Remember the last time you were prepping for a difficult conversation?

You thought through every possible scenario, imagining everything the other person might say and how you might respond. You listed talking points, maybe practiced in front of a mirror. You may have even felt ready, confident, certain that it would be a productive interaction.

Then, the minute you sat down in front of the other person, all the prep went straight out the window. You forgot everything you wanted to say and became tongue-tied, nervous, flustered.

Here, I’ll explain why that happens and how you can navigate it.

When faced with something uncomfortable or unpleasant, it activates the fight, flight, or freeze part of our brain – the part that protects us from imminent threats. Even though a difficult conversation in the workplace isn’t life-threatening, it can frazzle our nerves when we fixate on the worst possible result. At that moment, our logical brain doesn’t function too well, which is why we tend to forget everything we wanted to say. It feels like our brain stops working.

That’s because our brain does stop working. Sort of.

The fight or flight response originates in a different region of the brain called the amygdala – two almond-shaped structures located on either side of the brain stem. When that region gets activated, the prefrontal cortex – the logical part of the brain – takes a back seat. In fact, a whole symphony of physiological changes occurs, all intended to help us survive whatever threat happens to be present.

Remember the last time your fight or flight got triggered? What happened inside your body? Did you start breathing fast? Did your mouth dry out and your heart start pumping? Did the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up? These are all ways your body tries to alert you to danger. While you may not notice it, your pupils dilate to sharpen vision, and your digestion is temporarily halted (that part is hard not to notice) so your body can access as much energy as possible. And this entire chain of reactions occurs in seconds so that blood and oxygen can move more quickly to your muscles. So you can get to safety, right away.

When you consider the complexity of this process, it’s pretty remarkable. And it makes sense. Consider this: If you were standing on train tracks and a train was barreling toward you at 125 miles an hour, what would happen if you were to take the time to weigh your options? To calculate how long you might have – the wind is coming from the west, there’s ice on the tracks, and you’re chewing gum – before you become a stain?

As a species, we wouldn’t have lasted too long if we approached threats that way.

As remarkable as our survival skills are, they can be rather inconvenient when triggered by non-life-threatening events like traffic jams, work deadlines, family issues, bad reviews from your manager. There’s no tiger in the room, but your stressed-out brain can still act like there is – and you get stuck ruminating on icky thoughts: “Can I really do this?” “What if I mess up?” “Maybe I’m just kidding myself.”

And when you’re faced with a situation like sitting down with a direct report to deliver a not-so-great review, or explaining to your manager why you missed the Q1 goal, all the statistics and metrics you’ve memorized, all the prep, all the slick explanations are put on pause because you’re too busy trying to get off the train tracks.

If that stress response gets triggered over and over again, it can burn you out. Research shows it leads to high blood pressure, increased deposits on the arteries, and changes in the brain associated with anxiety, depression, and addiction.

So, how do you navigate this?

It starts with calming down your nervous system. Stress triggers activity in your sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of your body functions in dangerous situations (the fight/flight/freeze response) that causes you to secrete hormones that speed up your heart, for example. By practicing relaxation strategies in these moments, you’re letting your body know it’s okay to save energy. When you’re relaxed, your body’s parasympathetic nervous system takes over and releases acetylcholine, which slows your heart rate down and helps maintain healthy blood pressure levels.

There are many different relaxation strategies that can be super effective when you feel your body slipping into that survival response. Here are a few simple ones:

  • Relax your tongue: With your mouth closed, let your tongue completely relax against your bottom teeth. If the concept seems difficult to grasp, first try pressing the tongue against the roof of your mouth and then releasing it. It’s okay to let your mouth fall open a bit while doing it.
  • “Sip” breathing: Inhale deeply through your nose from the belly until you feel that your lungs are full of air. Then take two extra “sips” of breath (again through the nose) before exhaling through your mouth as slowly as possible.
  • Havening technique: Criss cross your arms in front of you with palms on opposite shoulders. Then run your hands (at the same time) down slowly from shoulders to elbows. Do this 5-6 times or until you feel a calming sensation.

Like any other skill, learning to relax your body takes practice. None of these strategies will work very well unless you’re focused, present, and invested in the process. The more often you access them, the better you’ll feel. And when faced with those situations in which you feel out of control, you’ll be able to take control back, stay in your body, and keep that thinking brain engaged.

Click here for more calming techniques, and share this article with anyone you know who might struggle with stress management.

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