What to Do When Stress Puts You in “Sur­vival Mode”

Business a.m. - - EX­EC­U­TIVE KNOWL­EDGE SE­RIES - Renita Kal­horn

DO YOU BE LIEVE THAT CON­STANT stress is un­avoid­able? Good for per­for­mance? Ac­tu­ally, nei­ther is true.

Liam, a tele­com ex­ec­u­tive, has been a crit­i­cal player in scal­ing a new business from zero to US$300 mil­lion in five years. He’s widely recog­nised in the or­gan­i­sa­tion as a high per­former.

When we started work­ing to­gether, how­ever, he told me he was al­ways in re­ac­tive mode -- jump­ing into ac­tion with­out think­ing through de­tails or iden­ti­fy­ing pri­or­i­ties. He never felt fully present and his mind was al­ways rac­ing, es­pe­cially at night. De­spite all his ac­com­plish­ments and ac­co­lades, he had an in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex and avoided ask­ing for help. Life, in his words, felt very trans­ac­tional.

Wel­come to the mod­ern­day ver­sion of sur­vival.

Neu­ro­science stud­ies have shown that when our brain per­ceives threats in our so­cial en­vi­ron­ment — to our sta­tus or au­ton­omy, for ex­am­ple — it re­acts in the ex­act same way it does to phys­i­cal threats: It trig­gers the “fight or flight” stress re­sponse.

That stress re­sponse af­fects our cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing in three key ways:

It causes us to over-fo­cus on per­ceived threats, mak­ing us eas­ily dis­tracted or re­ac­tive. Afraid to be seen as weak, we be­come ag­gres­sive or de­fen­sive.

It im­pairs an­a­lytic think­ing, cre­ative abil­ity and prob­lem solv­ing — the cog­ni­tive ca­pa­bil­i­ties that lead­ers need most.

It pro­duces cor­ti­sol, which low­ers testos­terone, the hor­mone that helps us recog­nise op­por­tu­nity and take ac­tion in­stead of hold­ing back in fear and in­de­ci­sive­ness.

With Covid-19 send­ing stress lev­els through the roof, it’s more im­por­tant than ever for lead­ers to man­age in­grained stress re­sponses, so that they can make clear­headed de­ci­sions about what mat­ters most.

Why “sur­vival mode” per­sists

Why do peo­ple tol­er­ate be­ing in sur­vival mode? Here’s what I’ve ob­served with my clients:

They know that they have un­healthy lev­els of stress but they think, “Well, that’s just the price to pay for suc­cess,” and they don’t know what to change.

They ac­tu­ally rely on the adren­a­line of ex­ter­nal pres­sure — a tight dead­line, po­ten­tial fail­ure — to stop pro­cras­ti­nat­ing and shift into high gear.

They have a high tol­er­ance for stress, so they over­es­ti­mate their abil­ity to cope and don’t even recog­nise to what de­gree they’re in sur­vival mode be­cause it’s been their mode of op­er­a­tion for so long. (One of my ex­ec­u­tive clients was grind­ing his teeth and had acid re­flux — signs that chronic stress was, in fact, tak­ing a toll on his health — and yet, he rated his stress level as a 4 on a scale of 10.)

It’s the worst of both worlds: Psy­cho­log­i­cally, they need ex­ter­nal pres­sure to per­form bet­ter but that very pres­sure af­fects their abil­ity to func­tion op­ti­mally.

Cir­cum­vent­ing “fight or flight”

We need a dif­fer­ent ap­proach.

The usual stress man­age­ment tips — sleep, ex­er­cise, mind­ful­ness — al­though they’re a good place to start, don’t ad­dress the root cause, or the three cog­ni­tive mis­takes our sur­vival-ori­ented brain rou­tinely makes: over­es­ti­mat­ing threats, un­der­es­ti­mat­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and un­der­es­ti­mat­ing re­sources (for han­dling threats and tak­ing advantage of op­por­tu­ni­ties).

In my work with clients, I have de­vel­oped a three-part strat­egy for cir­cum­vent­ing the brain’s “fight or flight” re­sponse.

1. Master one’s bi­ol­ogy.

The typ­i­cal so­cial en­vi­ron­ment presents thou­sands of mi­cro-stres­sors that re­volve around what I call the FASTT trig­gers:

Fu­ture: Can I pre­dict what’s go­ing to hap­pen?

