There is some interesting new research that describes a more complex reaction to stress than the basic “fight or flight” approach with which we’re all familiar. In this new thinking, there is a major connection to what it takes to be an innovative leader.

Given the fondness of our readers for information about the primitive brain, (also known as the brainstem or gator brain), this article will focus on the reaction of our primitive brain to the stressors in our lives. Unfortunately, this is not an article on how to banish stress from your life. However, we will share some ways to think, behave and make decisions that come from the cortex, rather than the primitive brain.

What happens in your brain during stress

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
— Marcus Aurelius

If you’re not an expert in neurobiology, don’t worry — the basic science of stress is pretty simple: once we decide that an event, or series of events, is a threat to us, our system responds by releasing a chemical cocktail, which our most primitive brain slurps down with gusto. In more technical language, “the activation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system is triggered by a cascade of hormones and neuro-chemicals.” We prefer “slurping,” but use whatever works best for you. While all of our gator-brain-driven activities may have been very beneficial back in the days when humans were dwelling in caves and looking for their daily food, these automatic strategies may not be as productive when we are living and working among other humans in 2006.

Broadly speaking, the typical stress responses are all in service to helping us survive, at a primal level. Yet survival looks different depending upon the situation. In one situation, you might attack and fight to protect yourself. Unless the threat is too big, then your survival instinct screams run awaaaay! Occasionally, you can just ignore the stressor and hope it will go away. Other times it makes more sense to enlist others in your support. Or you could turn your energy to keeping those who rely on you safe or as stress free as possible. The shorthand for these reactions is fight, flight, mate, freeze, tend and befriend. What do these look like in our 21st century, innovation–driven, lives?

It’s always nice to find someone who handles stress worse than you do… so long as that’s not your excuse to avoid self-improvement. Here’s a real news story from which you might find some enjoyment:

(Reuters) -— Witnesses described a motorist’s frantic pleas to the parking attendant in order to avoid a parking ticket.

The attendant rejected the appeal and issued a parking ticket.

Extremely angry, the motorist took a can of gasoline out of the boot (trunk) and set fire to his own car.

  • Fight (attack it) — “You and your #%$^#$@ idea can get the heck out of here.” “I never want to see you again, you jerk.” “Oh no, you aren’t parking there…I was here first, and if I have to smash your car to prove it to you, I will.”
  • Flight (run from it) — “Yikes, this is bigger than I thought!” “How to go on vacation NOW?” “How to postpone?” How might I avoid the boss?” “How might I delegate the project and take the credit if the solution actually works!?”
  • Mate with it — “Oh, yes boss, I really love your idea.” “You are my friend and I will stick with you and of course, you are right in the way you are thinking.” “This idea is so good that I’ll take it on as my own (and take full credit).”
  • Freeze (ignore it) — “Maybe if I don’t acknowledge it, it will go away.” “I don’t see any newness…I’m going to keep doing things the same old way.” “Threats? Nah, that competitor is too small to influence OUR business.”
  • Befriend (talk about it, a.k.a. the water cooler “ain’t-it-awful club” meeting) — “Hey, can you believe what a jerk that other person is being?” “I HATE working here. It’s so stressful.” “What can I do to deal with this stress?”
  • Tend to your direct-reports or family members — “I need to take care of my people/family right now.” “It makes me feel better to nurture others when I’m stressed out.” “How might I make sure they are protected from this new threat?” What might I do to keep the team/family safe?”

An interesting piece of information is that recent research indicates than some of these behaviors are more typical of one gender than another (and nope, we aren’t going to tell you which is which…however, if you contact us and if we get enough response, we’ll anonymize them and share them back in a future newsletter), and the gator responses seem to be heavily influenced by the presence of or absence of certain hormones in our bodies. We expect that that simple sentence will generate a tirade of gator-driven emails to us… but honest, we have done our homework and passed this by the male and female partners of New & Improved, and all of us agree that it is important to know that each of us has both masculine and feminine reactions to stress, and that they are different.

We may talk about that more in the future, depending on how brave we are, but in the meantime, let’s look at these five common reactions and up-shift our thinking into our cortexes. Let’s see what we can do to leverage these primitive behaviors into more productive responses and therefore higher ethical behavior.

  • Fight (attack it) — if stress is a big problem for you, get into an exercise routine — physical activity will help your body metabolize those chemical cocktails into a less toxic slurry, and consistent exercise has proven its benefits in reducing stress and the effects of stressors on your body. Even if you take the stairs instead of the elevator, get off the train/bus one stop before the office, or park at the far corner of the parking lot, it all helps.
  • Flight (run from it) — deliberately find an alternative, fun, “useless” activity to engage in — not forever, just for a moment or two, or maybe even 5 minutes. Humor can help bring things back into proper perspective. Here are some brief diversions that we have heard of: check out your favorite website or blog (some of our favorites:,,,, play a quick computer game, call your mother, go get a cup of coffee or tea, shoot some baskets, knit a few more rows onto that sweater, or something else that’s short, sweet, and enjoyable. Then (and this is key), come back to the challenge with a fresh perspective.
  • Mate with it — use the Praise First:POINt technique on it, make yourself do it, get out of the habit of killing ideas and the people that bring the ideas and stressors to you. If you don’t remember the proper use of the technique, contact us and we’ll send you a short article and worksheet on how to use it in your everyday life. The idea it saves could be your own!
  • Freeze (ignore it) — take a look at what’s happening and force yourself to consider possible implications. Think about who, what, where, when, why and how it might truly impact you, both in a good way or a bad way.
  • Befriend (talk about it) — find a buddy or two to whom you can talk and dump the stuff that you are carrying. Not a person who will agree with everything you say and spread the complaints, nor a person who will tell you you’re absolutely correct, but rather a person who will listen and ask you questions to help you discover a workable, ethical solution to your situation. There is great value in having someone to whom you can “vent your feelings” with (a.k.a. a “bitch buddy”). You might even want to start the conversation with, “May I just vent for a few minutes? You don’t need to fix it, just listen…” But that buddy then needs to help you develop a more productive story.




Success Story

Long-time readers of the InnovativeBrain know that we work hard to provide real value through these newsletters. Sure, it’s part of our marketing effort, but it’s an effort that is implemented within our value that the best way to market is to give good value.

We’re finding that including Success Stories in our newsletters makes the behavior change suggestions we make more compelling, and more likely to be chosen.

So, we need your help. As you can imagine, while there are many success stories out there, we can only share what we know about and have permission to use.

Would you be willing to tell a success story about working with us to cause more innovation? We’ll hide or share an attribution in whatever way you’d prefer. We need the story. Please share ’em if you got ’em.

Tend to your direct-reports or family members — enlist them in helping to solve the problem…ask them how they would address the issue. Ask your family for their understanding as you work to resolve the issue. Let your people/family know why it is that you’ve had that grumpy furrowed brow for the last week. Do something nice for someone you care about.

So take a look at your typical reactions to stress (you know you have them). You may do all of the above, but which one is your typical reaction? Do you attack the person who causes them? Run from the problems? Ignore them and hope they’ll go away? Or do you agree with whatever the boss says and hope someone will lead the way? Go and talk to other people? Start protecting the juniors around you?

Whichever is your preferred strategy, take a moment to jot down some strategies that will help you move through challenging times as smoothly as possible. While it won’t be effortless, by planning your response, you can begin the work of getting through the stress and shorten the stress-based response. Your family and co-workers will thank you for it.

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