Understanding and addressing the Fight-Flight-Freeze response is critical to effective leadership and recovering after tragedy.
Powerlessness in the presence of a threat is terrifying! The nightmare we all dread most is the one where the boogie man is chasing us and our feet get caught in quicksand. Right?!
When “under the influence” of traumatic stress, humans typically react with the familiar the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response. Consider these responses within the Animal Kingdom in response to safety risks: Tigers Fight. Deer take Flight. Snowshoe rabbits Freeze.
Understanding the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response
We humans are fearfully and wonderfully made! When we are under stress, multiple and immediate chemical and neuropsychological adjustments quickly enhance our capabilities to help us address the present threat. Whereas these responses can have short-term survival value in the midst of a crisis or a battle field, they often do not translate well to more typical work or community environments. For example, a night spent sleeping “with one eye open” is much more valuable when in a combat zone than prior to an 8 a.m. budget meeting.
Consider these reactions in terms of their potential impacts upon productivity and return to work.
Amidst a perceived threat, people immediately attempt to make sense of the incident in attempt to gain some sense of control over it. Unfortunately, these decisions tend to be impulsive, extreme, and self-protective. Conditions are ripe for hostility and blame and the resultant allegations need not be accurate to be destructive.
- As people revert to primal defenses, risk of suicide and violence increase.
- Self-blame and other-directed blame impair relationships, productivity, teamwork and morale.
- Frustration directed at or witnessed by those nearby damages the organization’s mission and reputation.
- Vengeful litigation and disparagement increase in likelihood.
Avoidance behavior is characteristic of acute traumatic stress. Impacted members of the organization seek to avoid any stimuli associated with the incident. This can include steering clear of the site, co-members, tasks related to the incident, etc. Some withdraw from others because of the fear that conversations with them will produce emotional vulnerability.
- Absenteeism, especially when unplanned, increases replacement costs and slows productivity targeted at deadlines.
- Attrition increases replacement and training costs plus leads to loss of intellectual and relational capital.
- Distancing inhibits mission-critical relationships, teamwork and the exchange of necessary communication.
Following traumatic events, people often report feeling numb or immobilized. For a period of time, many experience difficulty thinking abstractly, focusing and multi-tasking. Some express this reaction as a desire to “remain invisible.”
- Excessive “hunkering down” produces ineffective, indecisive results.
- Extended inaction results in the increased likelihood of the member never returning to rejoin your group. For employees, this increases the likelihood of expensive Workers Comp and Disability claims.
Addressing the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response
Effective crisis leadership includes emphasis upon transition to a future focus and next steps. Response that compassionately acknowledges the impact of the incident and communicates pertinent information is foundational but not enough.
People derive a healthy sense of order and efficacy when gently, but decisively, steered away from reactive decisions toward routine, concrete, productive tasks. Doing so communicates an expectation of recovery that empowers and is likely to be internalized by them.
Again, powerlessness is terrifying. Leaders do well to focus people away from powerlessness toward what they do have control over. Healthy, life-giving control mitigates anxiety and allows natural resilience to occur. Inertia shifts into momentum. These tasks may need to be temporarily adapted but serve to promptly restore an increased sense of safety.
“If you fall off a horse, get back on a pony as soon as possible.”