Au­ton­omy: Do I have con­trol over what I do? Sta­tus: What’s my rel­a­tive


Tribe: Am I part of the group?

Time: Will I have enough?

Al­though they may not set off full-blown “fight or flight” re­ac­tions, the mi­nor an­noy­ances of FASTT trig­gers — a last-minute change to the sched­ule, a dif­fi­cult VP — still in­crease cor­ti­sol lev­els. Over time, the im­pact of these small stres­sors ac­cu­mu­late, wear­ing down the body’s im­mune sys­tem and im­pact­ing the abil­ity to per­form in a real cri­sis sit­u­a­tion.

I found this dis­tinc­tion was par­tic­u­larly marked in my work with mil­i­tary Spe­cial Forces. It wasn’t the dan­ger­ous mis­sions or po­ten­tial al­ter­ca­tions with African war­lords that the teams found stress­ful. Rather, it was the emo­tional stress of telling their sig­nif­i­cant other that they were go­ing to be de­ployed again with­out a break, or re­turn­ing home and feel­ing like an out­sider with their own fam­ily.

By map­ping out a ma­trix of po­ten­tial FASTT trig­gers in these sit­u­a­tions, they were able to be more aware of their own emo­tional re­ac­tions and pre­pare how they might re­spond.

2. Burn the “men­tal fat”.

As I ob­served the re­dun­dant think­ing and emo­tional habits — sec­ond-guess­ing, wor­ry­ing, pro­cras­ti­na­tion, peo­ple-pleas­ing — my clients had de­vel­oped through their sur­vival re­ac­tions, I un­der­stood why “pos­i­tive think­ing” isn’t enough to ef­fect change.

Emo­tions are sim­ply chem­i­cal re­ac­tions to our thoughts and it was clear that we can be­come “ad­dicted” to them, sub­con­sciously or­ches­trat­ing sit­u­a­tions to get our emo­tional “fix”, re­gard­less of what we think we want.

As the only fe­male on her com­pany’s board, my client Belinda was “ad­dicted” to be­ing right. Once she un­der­stood the un­der­ly­ing emo­tional driv­ers, she cre­ated a sim­ple three-step strat­egy to in­ter­rupt her usual pat­tern of at­tack when she was trig­gered. First, she would take a deep breath. Sec­ond, she would re­mem­ber that she was “safe”. Third, she would be cu­ri­ous. Af­ter years of feel­ing min­imised, she was able to step up her lead­er­ship in guid­ing the new CEO and fa­cil­i­tat­ing ef­fec­tive de­ci­sions dur­ing the early days of Covid-19.

3. Flex the “men­tal mus­cles”.

Only once lead­ers have shifted out of the vig­i­lant fo­cus of sur­vival mode and self-pro­tec­tion can they find space for cre­ative think­ing and re­flec­tion, and to ex­press cu­rios­ity, em­pa­thy and vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

Mak­ing that shift takes com­mit­ment to be­ing more in­ten­tional and get­ting used, through prac­tice, to the be­hav­iours of the leader they want to be­come. But the pay-off is sig­nif­i­cant.

Liam el­e­vated his per­for­mance to a whole new level. By shift­ing out of sur­vival mode, he had more real-time aware­ness of his own emo­tions (and ego) and sub­tle cues from oth­ers. As he fo­cused less on self-pro­tec­tion and more on ser­vice, he stopped shying away from con­flict and de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for not be­ing afraid to speak up about hard top­ics. As a re­sult, he turned around a dys­func­tional team in 90 days, tripling team out­put. The ic­ing on the cake: He ac­com­plished this trans­for­ma­tion in the first year of be­ing a new father.

The power of this ap­proach to stress lies in un­der­stand­ing that even though hu­mans are wired for sur­vival, we have the abil­ity to re-train our­selves.

Com­pa­nies may be in sur­vival mode but their lead­ers don’t have to be. Those that can shift out of sur­vival mode will be able to ac­cess their best per­for­mance when tack­ling the chal­lenges to come.

Renita Kal­horn (INSEAD MBA ‘95J) is a Lead­er­ship De­vel­op­ment and Ex­ec­u­tive Coach.

“This ar­ti­cle is re­pub­lished cour­tesy of INSEAD Knowl­edge(http://knowl­edge.insead.edu). Copy­right INSEAD 2020

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