“Fight or Flight” is Not a Stress Management Method

The common term for how we handle stress doesn’t apply to the office setting, but that doesn’t mean managers shouldn’t help employees find better ways.

I’m already calling this as the story of the month, possibly the year. Sailor Gutzler, 7, was the lone survivor of a plane crash that killed her parents, sister and cousin on December 2, 2014. After she extracted herself from the wreckage, she traveled sock-footed through 0.75 mi of forest in near-freezing temperatures to get to safety and find help for the loved ones left behind.

Two things contributed to the girl’s survival. First, Sailor’s father, a licensed pilot, had taught his children skills that she used when fighting her way in pitch-black unknown territory, still dressed in the clothes she had worn on the family’s Floridian vacation. She tried to light a torch using the flames from the still-burning plane, and when that didn’t work, she fought through enough brambles and fallen branches until she found the light of a nearby house.

But knowing how to survive wasn’t enough — psychologically, Sailor experienced a fight-or-flight response — no pun intended — when the plane crashed and she had no other options than to get to safety and seek help for her family. Unfortunately, that term has been batted around by a lot of people, used to refer to everything from handling a would-be mugger to facing an approaching deadline. I used it wrong, too. Not until I did some digging did I realize my error.

“We’re talking about autonomic body responses we don’t have control over,” said John Grohol, a psychologist and founder of online publication Psych Central. “The body is automatically doing something — running away or freezing, and that’s it.” Fight or flight applies to immediate threats on a person’s life, not to what he or she sees coming in the future.

I think I hear a resounding “duh” coming from the audience, but I wasn’t alone in thinking the concept applies to the office. Take this stress management video, for example, which refers to it as the root of our stress. Or this article by the University of Phoenix referring to it as an explanation for how people react to deadlines or disagreements. Bottom line: Let’s stop using it to refer to how we psychologically cope with stress.

Okay, so Sailor’s fight or flight reaction doesn’t apply to the office as much as I originally thought, but another aspect of her case should resonate with learning leaders: the importance of widening your audience.

Sailor’s father taught her survival skills, probably unaware of how they would save his daughter’s life long after he had lost his. She picked up on them, and they kicked in when she needed them most. This loops back to her decision to “fight” rather than freeze or run away from the problem — ironically, fighting in this situation meant literally fleeing from the scene and getting help.

Be aware of what you teach your employees because you’re never sure who will pick up on them. Sailor learned alongside her 9-year-old sister. At 9 and 7, I was a Girl Scout, and I can tell you the biggest lesson I learned was how to pitch Samoa cookies using their new name, “Caramel deLites.” 

A learning leader might be teaching the accounting department a new procedure, but having the sales team listen in could help the whole team. I’m not saying spread every nuance of learning across the organization, but do consider how each department functions and who could be helped even the littlest bit by having a modicum more knowledge.

There’s one more thing that learning leaders can learn from Sailor Gutzler, but you’ll have to stay tuned for next week’s edition of “Mind Over Matter” to learn about the psychological importance of knowledge retrieval.