Taking Control – Jari Peuhkurinen

It’s almost dawn and you have been out with your friends celebrating. Your friends took a taxi, but you decided to walk because it’s just a short way home. You are walking down a quiet road. It’s kind of dark still, since the sun hasn’t come up yet. During the night you didn’t drink too much, but you can feel that you are little bit intoxicated, but most of all you are tired. You just want to get home to sleep.

You are just about to cross a road to your home, when you see two men hanging out in front of your apartment building. They are not doing anything, just standing there, but obviously checking you out. You feel how your stress hormones start raging through your bloodstream, those little buggers that make your mind and body wake up… you are feeling fear.

Luckily you had been aware of your surroundings and you spotted the possible threat in time and you have a chance to affect what happens and avoid possible encounter by simply not entering a situation. Perhaps you change a direction or grab your phone and make a call. Maybe you go and get help from somewhere or someone.
When you are able to perceive a threat early it gives you time to react and plan. Time gives you a possibility to control your emotions better if you have the tools for it. This because the stimulus that causes fear, in this case observation of those two guys, is still somehow controllable.

On the other hand the stress hormones can be slowly paralyzing and draining your energy down. This can happen when you have the knowledge of future conflict and you know it cannot be avoided and you have to wait for it. The tools to control your thoughts and affect your emotions in these situations are very practical; concentrate your thoughts and energy on observation and planning.

When you exit the scene and get distance to the threat you can feel that stress is decreasing, since you feel you are going to be safe. You are coping through by your decisions and actions and take charge of the situation at an early stage.

Same thing happens during a physical conflict; stress starts to decrease and you can get some of your cognitive functions back the moment you feel that you are in control of the situation.

Let’s take the scenario further…

You have spotted those two suspicious guys standing in front of your home and you’ve decided to head back the way you came from, to get away from them. As you turn around to head back you see a third guy who’s been following you, but you hadn’t noticed him before. Seems they are all part of the same group and working together.

Situation has developed to a point where you cannot avoid by simply exiting the situation. There is nowhere to escape, not at least without some form of action towards the threats. Some form of encounter with them is unavoidable. You can make a conscious choice and start adapting to the situation.

Firstly you need to assess the situation again with this new information. Make a quick threat analysis; map your options and form a plan of action, make the goal clear for yourself. This is a conscious decision not to let your feelings of fear guide your thinking. You are coping with the situation and your actions will be goal oriented.

Threat analysis gives you information to plan your action. Forming a threat analysis is a skill you can practise everyday and it really helps to take charge of your thoughts and emotions.  

With this said it is not always easy to control those thoughts and you may find yourself in situation where your cognitive thinking doesn’t work too well and you seem to be thinking that if I don’t say anything and just ignore them, don’t look them in the eye and just walk away, everything will be fine. “how did I end up here?” what’s going to happen to me?” If I don’t notice them, maybe they don’t notice me” etc. You are denying the reality of the situation.

Denying the situation is our internal defense mechanism. Our internal defense mechanisms can protect our mind, but they also chain our thoughts. Defenses are about denying and distorting the reality around us and adjusting and suppressing our internal reality. It can help to cope with the pressing feeling of fear. When you are submitting yourself into this cycle of denying, you are forcing yourself to just react to everything that happens and that will increase your feeling of fear and you become a victim. All that is left is coping with what has happened after the situation.

It is also possible that fear literally makes you freeze. Makes you incapable to act in anyway. The possibility for this is especially high if the stimulus (the situation) develops without any warning. There is no time for denial. The stress hormones rush to prepare your body to fight or flight so suddenly that you just freeze. Simply you are not coping in anyway. This is no better than previous stage, you become a victim. There are drills to practise braking the freeze, but firstly you need to be able to recognize when you are freezing and that’s not always easy to do under control circumstances.

This was an example of coping in threat of physical conflict, but the same model applies for conflict management in general. Put yourself in a situation where the threat, the factor causing stress, is an upcoming conflict with your boss. You have those same tools at your disposal to cope with the immediate stress; if you have time and tools to avoid, the stress will be decreased. If you cannot avoid, but have time to make a plan of action (how you handle the situation) it will affect the stress levels and your action in a positive way. If, however, you are denying the reality the internal defense mechanisms may kick in and will distort the internal or outside reality to relieve stress. Or you may just freeze, not being able to respond or defend yourself.

It all comes down to two things;

  1. how much you have time to prepare and how you use that time
  2. what tools of coping you have in your disposal.

Both are things that we need to train for and train our students for. If either one of these elements missing and your action and coping will be severely compromised, facing the threat of a physical conflict you need to get your mind working for you, not against you, remaining in control is key.

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