Five Ways for Leaders to Get Out of Chronic Fight or Flight

Posted 02.06.2024

In a phone conversation with a senior executive last week, he greeted me by exclaiming, “Happy January 39th!” He’s not the only one that feels like the beginning of 2024 has been overstuffed with things to do and deal with. Pretty much every senior leader I work with has a plate that is overflowing with big issues – return to office initiatives, higher performance goals, huge investments, achieving operational excellence, you name it.

The impact of trying to stay on top of all of that is that they end up feeling, to use the title of a book I wrote in 2014, overworked and overwhelmed. And, from a physiological standpoint, the reason they feel that way is they’re in a chronic state of fight or flight. With a constant sense of low-grade threat and “what am I missing?”, their bodies’ sympathetic nervous systems are working overtime. They’re not in that acute state of fight or flight that can protect you from immediate physical danger. Rather, they’re in a chronic state of fight or flight that’s always humming in the background.

That’s not a good thing for two main reasons. First, is that being in chronic fight or flight causes you to think, make decisions, and manage relationships in suboptimal ways because, as stress increases, the prefrontal cortex of your brain – known as the executive functioning center  – shifts from intentional self-regulated responses to reactive automatic responses. The second big reason that chronic fight or flight is bad for us is, as illustrated in the chart below, it causes key bodily systems to either elevate or de-elevate. When those systems stay in those states over a longer period of time they lead to various type of chronic illness that shorten life expectancy.

flight or fight

So, if after reading through all the above, you’ve diagnosed yourself as a leader who’s stuck in chronic fight or flight, what can you do to get out of it so that you make better decisions in the short run and live a longer, healthier life in the long run?

The good news is that you don’t just have a sympathetic nervous system fight or flight response; you also have a parasympathetic nervous system which can activate the rest and digest response. The even better news is there are simple things you can do to take your foot off the fight or flight gas pedal and start tapping the brakes of your rest and digest response.

Here are five ways to do that:

Breathe: Intentional deep breathing is a proven, always available way to activate your rest and digest response. As little as three rounds of breathing in and out can make a big difference in moving the up and down arrows of chronic fight or flight in the opposite directions. It’s important, though, that you know the right way to breathe. In this short video, I draw on my training as a registered yoga teacher to teach you how to do that.

Move: Rhythmic, repetitive motion activates the rest and digest response and, in turn, reduces the stress effects of chronic fight or flight. While regular rhythmic exercise routines like walking, running, yoga, cycling and weightlifting all have positive effects on your parasympathetic nervous system and your whole body, you can get fight or flight breaking benefits throughout the day from micro routines of short walks around your office, campus, or house or a few minutes of stretching before, after or even during a meeting.

Reduce: A calendar filled with back-to-back meetings that leaves no time for thought, connection, or self-care is the classic and all too common inducer of chronic fight or flight. Exercise your agency, improve your leadership effectiveness, and strengthen your health and well-being by taking back some of your overscheduled time. This blog post on how to decide which meetings to skip has solid tips on how to get started on that. And for the meetings you must attend but that could be more efficient, apply this advice on how to get out of the executive meeting spin cycle.

Unplug: That smartphone supercomputer you carry around makes it way too easy to be constantly on call. That’s a surefire way to end up in chronic fight or flight. Solve for that by being intentional about periodically unplugging from your phone and other devices that are constantly interrupting you with notification driven dopamine hits. Silence notifications while you’re in meetings or conversations. Turn the sound off and put your phone in a drawer so you can have a few hours of focused family time each evening. Limit the number of apps you allow to notify you.

Connect: Take time to nurture relationships with family, friends, and co-workers. While quantity is great, quality has more leverage. Create space to connect in the transformational way that mirrors the characteristics outlined in this post. Not only will you build stronger relationships with the important people in your life, the research shows you’ll lower your stress, improve your immune response, and lengthen your life expectancy.

To varying degrees, these five ways to get out of chronic fight or flight are in the sweet spot of behaviors that are relatively easy to do and likely to make a difference. If you’ve read this far, you’re likely interested in reducing your chronic stress level. Which of the five do you want to start with and when do you want to start?

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