Workplace bullying is a dehumanizing process that is all about power and control. It targets an employee’s character, dignity and integrity — not just as a professional, but as a human being. It is often the most traumatic experience someone has gone through.
To any threat, stress, or trauma there are five possible stress responses. These stress responses are innate. They are part of the wiring of our brain and nervous system and not something we have conscious control over. Which one gets activated is a function of both personal wiring, experience and context.
Everywhere one hears about the “fight, flight or freeze” response. But there are two more. And how these responses look in a workplace bullying situation is not what you might expect.
The Fight Stress Response
The fight stress response is an attempt to defend oneself against a threat. That might be literal physical aggression. But in the workplace physical aggression is a no-no.
So for targets the fight stress response might look like:
The fight stress response in targets is all about trying to achieve justice, set the record straight and clear their name.
Sadly, however, it all too often boomerangs. The more a target tries to fight back, the more the intimidation and retaliation ratchets up.
Contrary to what most people think, however, the fight response is typically a late stage stress response for targets. It is not their go-to (unlike for abrasive leaders). And by the time targets get to the fight response it is almost always too late for it to be effective. By that point the damage has been done. They are seen as the problem, and their fight response is just further evidence of that. They are the ones who are difficult to work with. They are the ones who are now too aggressive.
And if they take it all the way to complaints and/or legal action, their resources to fight are miniscule in comparison to that of the organization. They are already emotionally, mental and physically depleted from the bullying. Now they deplete themselves even further.
Almost without exception, targets who do manage to win their legal cases say they’re not sure it was worth it. It can take years, tens of thousands of dollars, and being subjected to relentless intimidation and retaliation, to win a legal battle. And the chances of winning it are very low in all but the most egregious cases.
If you do choose to fight back, be very clear eyed about what you are getting yourself into. And set some very clear “fight rules” around the amount of time — and money — you will allow yourself to spend fighting. And when then those are reached: stop. And walk away.
“Don’t make fighting the organization that mobbed you be your next career… Unequivocally, your organization is not worth this level of sacrifice.”
The Flight Stress Response
The flight stress response is an attempt to get away from the threat.
The flight stress response plays out in a number of ways in a workplace context — from low key and relatively passive, to more active.
At its lowest level the flight response looks like increased sick-leave, disengagement, hiding out, no longer attending office social gatherings, and generally just trying to keep a low profile and make oneself as small, insignificant and unthreatening as possible.
Sadly, most targets don’t take this as their cue to immediately start looking for another job. And that’s because they’re usually still working under the (mistaken) belief that they must be doing something to cause this. And if they can just <insert whatever>, they can get it to stop. They’re bewildered and confused by what’s going on. They’re being told they’re the problem, they believe that there must be some basis for the feedback, and so they keep trying to *fix* it.
At some point the accumulated stress pushes them to start actively looking for a job, outright quitting even without another job in hand, or going out on extended sick leave. These are active forms of the flight response.
The most tragic — and ultimate — form of the flight stress response is suicide.
Decades of research reveals a clear — and terribly sad — pattern: most targets do not get out soon enough. Many endure months and months, some even years, of bullying — at profound cost to their mental, physical and emotional health. For targets, fleeing seems like giving up, like letting the organization get away with it; it feels grossly unjust that they are the ones who need to leave — not the ones being psychologically aggressive. And so they stay. For far too long. And at profound cost to their well-being.
The Freeze Stress Response
When it is not safe to fight, nor can one escape a threat, then the brain and nervous system will automatically activate the freeze response. In the trauma world, it is well understood that freeze stress responses often lead to far worse levels of traumatization and PTSD.
A person in a freeze response looks outwardly passive and immobile. Their muscles are tight and the expression on their face might be confused for being sullen and impassive. Their eyes can appear glazed over. They might be accused of glaring — when actually they’re terrified.
Inwardly, however, they are in a highly activated state of extreme distress.
In the workplace context, freeze happens when neither fighting back nor quitting are seen as viable options. It is the freeze state that keeps targets in a state of profound distress for far too long. The freeze state is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, despair and dread. Just the thought of going into the office is enough to bring on panic attacks. They are in a state of extreme internal psychological distress — and unable to take outward action to end the bullying.
Targets in a state of freeze need urgent social and professional support.
And, tragically, they all too often do not get it.
Well-meaning people — uninformed about workplace bullying, trauma and trauma responses — urge them to fight back or to leave. Not understanding that if they could, they would. When the target continues to be paralyzed, unable to take action or make a decision — even the most well meaning of family members and friends can get frustrated and lose their patience.
However, in a freeze response the body is ready to return to flight or fight once the threat passes. So, when a target is in a state of freeze, they need professional help to get them to a place of safety (i.e. not the workplace) for long enough so that they can start to bring one of the other stress responses back online and start the healing and recovery process.
