Fight or Flight versus Build and Broaden

“Tell me something you did that was meaningful today”

“Tell me something you did that was energizing today”

“Tell me something you did effectively today.”

The above three questions tend to do the job most of the time. I think they work well because they are action oriented and about the immediate past rather than the more distant past. So, as we ask each other these questions, we review the positive aspects of the day and often end up remembering things that went well that we otherwise would have forgotten.

I believe this routine has been a great gift to our relationship. One day when we were camping we found out mice had gotten into our food supply and then someone with an extra-large invasive dog pulled up next to us as it was getting dark. They were the kind of dog owners who just couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t like Brutus the Drool King walking into our trailer – and seemed offended that we brought it to their attention and asked them to keep their dog in their campground.

In the past, it would have been easy for us to get into a “what totally crappy thing is going to happen next” type of conversation. Instead, one of us said something like, “I sure am glad we didn’t have a flash flood yet today.” Which was followed up by, “Good thing the mice couldn’t get into the canned food,” and then, “this campground has no giant spiders at all, not even one!” By the way, the giant spiders comment referred to the time we decided to rough it and go bike camping on Molokai. We discovered Molokai has a lot of cane spiders which are super quick tarantula-sized beasts that like to hang out in cozy places, like hats – and between the wall and the toilet paper roll in the bathroom. When you’re on the toilet there is often a high price for running away prematurely. I think cane spiders know this.

Barbara Fredericksen defined the positive effect Robin and I experienced as the build and broaden effect. I understand this effect as the functional opposite of the fight or flight mode humans get into when feeling a sense of threat. Sometimes fight or flight is the right thing:

  • You’re in an alley and a shadowy figure emerges from behind the dumpster
  • You’re in the jungle, you look up, and there is a tiger waiting to pounce on you
  • You’re in middle school and the lunch money bully is waiting for you, smugly smirking, by your locker
  • You spot a giant cane spider hiding in the shadow of the toilet paper roll just as you reach for it
  • You wake up from a nap in your trailer to find the Brutus the Drool King hovering over you, wondering whether he should eat you because he is very unpleased with the mouse-infested morsels he found on your picnic table.

When there’s an actual short-term physical threat involved, fight or flight is your friend. When your body shifts to fight or flight mode:

  • Your pupils dilate (sharpened eyesight)
  • Blood coagulates and retracts from your skin to prevent bleeding
  • Lungs relax & chest expands for more oxygen intake (increased stamina & focus)
  • Blood pressure increases, heart dilates and beats faster (increased stamina & focus)
  • Muscles contract (faster reaction time)
  • Liver releases glucose as fuel for muscles (increased stamina & strength)

Bingo. You’re optimally set up to deal with Brutus, a cane spider, a tiger (good luck with that one), or whatever presents a true physical threat to your body.

The problem is that your fight or flight system, absolutely ingenius for hunter gatherers, is office stupid.

Your fight or flight system doesn’t know how to distinguish physical threat from office stress. If it was optimally suited to office work it would help you sustainably increase focus and awareness while boosting diplomatic skills. You would remain cool as a refrigerated cucumber while juggling a myriad of pressing strategic goals. You would maintain your sense of humor effortlessly. Your fight or flight system would be built for the long haul – day in and day out.

But that’s not the way the fight or flight system works. But that is the way the build and broaden effect works!

Instead, if you stay in fight or flight mode for too long you get chronic stress which results in:

  • twice the rate of heart & cardiovascular problems and substance abuse.
  • 2-3 times the rate of anxiety, depression, demoralization, interpersonal conflicts, injuries and infectious diseases.
  • 3 times the rate of back pain
  • 5 times the rate of certain cancers

Stressful isn’t it? The only way to avoid the evolutionary trap of your fight or flight system is to consciously shift your thought processes and therefore your physiology into the build and broaden mode.

Exercise is one great way to do this. What did our hunter-gatherer ancestors do when they saw a charging woolly mammoth? They ran like hell; and that is exactly what is needed to help throttle down the fight or flight system.

Your blood goes away from your digestive organs and into your muscles. You’re ready to move quickly and powerfully. Your blood retracts from your skin so you won’t bleed as easily. Your blood moves into the parts of your brain that help you examine your surroundings quickly and thoroughly. So, in a way, you get smarter for a few minutes – and that’s the catch. The fight or flight mode is only good for a little while. It’s not meant to stay engaged for an eight hour work day, let alone for a couple of hours. After your first blast of adrenalin, it gradually starts robbing you of your ability to think, your ability to digest, your heart’s ability to beat, and so on into the chronic stress reactions that define much of premature death and suffering in the western world. Heart attacks, diabetes, chronic fatigue, and so on.

The build and broaden effect on the other hand is your friend for sustainable thriving. It engenders better and more subtle creative thinking. It fosters wholehearted engagement. It helps us form healthy, lasting relationships. It helps us take on our work as a constructive challenge rather than as a life-threatening deadline

When the stress response is working correctly it can feel like you’re super-human! You get

To create these seemingly super-human abilities

Stress becomes a problem when it is chronic, when there’s too much stress
-for too long.

With chronic stress the same bodily reactions that initially give us super powers tear down our ability to think, act,
enjoy life, and stay healthy.

All great for dealing with the neighborhood lion or tiger.

twice the rate of heart & cardiovascular problems and substance abuse.

2-3 times the rate of anxiety, depression, demoralization, interpersonal conflicts, injuries and infectious diseases.

3 times the rate of back pain

5 times the rate of certain cancers

Stress Effects

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