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The Stress of Workplace Violence

Stress reactivity does not always help when violence occurs.

Key points

  • Stress reactivity has enabled humans to survive as a species.
  • Stress responses can be counterproductive in violent situations.
  • Forming appropriate habituated patterns is effective at mitigating negative stress responses, providing a greater degree of safety.

Not too long ago, the topic of workplace violence would probably not have appeared in Psychology Today. However, it is now a factor that must be considered, as it's become increasingly clear that these senseless acts of violence can occur anywhere. My intention is to cover the stress affecting staff from workplace violence and not specific tactical techniques to handle it.

Many of us have gone through the "run, hide, fight" training. This is certainly important and necessary; however, it neglects what is transpiring cognitively, emotionally, and viscerally during emergent stress. Workplace violence may or may not involve a weapon and includes scenarios such as an active shooter, a disgruntled employee, an employee recently fired, employees disagreeing, an upset former patient or family member, or a psychiatric patient.

Workplace violence, regardless of the etiology, fully engages the stress-reactive process (see my post on psychoneuroimmunology). The amygdala becomes centric, leading to excitation of neurotransmitters, hormones, and immune responses, priming the body to focus on survival tactics.

Workplace violence is exactly the sort of scenario that stress reactivity has evolved to respond to—it is the stereotype of fight or flight (for more on that, see my post on stress responses). However, it can also cause some psychologically problematic responses that can increase the danger.

When stress reactivity engages, pre-frontal cortex (PFC) responsiveness is hindered by excitation and release of dopamine and noradrenaline (among others). These biochemicals cause substantial delays in the ability to think logically. The person is now reacting from an emotionally driven primal brain.

In addition, humans retain our evolutionary herd mentality, striving to remain part of a clan. Separation or rejection from the clan meant certain death for our ancestors, and our brains still operate under this evolutionary psychological concept, particularly in emergent situations.

So, in workplace violence scenarios, our brains cease logical thinking, and we are hard-wired to follow our co-workers—our herd. This can cause us to run past many exits where we could find a quick and safe escape (or suitable places to hide) to instead follow the panicked crowd, often into more danger. This has been overwhelmingly demonstrated in many mass violence tragedies.

Additionally, our brains work quite hard to develop unconscious habituated patterns of behaviors. For example, most of us leave our places of work every day by the same exit. Our brains do not even think about it—we just automatically go to that exit.

Under normal circumstances, this is adaptive. However, under emergent stress, our cognitions and behaviors regress to these same habituated patterns, which may now be tremendously maladaptive.

Imagine that you hear gunshots at your workplace. Your stress response system engages and causes an immediate panicked feeling. Your brain is likely to go completely "blank" as your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes labored, your stomach has butterflies, you can only employ gross motor skills, your hands shake, you speak in monosyllables, the perception of time changes, your visual field narrows, your hearing becomes limited, and you feel terrified.

Automatically you run to the exit you always take. Perhaps this exit, leading to the employee parking lot is on the other side of the entire building where you work. As a result, you may bypass immediate egress points (e.g., other exits, a window you can break, a back hallway) to follow your unconscious patterns to your normal exit. You may even run right to the violent person who is waiting for the mass group of employees, knowing they will use the main exit.

There is a saying among stress management experts that, “People don’t rise to the occasion, they sink to their level of training.” This is a critical concept to consider in workplace violence. As your brain is no longer logically functioning, you can’t expect it to accurately assess the situation, make plans, develop contingencies, and implement solutions. If there has been no training, your brain is likely to default to panic, herd mentality, and ingrained unconscious habituated patterns, which are typically not optimal responses.

But if an employee has been trained to take the nearest exit, and using that exit has been repeatedly reinforced, the employee is more likely to actually go to that exit in an emergency when stress reactivity is occurring. This could save his/her life.

Finally, it is beneficial to help employees understand what such a chaotic situation will be like when they see their co-workers and friends panicked or frozen in fear.

The freeze response, or tonic immobility, affects approximately 13 percent of people in emergent scenarios, according to one study (Schmidt et al., 2008). This response occurs when the person is completely overwhelmed with fear and indecisiveness. He/she unconsciously determines there is no hope of fleeing or fighting. The person now exhibits complete motor and vocal inhibition and frequently will be found trembling in a fetal position.

Seeing a person completely frozen in terror can be quite disturbing. It will dramatically increase fear and stress in the person who is not frozen, which will already be extremely high. Also, keep in mind the hormonal differences in stress responsiveness between men and women, as this can significantly contribute to reactions in emergent situations (see my post on this). Teaching employees what will be encountered in a workplace violence scenario is crucial so that non-frozen employees don't develop tonic immobility themselves when they see their co-workers paralyzed in terror.

In summary, leaders should provide employees with ongoing training for various workplace violence scenarios and include experts to educate the staff on the impact of the stress that will occur. This proactive training will assist in developing constructive neural pathways and adaptive habituated patterns that can be life-saving.


Schmidt, N.B., Richey, J.A., Zvolensky, M.J., & Maner, J.K. (2008). Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor. Journal of Behavioral Therapy Experimental Psychiatry, 39(3), 292-304. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2007.08.002

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