Managing Fight-or-Flight through the ‘Pre-Mortem’

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Managing Fight or Flight or Stress through the use of a ‘Pre-Mortem’

We all know the effects of ‘fight-or-flight’ aka ‘stress’ when facing a major threat in some form, because we’ve all experienced it (you wouldn’t be human if you haven’t!)

It’s a neurological-physiological defence mechanism that has evolved from our time as hunter-gatherers, and before, in order that to reduce the chances of being a major predator’s next meal. In modern times, this is fortunately less of an issue – but there are plenty of incidents when the condition is activated. In particular, in personal safety emergencies this may well mean being confronted by one particularly dangerous predator – another human being.

This TED talk by Daniel Levitin, a leading neuroscientist, explains how we can manage that response in advance and therefore stay calm. This is a great advantage, as it means that it is possible to maintain rational, clear thinking in some form whatever that threat might be.

Daniel explains that when the fight-or-flight response is activated, our heart rate increases in order to optimise our survival chances. This rise in heart rate is facilitated by the release of the hormone known as ‘cortisol’. An unfortunate side-effect of cortisol is that it can cloud our thinking and thus impede clear, rational thought processes.

The way to get round this is to therefore use something called a ‘Pre-Mortem’ before engaging in a situation that we know will possibly cause us to feel stress, possibly extreme stress. It works somewhat like a ‘post-mortem’, but instead of being a review of what happened after the event, the ‘pre-mortem’ aims to predict and analyse all the things that could possibly go wrong – and thus increase our stress levels – so that action can be taken to mitigate these effects in advance.

Although Daniel doesn’t elaborate on anything particularly personal-safety related, its clear to see how this could translate over to personal safety scenarios – such as making sure that we take all the necessary measures to reduce the likelihood of us being at risk or less able to react when under stress.

For instance, this could apply if a woman knows she has to walk home by a particularly risky route at night because she has no choice. She could ‘pre-mortem’ that this increases the likelihood of attack, especially as a number of reported assaults have taken place in that area. She could identify all the possibilities, such as perhaps being followed and attacked from behind etc. etc.

She could therefore identify some of the measures she could take to reduce her stress levels and increase her chances of survival, such as ensuring that she has a suitable personal safety app on her smartphone (which is concealed yet at the same time easily to hand) so she can quickly raise the alarm if she needs to. She could also carry a separate personal alarm at the same time – and so on and so forth.

This is effectively a risk assessment made in order to mitigate the onset of extreme stress. As Daniel says, we are going to fail at some point. The pre-mortem allows us to identify the possible failures as a result of being exposed to stress and try to offset them. This is especially beneficial if we’re talking about survival situations, which is what ‘fight-or-flight’ evolved for in the first place. It may be impossible to plan for every possibility but, as the old saying goes, if you fail to plan you plan to fail…

The talk is only around 12 minutes long – you can either watch in the above embed or, alternatively, access it by clicking the following link: http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_levitin_how_to_stay_calm_when_you_know_you_ll_be_stressed#t-701237

(PS If you are interested in online Personal Safety training with one of leading experts in the field with 25 years plus experience, and which could equip you with the knowledge and skills to undertake effective ‘pre-mortem’-type risk assessments, click here.)

 

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