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Make a change to how you handle a work crisis

Thursday, February 8, 2018 - 12:11
AIM Blog - Make a change to how you handle a work crisis

Crises happen at work. AIM facilitator Sarb Chowdry shares 5 tips on how to respond, not react.

Ever find yourself in a stressful situation at work?

Perhaps you’re dealing with an overwhelming workload and unexpected demands on your time and energy. Perhaps it’s the sight or sound of your manager. Maybe it’s the number of unread work related emails or the subject line of a particular email. Or just thoughts of that difficult colleague or customer.

In these situations, it is important to understand the difference between being reactive or responsive.

“Physiologically, the reactive or stress response in humans is due to the fight/flight reflex,” says AIM facilitator Sarb Chowdry.

“It happens very fast (it fires at 1/32 of a second) and is usually outside of our conscious control,” she adds.

Sound familiar?

This reflex evolved from non-other than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They had to act very quickly when facing a threat from a wild animal like a sabre tooth tiger or mammoth.

“They didn’t have time to use their logical mind to analyse their threat, it was their emotional reactions which allowed them to survive,” continues Chowdry.

The operating system of the brain is designed to ensure survival. It is programmed to automatically assess whether the environment (internal or external) feels safe or threatening and it can detect even subtle changes quickly.

“Put simply, if your brain receives information that it considers threatening to your physical wellbeing, e.g. touching a hot plate, you get a message very quickly to remove your hand from the heat,” she explains.  

Similarly, with any incoming information that feels psychologically threatening, i.e. one that produces the emotions associated with anxiety, fear, pain or harm, it is directed to a section of the brain to alert your body to cope with the threat by fighting, running away or freezing.

Chowdry says the extent to which an individual feels this will vary depending on cultural and family conditioning as well as personal experience too.

So why isn’t this sort of reaction appropriate in the workplace?

When in fight/flight mode, the functioning area of the brain known as the pre-frontal (or neo cortex), where conscious control and decision making occurs, is suppressed.

In response to the stressful situations in the workplace like those mentioned earlier, here is what a reactive response looks like:

  • Fight: aggression through the tone of your voice or body language, pushing yourself too hard as the norm.
  • Flight: avoidance, procrastination, distraction, or inaction.
  • Freeze: feeling numb or flat or disassociated from what is happening.

“We literally see and hear less than we could and may perceive people and situations very differently than we would if we were feeling more relaxed and calm,” explains Chowdry.

“Learning to respond in critical situations versus react means that you learn to exercise choice about the state you want to be in especially if you have already been triggered.”

Here are 5 ways to respond positively and avoid reacting in a stressful situation:

  1. Be present: being more consciously aware and the act of noticing your thoughts and feelings is the first step to taking control. This requires you to be in the present moment. The information gathered here is valuable as it will allow you to re-centre yourself. This is very different to just overanalysing the situation (past and future).
  2. Slow down: although this may seem counter intuitive (as we automatically speed up when we feel under pressure), but consciously slowing down and deepening your breathing allows your physiology to change from “fear” to a calmer state.
  3. Choose your battles: exercise choice over those elements that are within your control, be assertive, have appropriate boundaries in place. Be clear about what’s okay and not okay and be responsible for your self-care.
  4. Pick up on unhelpful behaviours: notice patterns of repetitive thoughts, behaviours or actions that don’t work by using the technique of “reframing.” This involves looking at a situation from a different perspective than one that you may have been habitually accustomed to is also one from which you may create new possibilities.
  5. Take care of yourself: self-care is important for our physiology (which affects are mental/emotional health and visa-versa) because it needs intervals of time to recover from the stress response.

Choose a time in the day (about 5-10 mins) when you can commit to being fully present and observe yourself. Repeat this for at least 20-30 days so that new neural pathways in your brain associated with this activity can start to form. The more you place your attention and focus on creating this new wiring in your brain, the easier it will be for you to continue to do it. Similarly, the more you can practise while relaxed, the easier it will be to apply in other situations that are more challenging.

You can choose any time/s that suit you and build up the practise gradually. Be kind and gentle on yourself, this is a work in progress.

Want to learn more about responding positively in difficult situations? Make a change and browse AIM’s Time Management, Mindfulness – Raise Your Leadership Effectiveness, and Leading with Emotional Intelligence courses.