Have you ever been addressed in a meeting unexpectedly? All of a sudden, it feels like the room temperature rose 10 degrees, and your upper lip is visibly sweating.
At this point, all you can think about is whether you should wipe the beads of sweat from your face. Then you realize you need to say something—anything—and all that comes out is a stutter while you rack your brain.
That can result in an embarrassing moment that will keep you up at night, but the scientific name is fight or flight. Our bodies naturally respond to a perceived threat with an instinctual choice between confronting the threat (fighting) or avoiding it (fleeing), and neither are great when it comes to working as a team.
This adaptation stems from the early days of civilization when we were confronted by tigers in the jungle or a younger brother trying to usurp the throne. Today the response is triggered by smaller daily “threats,” like being asked to speak publicly, impromptu.
Are emotional hijacks holding you back?
Emotional intelligence (EQ) expert and corporate coach Bill Benjamin calls this an emotional hijack and knows it is a huge impediment to cohesive teamwork. When our bodies go into fight or flight, the amygdala portion of our brains releases cortisol into the bloodstream, as well as other chemicals into our brains that reduce memory and prevent complex thought.
If a tiger jumps out at you in the jungle, you don’t want your brain to spend time assessing the situation. Instead, you want the adrenaline rush that will help you get out of the situation. However, when you’re presenting at an investment pitch, you want neither.
In modern-day society, our fight or flight response hampers us most of the time. It prevents us from connecting when it matters. What’s worse is falling victim to this natural response when you need to be calm and patient in a team setting.
Regain control of your brain
Benjamin has spent over 20 years studying the underlying brain science of mindfulness and performance under pressure. He’s worked with professional athletes, astronauts, and executives of Fortune 500 companies to develop a system to prevent emotional hijacks.
In The New York Times bestselling book Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When it Matters the Most by EQ experts Dr. JP Pawliw-Fry and Drs. Hendrie Weisinger, Benjamin contributes 22 different techniques to stop the amygdala from hijacking your emotions and embarrassing you when you need to bring your A-game.
Benjamin shares three powerful ways to regain control of your brain when you’re in the hot seat—he calls it the SOS system.
Put a pause on the moment. Whether it’s taking a sip of water, stepping away for a walk, or refocusing on something else in the room. If you can disconnect from the trigger, even for a few seconds, you will be able to slow the flight or flight response in your brain.
You may not realize it, but you will naturally begin to close your palms into a fist—maybe not a full, ready-to-fight fist, but they will close to an extent when your brain enters fight or flight. Benjamin says recognizing and actively working to unclench your fists will help to mentally put a pause on the situation and shift your focus while undoing the physio effects of the response.
Take a big deep breath and get as much oxygen into your body as possible. With cortisol pumping through your veins, your adrenaline will peak. When you take a mindful, deep breath, you can dilute the cortisol-injected blood flow with oxygen and minimize its effects on your body.
While you get the physical effects of fight or flight under control with the first two steps, seek information to regain control of your mind. Instead of panicking and allowing your brain to be hijacked by emotions, make a conscious effort to assess the situation logically.
Begin by surveying the room to gather information about your surroundings. This will most likely help to convince your brain you are not in immediate danger. From there, look for information that will best serve you when handling the situation. When you rely on facts, it’s hard for emotions to take control.
As simple as this system is, these three steps may help you outsmart human instinct. Next time you’re put on the spot or need to handle a difficult situation with a team member, don’t sweat it. Remember Benjamin’s SOS system and pull yourself out of an emotional hijack.
Jessica Welch is passionate about helping others and sees her work with BigSpeak as a great way to help spread knowledge. Jessica received a Bachelor’s degree in English, Creative Writing with a minor in Anthropology from California Polytechnic State University. After graduating, she spent a year teaching at a low-income high school in Oahu, HI.
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