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Sylwia Vargas
Sylwia Vargas

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Talk Notes: "Fight, Flight, or Freeze - Releasing Organizational Trauma" by Matt Stratton

What is this post about: As a part of my professional growth, I make time to watch conference talks on Ruby, Rails, JS, React, tech writing, and tech trivia. Previously, I'd just watch them but now I will take and publish notes for future reference.

Talk: Fight, Flight, or Freeze - Releasing Organizational Trauma by Matt Stratton

One-sentence summary: Applying personal trauma treatment methods to organizations and teams can prevent us from revisiting the same fight, flight, or freeze responses in the future.

Impression: Interesting and applicable to the teams, especially now that there's so much post-pandemic change happening.

Table of contents:

Vocab I looked up:

  • sympathetic nervous system: "The autonomic nervous system functions to regulate the body's unconscious actions. The sympathetic nervous system's primary process is to stimulate the body's fight or flight response. It is, however, constantly active at a basic level to maintain homeostasis."
  • parasympathetic nervous system: "The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the body's unconscious actions. The parasympathetic system is responsible for stimulation of "rest-and-digest" or "feed and breed" activities that occur when the body is at rest, especially after eating, including sexual arousal, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, digestion, and defecation."
  • prefrontal cortex: "In mammalian brain anatomy, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the cerebral cortex which covers the front part of the frontal lobe. (...) Many authors have indicated an integral link between a person's will to live, personality, and the functions of the prefrontal cortex. This brain region has been implicated in executive functions, such as planning, decision making, short-term memory, personality expression, moderating social behavior and controlling certain aspects of speech and language."


  • Zebra analogy:
    • there's a zebra who's just nibbling on grass as there are no predators around (the so-called rest and digest state);
    • all of a sudden, the zebra spots a predator; the response is fast -> fight or flight: heart rate increases, breathing increases, cortisol and adrenaline are released, the pupils dilate, any non-essential functions (like digestion) come to a stop; the nervous system prepares the zebra to run for its life;
    • if the zebra gets caught, the nervous system gets overwhelmed and has no further solutions; the zebra plays dead (freeze); this is where we consider the infliction of trauma; afterwards, the zebra gets up and "shakes it off" (literally) and gets back to the resting state;
  • Humans are not zebras - we have a prefrontal cortex, which "lower mammals" (such as zebras) don't
    • this is where decisions happen, where we can evaluate good&bad, understand consequences;
    • the downside is that we tend to replay traumatic scenarios and our sympathetic nervous system reacts to it exactly as an actual threat would;
    • this is also why we like pattern-recognition; some situations may seem like signals of past experiences to happen again;
  • A healthy nervous system is alternating between the activation and the rest&digest phases;
  • Un-discharged Traumatic Stress manifests as:
    • being stuck "ON": panic, anxiety, hyperactivity, inability to relax, restlessness, digestive problems, hypervigilance;
    • being stuck "OFF": depression, lethargy, more digestive problems, chronic fatigue, disconnection, pain;
  • Trauma is nuanced:
    • trauma occurs when your nervous system is overwhelmed, when your solution to a threat does not work;
    • trauma can result from real or perceived threats;
    • subjective and relative;

Trauma in the organizational context

  • Usually, as teams we also experience alternating states of activation and rest&digest stages;
  • If the organizations are in the "fight or flight" mode:
    • fight: they are hyper-aware of threats, which takes energy away from being able to move forward and innovate; this can be reflected in how the leadership approaches outages, e.g. wartime language;
    • flight: paralysis, too much safety considerations;

Remedy to trauma in the organization

  • Identify your organization's window of tolerance:
    • understand when your team or your company becomes dysregulated; think about these examples -- are we stuck ON, or stuck OFF?
    • resilient organizations are not traumatized by routine threats to their mission or business; non-resilient organizations are readily overwhelmed and often subject to the symptoms of overreaction, shutdown, and lack of regulated effort;
  • Regulate:
    • train ourselves to react in a specific way when some of the traumatic experiences happen to our organization;
    • look into the contributing factors that cause the trauma;
    • game days: let's create an association between the outages and incidents and a safe place, no big deal; they need to be low-stress; the goal is not to practice under pressure; the goal is not to practice problem-solving but to practice our response to stress and create a psycho-physiological response of calm; there needs to be structure and the experience needs to be guided;
    • "Failure Friday" (Planned failure injection) prepare us for approaching the stressful situation with calm;
  • Processing failure: there needs to be time to talk about it, share, and process; the post-mortems should not be write-only because they don't help anyone;

Cognitive distortions

  • perspectives with bias, irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time;
  • there are 16 different types of cognitive distortions, for instance:
    • polarized thinking (all-or-nothing thinking), everything is great or terrible, perfection or failure;
    • overgeneralization, a single instance becomes an overall pattern;
    • mental filter, seeing only the negative and eliminating all positives about a person, a team, or a system;
    • fortune-telling, if we only know enough, we can predict the future; predictions are not facts;
    • control fallacies: inaccurate exaggerated perception of control (no control/victim or total control) over our surroundings


  • We need to take off our shoes at the airport checks because on 22 Dec 2001, Richard Reid tried to ignite explosives in his shoe;
  • The bigger the organization, the less likely they are to share their post-mortems across teams;
  • "We have a saying in medicine that when you hear hoofbeats, the first thing that should come to mind is a horse, not a zebra. This too cute by half phrase has killed so many zebras." Jennifer Brea
  • "There are apparently 600,000 wild horses and 750,000 wild zebras. I think whether you think horses or zebras when you hear hoofbeats is entirely a function of how (geo/ego)centric is your point of view. Also, it could be a giraffe." Jennifer Brea

Read more (my own list):

Top comments (1)

maureento8888 profile image
Maureen T'O

Love this! So not talked about at allll in tech! Understanding our own physiological states is so critical to interpersonal work and work with ourselves 🙌🏼 So great you referenced Dr. Levine! 🙏🏼❤️