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Fight or Flight… or Anger Management?

We all know the importance of managing the long-term effects of stress, but what we do in the heat of the moment can also have far-reaching consequences.

Ever sat in a meeting, only to have someone start screaming in your face about an issue you didn’t even know existed? Probably not, but you’ve probably experienced something a little less extreme. Now take a moment to evaluate your current physical state. Palms a little sweatier? Shoulders tight? Heart beating a little faster? Simply by recalling the event your body has responded, preparing itself for physical confrontation. 

We all know of the oft-quoted “fight-or-flight” physiological response. Nature has conditioned our bodies through millions of years of evolution to respond to external threats in a way that maximizes our odds of survival. Unfortunately, thousands of years of civilization and cultural evolution have rendered this survival tactic useless in the majority of situations we encounter in our daily life. Think about it – when was the last time you faced a mugger in a dark alley holding a knife? 

There is significant research identifying the negative long-term effects of stress on the human body, ranging from chronic high blood pressure to skin problems or even infertility. But relatively little attention is paid to the social consequences of our reactions to high stress situations. Anger, clouded judgement, even blurting out something that you later regret can have far-reaching consequences on your career and personal relationships.

So what is one to do? Again most research focuses on holistic approaches to reduce the long-term effects of stress on the body. Exercise, proper diet and relaxation are all critical, but backwards-facing. They only serve to heal the body from stress it has incurred. Within the moment between hearing a colleague mutter a scathing critique and formulating a response, you have the opportunity to build a long-term reputation for calmness under pressure. 

Surprisingly, the most effective solutions may come from the field of anger management. Sweaty palms? Tight shoulders? Increased heart rate? These symptoms may be more extreme in chronically angry people, but they are still the same manifestations of fight-or-flight. Which means that they can also be corrected using anger management techniques. 

The next time you find yourself in an unexpected confrontation, make an effort to emotionally step back from the situation. How big is it in the scheme of things? Can I look at this from the confronter’s point of view? How would I want to react if I was just watching this, instead of actually participating in it? You’ll still end up with tense shoulders and probably need to go for a walk afterwards, but you might be much happier with the results.

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