Scott Raderstorf was on vacation with his family at the Golden Buddha Beach Resort in Thailand when he had the most terrifying day of his life.*
Having sold their software company, he and his wife were taking their three sons on a six-month around-the-world blitz.
A Real-Life Fight-or-Flight Moment
Raderstorf was working on his laptop at the resort’s Internet shack when he heard a huge BOOM. He ran out to the beach, and as he stood and watched, the water grew strangely loud and morphed into a thirty-foot tall mountain of surf moving toward the beach at crushing speed – a tsunami, he found out later, that was triggered by the second-largest earthquake ever recorded.
Without thinking, Raderstorf turned and broke into a dead sprint towards the steps of his house, one of the few with a brick foundation, just as a huge wave of water enveloped the house.
Recalling the story, he says: “I remember the total panic, I was just supercharged with adrenaline, more hopped up than I’d ever felt before.”
Voila! A prime example of our automatic fear system — the fight-or-flight response – in action, doing what it was designed to do: ensure our continued existence right now.
MODERN LIFE COMPLICATES THINGS
In our modern lives, it’s rare that we encounter actual, immediate threats to our survival. Our “fight or flight” instinct, however, isn’t taking any chances.
So it doesn’t distinguish a genuine threat – a charging saber-toothed tiger or tsunami — from an imaginary or perceived threat – an angry client or rush-hour traffic. Being humiliated, criticized or taken advantage of…these are all treated as threats. Which means (especially for those of us living in urban environments) that our fight-or-flight response fires off an average of 40 times a day.
When it does, we experience the physical effects of being on alert regardless of whether or note our lives are truly in danger: adrenaline pours into our system, our heart starts pounding, our hands get sweaty and our stomach begins churning.
As a result, the natural responses designed to protect us begin, in fact, to harm us when we deal with them repeatedly over time. Our immune system breaks down, we become more susceptible to infection and disease, and our digestive system suffers.
This is the mistake of letting your fight-or-flight instinct run the show.
WHAT TO DO
1. Switch your perspective.
In the stress of the typical workday, it’s oh-so-easy to get caught up in the negative biases and anxious thoughts that immediately flood our brain.
So the first thing to do when you feel like blowing up, is stop and ask yourself: Is this a life-threatening situation? (Hint: If you have time to ask, it isn’t.)
Once you’ve evalated the alert and recognized that you’re not in actual danger, you can switch to the more rational side of your brain (a.k.a. the prefrontal cortex) and start to reframe the situation.
For example, what if when the client yells at you on the phone, you can – deep breath — see that it’s less about their anger at you and more about their fear of screwing up in front of their team.
If someone cuts you off in traffic, you can give them the benefit of the doubt – maybe they have an emergency at home – and not take it personally. (So yeah, it might not be easy right off the bat but it gets easier with practice.)
As Elizabeth Phelps, professor of psychology at New York University, says: “When you change the way you appraise a situation, you change your emotional response to it.”
2. Pinpoint the threat.
Oftentimes, the perceived threat may not so clearly defined — you may just feel a vague sense of anxiety.
In that case, grab a piece of paper and make a stream-of-consciousness list of everything you’re worried about. Then drill down and get specific. If you’re feeling anxious about an upcoming sales presentation, see if you can pinpoint exactly what you’re nervous about: That you’ll forget a key point? That the clients won’t pay attention? The make-or-break moment of asking for the business?
By isolating exactly what’s causing that pit in your stomach, you can come up with concrete actions to take.
Tomorrow I’ll be back with a quick lesson about the mistake most people, even top performers, make when it comes to self-confidence.
See you then,
* Taylor Clark tells the full story in his fascinating book Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.