Regularly I get asked, “How do I deal with a difficult situation?” It’s a fair question. And if we think about it, it’s an uncomfortable situation which we all dread. Yet when we feel like this, we often don’t realise we have what I like to call “a rabbit in head-lights” moment.
So, what happens? Basically, we panic and we stop breathing. When we freeze, it’s like our brain has been hijacked and we can’t think clearly. Sometimes we say nothing, however more than often we react and don’t realise we may say the wrong thing.
Many people are familiar with the concept of “fight or flight”. It’s a natural survival instinct, going back to our caveman days. Historically, it was used to help people react quickly and effectively when under threat. They would either fight back or run-away depending on what was needed.
The part of the brain which triggers this reaction is called the “Amygala”. It sends a distress signal to the body, whilst producing high levels of adrenaline and cortisol to prepare for action. According to Psychologist Daniel Goleman (in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ") when we have “Amygala hijack” we have an extreme emotional response. It’s immediate and often overwhelming, preventing us from making rational decisions.
Whilst this was necessary many years ago, the fight or flight reaction is not needed as often in modern day life, especially in a workplace environment.
Yet, human nature is that sometimes we find ourselves in stressful and unexpected situations. Our reflexes take over and we either fight back or take flight.
- In basic terms fighting back entails a coercive “power play”. We feel threatened, we stop listening and act out in a defensive or even aggressive manner.
- Taking flight on the other hand involves “walking away”. We distance ourselves from the other person, we withdraw and stop communicating.
Ultimately neither of these reactions help to resolve the situation. They only prolong any chance of reconciliation. So, what can we do about it?
- We need to recognise the signs when it happens. This may include a faster heartbeat, sweaty hands, goose-pumps, dilated eyes, shortness of breath and increased blood-flow.
- Then we need to acknowledge how we are feeling. Remind yourself, it’s a knee-jerk reaction and not necessarily the right one.
- Take deep breaths and focus on your thoughts and how you are feeling. This will help calm you and prevent you over-reacting.
- Take a glass of water or hot drink – the physical action of taking a drink and letting it go down your throat can help bring you back.
- Use reasoning – learn to engage the front part of your brain (frontal lobes) that deals with rational thought. Work through the situation and choose the most logical approach.
- Look for calm in your life – practice techniques to help reduce stress, increase calmness and bring more harmony in your life. This may be through yoga, meditation or perhaps other sports.
- Ground yourself – learn the bottom-up approach. This involves training your body to calm first, so it can influence your brain to take back control. This may include visualising a certain image, saying a word or doing an action.
In essence, if we can begin to identify our reactions and practice these steps regularly, we can all learn to avoid these stressful situations and live a better life.