Fight-flight-freeze: our primal response to pressure

Mathew Syed explains how the primal "fight-flight-freeze" response to pressure has effected penalty takers in the World Cup, in another of his fascinating columns in The Times, here (subscription needed). Anyone watching the World Cup will have seen players taking "the walk”, the lonely and fear-inducing walk from the the halfway line to the penalty area, in preparation for taking a penalty. He suggests we should better understand the figh-flight-freeze response, and how to handle it, when faced with the equivalent of a penalty shoot-out in our own lives.

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The flight-fight-freeze response emerged early in our evolution to help us prepare for fighting or running. As Mathew explains, this response "primes the muscles, increases body strength; makes you hyper-vigilant. There is an acceleration of heart and lung function. There is paling and flushing. There is a dilution of the pupils and a relaxation of the bladder. Perception narrows."

This response was useful when our ancestors faced with a mountain lion. But it can under-mine performance under pressure of a complex task, such as taking a penalty in the World Cup, playing a piano concerto or doing an important presentation at work. As Mathew explains, "You need to be calm and composed, but your body is taut, pumped and trembling with the effects of surging cortisol. The threat is not to life or limb, but to ego and livelihood."

So, what should we do?

One option of couse is to take flight and run away! You will survive for sure. But you will miss out on important opportunities. 

Or, you can follow Mathew's wise advice.

1. Thoughtful reflection

One way to handle this sort of pressure is to use reflection. Mathew suggests to "Take note of how you feel. Gauge the curious feeling of dread and your heart beat. But do not let this intimidate you; instead, reflect that these are normal reactions and everyone experiences them." Simply discussing the fight-flight-freeze response has huge therapeutic benefit, according to research by sports psychologists. It softens the reaction and helps you understand what is going in. "The first stage of liberation from the tyranny of pressure is reaching an accommodation within our primal selves." Mathew concludes.

2. You will survive

Unlike our ancestors faced with a lion, you don't risk death if you screw up with your penalty, presentation or job interview. Your life will not end. Instead, if you understand what went wrong and how to improve you have a chance to learn and grow. And as Mathew asks, "Isn’t that what life — whether at home, on the football pitch, or in the office — is ultimately about?"

3. Pressure as a privilege

Mathew describes how top sports people like David Beckham and Sir Chris Hoy talked about how “Pressure is not a problem; it is a privilege”. He goes on to describe how "They will be perfectly open about their nerves and fear, but  also talk with pride about facing up to them. They seized every opportunity to face danger, and learnt from each experience."

In conclusion, Mathew ends with an inspiring call to action. "If you are given an opportunity to take the equivalent of a penalty, at work or anywhere else, grab it." 

You can read about Mathew and his book "Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice" here