This is still going to take time — and bucket loads of support — to recover from. And recovery is totally possible — with the right support.
Here is an example of a freeze response in an animal. While the animal survives please do not watch this if it may be too upsetting for you.
The Flop Stress Response
For animals, when the predator does not move away after the “feigned death” of the freeze response, they might move into a “flop” response. Where the freeze state is “scared stiff”, in the flop response muscles become limp, heart rate and breathing slow down, endorphins are released and the animal enters a state of “no pain”. They are no longer aware of their surroundings.
For humans, flop happens when the trauma is inescapable. When the freeze goes on for too long. This is a state of deep clinical depression. Of complete physical collapse. The brain disassociates from the world — and from the rest of the body.
Clearly at this point the target is no state to work at all. It may take many months for targets to recover from this level of collapse. And…recovery is absolutely possible. Indeed, anecdotally, it sometimes seems that the harder the fall, the higher the rise after — in a phenomenon called “post traumatic growth”.
Here is an example of a flop response in an animal. While the animal survives please do not watch this if it may be too upsetting for you.
The Friend Stress Response
The “friend” stress response is perhaps the hardest of all to understand.
Human beings (like many other mammals) are social animals. When under a state of stress, one of the first things we will do is look for social support and to engage in self-soothing behaviours.
It it fascinating to watch this stress response in action. The other day a dog chased one of our cats up a tree. When we got her down (that’s another story) and got her into the house, she immediately set to washing herself. That is the “tend and befriend” a.k.a “friend” stress response in action.
When a stressed mouse in a lab is allowed to return to other mice, they immediately set to grooming each other. And the stressed mouse rapidly calms down. If the mouse is unable to return to other mice, the stressed mouse stays in a state of stress and agitation for far longer. Researchers dub this “fight, flight, freeze or groom” — and it happens in just about all social species in some form or another.
We can see this stress response in babies and young children: whenever they are hurt or stressed they immediately cry out and look for help.
Kelly McGonigal talks about this in her wonderful TED Talk — How to Make Stress Your Friend.
And we see this response in children of abusive parents, partners in an abusive relationship, and people who are the victims of rape, taken hostage etc. When one is with an aggressor one cannot escape and cannot fight it is a highly evolutionarily adaptive response to try to mollify and appease the aggressor, to preemptively attempt to calm the abuser by agreeing, answering what they know the abuser wants to hear, or by ignoring their own personal feelings and desires and doing anything and everything to prevent the abuse.
So when the threat is coming from a boss or a co-worker, one of the most common stress responses will be to try to appease them.
Being a pleaser is a stress response.
And with bullying it works — for a while. But then it makes it worse. Bullying always follows a test-then-escalate model. So when the target doesn’t push back, but rather submits and seeks to appease (the friend stress response), the aggressor knows they can continue with the aggression. So they do.
When you pair someone who tends to default to the friend (a.k.a. fawn) stress response due to their own wiring, life experience and context, with someone who tends to default to the fight stress response (the abrasive person who responds to any perceived threat to their ego with aggression — overt or passive): bingo — you have bullying in the making. And a dangerous cycle has also kicked off: with the aggressor demanding more and more, and the target becoming less and less able to combat it. Even when the aggressor and the target might have started off with roughly equal power, it is this dynamic that so quickly leads to the power and control imbalance that is one of the hallmarks of bullying.
One of the most tragic parts of bullying is as it continues and escalates, the target comes to be seen as more and more tainted and damaged goods at work, and paranoid at home. Other people start to avoid them. At precisely the time when targets need more social support, it is less and less available to them.
One of my main jobs as a trauma-informed coach who specializes in workplace bullying is to get targets to activate that friend response towards themselves. Targets tend to believe that there’s something wrong with them (there’s not). They tend to assume way too much responsibility for what has happened to them. (Abrasive leaders, of course, have the exact opposite challenge — they take on too little responsibility for their actions). So my number one job as a coach is get them to stop fighting themselves and beating themselves up and start “friending” themselves instead. FYI, exactly the same is true when I’m coaching abrasive people: getting them to actually “friend” themselves and tune into their own stress — rather than taking it out on others.
Sadly, by the time targets get to me they have often been in a state of freeze for so long that even making the decision to do anything for themselves feels too hard or too scary. It breaks my heart when this happens. The single best thing targets can do is to start to fight for themselves — not against the circumstances. Targets need to externalize the cause (i.e. they did not cause this and they are not to blame) but internalize the solution (i.e. stop waiting for others to “fix” this for them and really start being their own strongest friend, ally and advocate.)
If someone you know and love is in this situation, please show them this article. Please help them understand the stress responses. All are adaptive. All are completely understandable. But there’s only one that leads to true recovery and sustained well-being thereafter: learning to activate our “friend” stress response — where we become our own best friend.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.