How to Turn Fight-or-Flight into Confidence
You’re in front of a group, presenting, when a heckler throws out a question. You don’t know the answer. You’re not sure there is an answer. That’s obviously not the point—this is an attack!
Which of the following responses is yours?
- Your mind goes blank. Your heart pounds. You try to speak, but nothing comes out of your mouth. Every single word has evaporated from your brain.
- You suddenly need to use the bathroom. Your toe taps, you clasp and unclasp your hands, and your eyes dart all over. After stammering a bit, you deflect the question.
- Your body tenses and your eyes narrow. “What kind of question is that!?” you ask, voice rising.
- You consider whether it would be best to ignore, address, or redirect the heckler and act accordingly.
You may recognize the first three responses as Freeze, Flight, and Fight: your body’s survival instinct that kicks in to protect you from a perceived threat. Depending on how powerful (or not) you feel compared to the threat, your response changes. Animals do this, too: A deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car freezes; a deer that spots a predator flees; a deer facing a rival buck during mating season fights. Each step up the ladder, so to speak, takes more energy and more confidence.
Just because you’re hardwired to react in these ways doesn’t mean they always work. Consider the deer in the headlights—getting out of the car’s way would definitely be a better option! But assessing the trajectory of the car and sidestepping it requires brainpower. Happily, unlike the deer, you have that brainpower. You can use your brain to override your instinct and act calmly and confidently.
How? Here are the steps you can take to move up the ladder to increasingly powerful responses—from freeze to flight to fight to confidence.
1) Soften instead of freeze.
To get out of a Freeze response, you must warm up by moving. Under stress the emotional and instinctive part of your brain wants to hijack your body. You need to get the thinking part of your brain online, which means you need to get out of Freeze mode. When you move, your brain gets the message that your body is safe.
Any kind of movement can edge you out of a Freeze response. The simplest, most subtle, and perhaps most helpful movement is a deep breath. In Freeze mode, you hold your breath, in order to keep your body as quiet and still as possible in the hopes that the danger will simply pass you by, unnoticed. But in real life, it doesn’t help much to play dead or blend in to the scenery. (I’m curious about people who wear camo. Am I supposed to pretend I don’t see and run into them?)
Relaxing your body gets your thoughts moving, too. Once your body thaws, your brain thaws, and you have access once again to the logical, rational, creative, problem-solving part of your brain. That’s way more helpful than reacting like a deer in the headlights!
2) Run to instead of from.
To step up from a Flight response, shift your focus. Once you’ve got your brain online, use it to adjust your goal. You may still feel like escaping the situation, but running TO a goal feels so much more powerful than running away from a threat. Run to safety, run to help, run to a reward, run to the finish line. Run to win, instead of to avoiding losing.
Physically, the Flight response shows up as fidgety, jerky, flustered movements. I’m reminded of the bunny rabbits in our neighborhood that zigzag across front lawns when I go out for a walk. Spastic! But what does a runner in a race look like? Strong, smooth, determined.
Once, years ago, I had to park a mile away from an important meeting downtown. I knew I’d never get there on time! I began trotting down the street in my 3 ½-inch heels. Bam, bam, bam went my feet on the pavement. It hurt. I probably looked ridiculous. And I wasn’t going much faster than walking. I thought, “If I’m going to run, I’d better actually run.” I lengthened my stride and took off—more fluid movements, lighter on my feet. Maybe I still looked ridiculous (who runs in heels?), but instead of running due to fear of being late, I was on a mission to recoup as much time as possible. I arrived feeling like I could handle anything!
If you have nervous energy from a Flight response, go ahead and use it. But use it powerfully. Instead of rocking from side to side, walk decisively. Instead of wringing your hands, make purposeful gestures. Take a deep breath and fill the room with your energy and presence, instead of frittering it away on scattered, jumpy movements.
3) Fight for instead of against.
To use your Fight response, adjust your objectives. Anger is a powerful, energizing emotion. With it, you can overcome anxiety and find the courage to stand up for what you believe in. Instead of fighting against a person (even though they may deserve it), fight FOR a cause—fight for your standards and values, fight for justice, fight to make your voice heard, fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.
People who threaten others never do so from a place of personal power. Threatening others—physically, emotionally, socially, or in any other way—comes from fear and scarcity and insecurity. It’s a display of weakness, not strength. You can be the powerful one, by harnessing your Fight response and using it to stand up for something bigger than yourself.
As Gerry Spence says, “Do not defend when you can attack.”
In Fight mode, you’ll experience glaring eyes, increased volume, tense muscles, and, sometimes, tears. To switch from fighting against to fighting for, once again you’ll need to take a deep breath to channel all that intensity. It’s power, under control. It looks like sharp, unblinking eyes, a deep, strong voice, and posture that’s grounded and tall.
You are more powerful than you think. Whether you tend to freeze, fidget, or fume under stress, you can adjust your mindset and your body language to communicate confidence to your audience and your own brain. Spend your power mindfully; don’t let others consume it for you.