Your skill at managing stress - the fight or flight response - is good for you, your co-workers and your vital relationships with your customers.

I’m just putting my finishing touches on a full day Customer Loyalty workshop for a client, and as I interviewed people in customer-facing positions to uncover the obstacles preventing them from taking “Exquisite” care of their customers, stress was way up there on the list. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a little stressed these days, too.


Stress has become a permanent part of our lives.

Constantly blaring negativity wears away at positive attitudes (especially when you’re in the middle between boss and customer) and keeping on top of it all requires as much effort as maintaining a healthy weight!


The worst thing about stress is that it can accumulate and cause a good deal of damage to the body, mind, and emotions alike. I’ve learned that to prevent that damage – which can literally become life-threatening over time – the first thing you have to do is ask yourself a question:


“Do I have to be a victim of my stress, or can I have more control over the way I deal with it?”

In working with clients and in my own life, I have found that the control we seek comes from understanding the body’s physical responses to stress; by consciously managing those responses, you can keep your stress levels down, and your energy, creativity and problem-solving skills up!


This is all a part of taking care of your “inner needs;” if you want to take great care of customers, you really do have to take good care of yourself first! Stress management is a critical part of self-care and customer care – and it’s something you probably started to learn way back when you were a kid.


For example, remember when someone (probably your mother or a teacher) told you to take a deep breath, or to count to ten before getting angry or flying off the handle? It was great advice. Why is that? Our bodies have an internal mechanism that almost always overreacts to anything we perceive as “bad” or “wrong” or dangerous. Counting to ten gives you time to slow down this mechanism, the automatic process known as the “fight or flight” reaction.


The fight or flight reaction is a very handy (and life preserving) response to have in situations of real danger.

To put all your energy and focus where it needs to be (on the danger), it actually shuts down some of your normal functions such as digestion, assimilation of nutrients, the fighting of infections and other internal processes. At the same time, it rushes blood to the skeletal muscles around your arms and legs and floods your body with stimulants like adrenaline and cortisol, giving you the strength and ability to defend your life.


This reaction was mighty helpful when we lived in caves and our lives where threatened daily by very real dangers like wild beasts looking for dinner. The Fight or Flight reaction (named after the choice our cave brethren had – either fight the beast or run away) is an automatic physiological response to danger whether real or perceived.


It’s been an essential tool to the survival of our species.

Those with a very weak response became dinner for the beast, those with the strongest flight or fight response ate the beast for dinner. And so we evolved…


The daily need to fight for our physical lives has diminished quite a bit over the years, but our bodies, so well programmed for survival in the wild, now react to almost any perceived negative occurrence (including an upset customer, or missing the budget deadline) by producing the same fight or flight reaction with its ensuing physical chemicals and bodily changes. Because we don’t actually have a use for these chemicals while we’re sitting in the office (which cause a reduction in the ability to fight illness, adrenaline rushes, and all the responses I mentioned earlier), this becomes damaging to the body, the mind, and the emotions over time.


To complicate matters just a little more, when the fight or flight response is triggered the mind begins to look for additional danger (like more beasts; isn’t nature wonderful?), because our lives used to depend on us finding the beasts before they found us. So it looks for additional things that are “wrong” with a situation, and it filters out what is right.


This is a very handy reflex if you are a police officer, fire fighter or game show contestant. For the rest of us, who need such responses much less frequently, it negatively impacts our personal health, our attitudes, our relationships with co-workers, and our ability to provide the best possible care to our precious customers.


I take comfort in knowing that if I ever did have to run for my life, my body will respond well. In the meantime, I have to remember that when I start feeling that adrenaline surge through my body, and I feel my heart beating faster, I am actually damaging my body by suppressing my own immune system, blood cell production, healing and other vital functions. All this because the plane was late? I take 3 deep breaths, count to ten, and remind myself that I’m not fighting wild beasts today!


Try it now.

Inhale deeply through your nose and fill your belly with air. Hold for a few seconds, then exhale deeply, expelling all the stale air. Make your exhale a little longer than your inhale. Then repeat twice more.The fresh oxygen will send a signal to your sympathetic nervous system to take you out of fight or flight mode. It’s like an “All Clear” signal to the body to relax your muscles and get back to the other important automatic functions like fighting germs and digesting lunch.


When I take my 3 deep breaths I focus on words like “calm”, “balance” and “peace” – the states I’d like to be in rather than the stressful state I was in. Try that too.


Taking that few seconds gives you the opportunity to choose your response – rather than just react to the circumstance in front of you. It puts you in a more appropriate state of mind and body to deal with customers who need your help.


Here are a few other things you can do when you feel yourself in pounding heart, tightening fist, racing blood pressure mode of fight or flight:


Get up and move around

burn off some of the energy. Go out to the stairwell and run up and down the steps a few times.


See yourself in a calm, serene place (I always see myself walking on a long deserted beach). Take a mental vacation!

Drink a cool glass of clean water

Feel the cells in your body getting refreshed.


Stand up, reach high into to sky and then touch the earth. Do a slow spinal stretch at your desk. Stretch your neck gently from side to side. Keep breathing while stretching.


Feel appreciation.

Bring to your mind a person, situation, food, place or activity that you love. Vividly remember a time when you felt love and appreciation for it. Feel it now. Take your mindful energy and focus it on the area around your heart when you do this.


You get the picture!

Choose a better response! Break the link between stimulus (the sound of your boss’s footsteps in the hallway, the voice of an upset customer) and reaction (blood pumping, heart racing). Breathe, deeply, count to ten and prepare yourself for a calm, easy, rational response. It takes practice, but all these things help to keep you stress level down and organs from wearing out too early in life. Want to stay young, and healthy? Learn to manage stress!


Your skill at managing stress – the fight or flight response – is good for you, your co-workers and your vital relationships with your customers.


Take good care of yourself and your customers and put your own “oxygen mask” on first!


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