The truth is, most of us are dealing with some level of exhaustion. Whether it’s related to juggling work and family, transitioning from working from home alone to being in the office with people,
But it’s not just work-related exhaustion. There is the emotional exhaustion of trying to hold it together in the midst of conflicting values, grieving losses, and the fear of dealing with new social environments when we don’t know if we’re truly safe.
And there is the physical exhaustion from battling covid, colds and the flu. It’s been an exhausting few years.
When examining exhaustion from a high-level view, it quickly becomes apparent that much of it has to do with fear and stress. Our fight, flight and freeze responses have been overworked throughout the pandemic.
Anatomy of a fight, flight, and freeze response
To understand fight, flight and freeze responses, let’s start with a quick lesson in neuroanatomy 101.
Our frontal lobes are located at the top, front of our brains just below the forehead. They are responsible for our higher functioning, including problem-solving, executive decision-making and empathy.
At the other end of the spectrum are the amygdalae, tiny orbs located in our brainstem at the base of the skull. The amygdalae (or amygdala, singular) are responsible for only one thing: survival.
Fight, flight and freeze
When we experience stress, the amygdala is triggered, instigating a fight, flight or freeze response.
First, the amygdala, solely concerned about survival, hijacks our frontal lobes, overtaking our rational thought, executive functioning, decision-making, and empathy to focus on getting us to safety.
Second, the amygdala sends a message to our adrenals, which sit on top of our kidneys. The adrenals respond by pumping out cortisol and adrenaline to prepare us for a fight, flight or freeze response.
Our brains were designed to enter a fight, flight, or freeze response only when in imminent danger, such as when a ferocious dog is chasing us. However, over recent decades, especially with the advent of relying heavily on ever-present technology, we experience this survival response much far more frequently. Add to this the conflict, difficult conversations, a constant flow of news (and non-news) reports and a lack of empathy. As a result, we have been experiencing fight, flight and freeze responses multiple times per day or even per hour. This stress and survival response mechanism has depleted our systems and caused much physical, mental, emotional, and relational exhaustion.
Fight, flight, and freeze responses during the pandemic
Our brains cannot distinguish between the danger associated with being chased by a barking Doberman and the constant stressors we’ve encountered during the pandemic.
For example, every time we tune in to a news report or conflictual social media posts, our amygdala is triggered, and we enter a fight, flight or freeze response.
Or consider when we find ourselves in a Zoom meeting where people share opinions without laying the groundwork for psychological safety and empathy. We experience stress and a fight, flight or freeze response.
If you remember, once we enter a flight, flight or freeze response, we no longer have the ability to think clearly with our frontal lobes. This means we cannot problem-solve or make decisions with high accuracy, and we are literally unable to empathize.
But here is the bigger issue. We have become so accustomed to the survival response that we’ve learned to ignore it. Fight, flight and freeze responses are meant to be physical. When was the last time you actually ran away from a triggering event? Hopefully, you haven’t physically fought anyone. When was the last time you fled? When we’re in a situation in which we’re physically unable to fight or flee, such as when we’re in a Zoom meeting where it’s socially unacceptable to leave, we freeze. Freezing is a trauma response for humans.
What leaders can do
Leaders are not therapists and shouldn’t try to be. However, we as leaders can model healthy coping skills to our hurting and grieving communities. Whether you lead a church, a company, or manage a group of people, modelling healthy behaviours will also encourage others to do the same. Over time, these practices will create resiliency.
1. Self-care. Self-care is not a luxury but an essential for mental, physical and emotional well-being. First, figure out what fills your tank and make sure to implement it into a daily, weekly, and monthly self-care plan. Then talk about it. Share what you are doing to take care of yourself. Share about the time you take off to rest and rejuvenate. By having the courage to authentically model self-care, you give much-needed permission to others to do the same.
2. Close the loop. When you find yourself in a situation that triggers stress, become aware of your body’s stress signals and promise yourself you will fight or flee when appropriate. For example, once you finish a conversation or meeting that triggered your stress response, close your office door and run on the spot with gusto for one minute. Then rest for a few minutes before resuming work. The physical exercise tells your brain you got away from the danger and turns off the fight, flight or freeze response. You can also go for a run or work out after work. Boxing or martial arts allows you to both fight and flee, again closing the loop and resetting your brain to rest.
3. Empathize. Prepare yourself for upcoming conversations and meetings by deep breathing, praying, and preparing to empathize with others. By intentionally choosing to empathize, you remain open-hearted rather than closing off. Become curious rather than judgmental and ask questions to understand the other’s viewpoint better, even if you disagree. Often, when people feel heard, they become less combative as they feel safe in your presence.
As leaders, we often want to charge ahead with our plans for the future. But this may be a time to rest and recover. Taking the time to understand why we and others are stressing and having a few tools in our toolkit to manage our fight, flight and freeze responses, we can reset and lead our communities into a healthier future.