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It all begins in the amygdala, triggering a neural response in the hypothalamus. Less than a heartbeat later, your heart pumps your blood around faster than ever, your lung action accelerates, your digestion system slows down, there is a release of blood sugars and fats enhancing muscular action, your pupils dilate and you might even get complete tunnel vision. Amongst other physiological reactions.

The stress-response. The human body reacting to a perceived threat. What do we do with all that released energy?

We fight. We freeze. Or we flight. In business just as in the wild.

We are primed to battle and triumph by fighting if we feel up to it. We run away faster than we ever thought possible to escape when we don’t think we have a chance. And we freeze when we are so overwhelmed that we can only hope our attacker may lose interest if we pretend to be dead. So we fight, we flight, or we play dead. Again, all decided in less than a heartbeat. Instinct.

So far nothing new. It is the following that continues to amaze me.

Did you know that a colleague making an annoying remark at work potentially leads to your body showing the same physiological reaction? Did you know that the impact of that remark could be, physiologically spoken, as impactful as an unforeseen and life-threatening encounter with a dangerous wild animal?

It does!

In both cases, the body is responding to a perceived physical or mental threat. The adrenaline released by your sympathetic nervous system knows no difference. You are under attack. And it is all about survival.

Knowing this, what happens if you get nothing but high stress levels at work? What if your work environment is pretty hostile all of the time? How do you learn to cope without having this physiological stress response being activated in your body all the time?

  • You can’t keep fighting. As in constantly arguing, defending yourself or your point of view, blaming others or move from conflict to conflict. You may “win”, nevertheless much is getting lost
  • You can’t keep fleeing either. As in avoiding the situation by coming late for that meeting, by not picking up the phone, by postponing the to do, or by agreeing to a consensus even though in fact you don’t agree at all
  • And you certainly can’t keep freezing as a deer in the headlights, as you know that won’t be getting you anywhere at all

What is the alternative? Here is an approach I use in my coaching. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section!


1. Choose your battles 

Look at the (recurring) situation from an objective perspective instead of an emotional one. What would you advise your friend if he or she was in your shoes? Skip the perfectionism and know that by fact you are good enough just the way you are. Focus on setting a more realistic expectation toward yourself. Decide what is important and what is not. Set a specific goal for growth and work on it


2. Plan your (re)action, step-by-step

A step-by-step behavioral action plan keeps you away from diving into your emotion when something happens. Learn how to effectively manage a stress situation. Find out which models or theories can support you. Know how to ground yourself in the moment. With breathing techniques, visualization techniques or simply by making sure you have a (verbal) response up and ready in your system


3. Practice and assess

Switch towards a more conscious approach on your behavior. Practice after action assessment en identify what is triggering your body to go into stress-mode in spite of your good intention. What in particular made you freeze? Why did you let go of your plan of action? Knowing your triggers allows you to replace the unwanted behavior with behavior that is bringing you the desired outcome faster and more efficient


Last but not least, don’t beat yourself up when things do go wrong. In an absent moment it isn’t always a matter of choice. If it were as easy as simple …

How do you deal with the above? Looking forward to your input!
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About the author

Being a certified executive and personal coach, Sofie Varrewaere is associated to the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching team and owner of the global executive coaching practice As a behavioural expert she has many years of experience working with the top layer of several multinational organizations. Her passions include playing her quarter grand piano and messing around with acrylic paint on large sized linen canvas. When she’s not catching some proverbial Big Fish, you’ll probably find her in her daily boxing class or in the swimming pool. She is luckiest doing what she does best, challenging others and herself to perform at their best