decision without consulting you? Imagine for a moment that this project becomes a great success. And thanks to your efforts, we achieve a record revenue. Then the management team will surely involve you in many more things in the future. Wouldn’t that be great?”

Freeze Response

In a freeze response, someone becomes unsure of what to do. They may literally freeze or react automatically. It’s difficult to establish a connection with them.

You announce to your team that there is no work due to new government measures. Your team members are left with nothing to do. After a brief silence, one employee panics and says, “But how do I handle this with my children? What should I do? I don’t know how to explain this at home. What will happen to our jobs?”

Breaking the Cycle
Someone in a freeze state needs time to recover. You can achieve this by creating a calm environment, but it can also be helpful to encourage movement. It’s important not to push the person further but give them space (keep a distance).

Response to the above situation

“Everything will be fine. Shall we both get a glass of water? Then let’s sit down together in 5 minutes, and I’ll answer all your questions.”

Pay Attention to Signals!

Colleagues experience various emotions. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, so their needs may differ.

It is crucial that you bring patience and calmness into every conversation. Make sure you don’t get caught in a fight-flight-freeze reaction yourself. Create peace within yourself so that you remain open to the signals from others and respond effectively.

This is a crucial skill if you want to guide your team, colleagues, or organization through changes or crisis situations in a positive way. You can make a difference!

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