Working Smarter

The Most Dangerous Thing About Stress: How Long We Hang on to It

Posted by Joe Robinson

Burnout Woman 40562450_m

Too many margaritas can make you a traffic accident statistic. Too much sugar and fat, both of which are crucial to providing energetic resources for the body, can lead to obesity and a serious side effect, diabetes. Even too much water can kill you. If you notice a trend here, it’s that things that may be harmless in moderation can boomerang on us in excess. Add stress to the list.

The stress response was designed for short bursts, providing a sudden rush of power to our limbs to help us fight or run from life-or-death danger. It was intended to last a limited time, until we were out of harm’s way and imminent demise. When the saber-tooth tiger left the neighborhood, so did the stress.


That was a good thing, since the longer stress lasts, the more damage it does to your body. Stress in small doses doesn’t wreak large-scale havoc on your innards and can even be considered an asset that propels you through a challenge or makes something feel exciting as you put your skills to a test.

On the other hand, stress that lasts days, weeks, and months, if not years, causes wide-scale harm to any number of systems and organs in the body and can lead to sudden trips to the ER. All stress management efforts should be focused on cutting off the most dangerous threat of stress, how long it lasts, and killing it before it kills you.

It’s the duration of stress that makes it so dangerous, since the stress response rejiggers many parts of your body in harmful ways to prepare your system for battle stations. Some functions of the body aren’t needed in a life-and-death struggle, such as the immune system, digestion and tissue repair systems, so these are turned off or suppressed to focus on the mission of providing more strength and speed and quicker blood flow to the arms and legs to achieve that. Driving the rush of blood is jacked-up blood pressure and a rapid heart rate.

These are all major adjustments to how our bodies operate and the equilibrium they need to function properly. With chronic stress, these and other realignments become the staging grounds for long-term damage. The effects of the increased heart rate and blood pressure alone are enough to make anyone swear off chronic stress (and, yes, we can do that by managing our reactions). They lead to the nation’s number one killer, cardiovascular disease.

The heart, arteries, and blood vessels have to work much harder under the command of the stress response, which they can manage for a while, but after a continuous period of excess emergency mode, things start breaking down.

The intense velocity of blood gushing through blood vessels like water through a fire hose starts wearing down the lining inside the vessel, causing little tears and pockets that attract a crowd—immune cells, foam cells of fatty nutrients, circulating platelets that promote clotting, fat, glucose, bad cholesterol, and plaque.

It’s standing room only inside your blood vessels and a heightened risk for clogs that restrict the flow of blood raging through veins in the form of atherosclerosis.


And that’s not the only way chronic stress alters the critical work of your circulatory system. The force of the blood flowing through veins is so great that it causes muscles to grow around them to contain the load. Those muscles, in turn, can clamp down on the vessels, making them more rigid, restricting blood flow and increasing blood pressure further.

Chronically increased blood pressure leads to hypertension and a host of issues that come from it, including heart attacks. Forcing the heart to pump faster and harder than it’s supposed to beefs up the muscle on the left side of the heart wall, leading to left ventricular hypertrophy, which is the top tipoff of cardiac risk.

Meanwhile, over in the abdomen department, chronic stress is mucking up your body’s digestion equipment by putting the system on idle. It forces the stomach to cut down on acid secretion, and bicarbonate and mucous production, which help protect the stomach. These and other changes left to fester from ongoing stress can lead to gastritis, acid rebound, ulcers when combined with the Helicobacter pylori microbe, and irritable bowel disease.


The need to keep the immune system functioning well is a pretty simple concept to grasp. Without our built-in defenses keeping at bay a world buzzing with bacteria, microbes, parasites, and viruses, we are more apt to come down with any number of health problems. Long-term interruption of the immune system from stress causes a 40% to 70% reduction in the various metrics of the immune system function.

Stress releases a flood of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol and other steroid hormones into the bloodstream. They have been shown to interfere with the body’s immune agents, such as lymphocyte cells, sidelining some, disappearing others inside immune cells, and even killing lymphocytes.

As University of California at Berkeley’s Robert Sapolsky detailed in his fabulous book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “Give someone massive amounts of glucocorticoids, or a huge stressor that has gone on for many hours, and the hormones will be killing lymphocytes indiscriminately, just mowing them down. Have a subtle rise in glucocorticoid levels for a short time…and the hormones kill only a particular subset of lymphocytes—older ones, ones that don’t work as well.”

Clearly, then, the smart thing to do is to stop ignoring stress, or sucking it up, as we are told we have to do. When we don’t challenge stress and turn off its false danger signal, we think about it. It’s this rumination, the circular cogitating over the exaggerated belief kicked up by an ancient brain that doesn’t get the modern world that drives stress—and chronic ailments and diseases that come from it. It’s the story we tell ourselves about the stressful event that causes stress, not the external event.


This is something we can change by cutting off the stress spiral as soon as possible after the stress response is triggered. The longer the irrational emotions from our primitive limbic system are allowed to fan the false belief of stress (always false unless it’s a real life-or-death event for you), the more the bogus belief is entrenched as real. And off we go for who knows how long with the cumulative damage to our cardiovascular system, digestion, and immune systems, among many other impacts.

We have to become adept at catching ourselves when we go off on emotional reactions. When someone or something pushes your buttons, use the wave of white-hot emotion—rage, anger, embarrassment—set off by the demand or pressure as the clue that you have to not grab those emotions and the catastrophic thought/belief fanning it in your brain.

Notice it, take a series of deep breaths, and analyze the category of stress that has been set off—ego hit, unfairness, overload, or any other impetus. Having to categorize it starts the process of waking up your analytical, modern brain, which can then retake command of faculties from the ancient hijacker.

Next, identify the false story behind the stressor. What is the extreme belief behind it? How useful is this thought? What’s behind this stressor that is setting off the emotions? What’s behind that? What’s behind that? Keep going until you find that the bottom-line cause is not a life-or-death emergency.

Tell yourself you can handle it, because you always do handle it. You may not know how at this moment, but you will, just like every other time you rose to the occasion. With that, you have cut off the destructive wrecking ball of chronic stress before it can spiral into a multi-day/week/month/year destruction derby of life-changing medical conditions.

If you would like to learn more about how to beat the default stress reflex in your organization or individually, click the button below for details on my stress management trainings and keynotes or here for stress management coaching for individuals.

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Tags: stress reduction techniques, chronic stress symptoms, risks of chronic stress

The Law of Life Effort: The Work of Happiness

Posted by Joe Robinson

Mountain top rally

Your brain is at war. With itself. There’s an epic, daily battle going under your pate for dominance between the forces of fear and safety and those that represent what it is our brains actually want—engagement, participation, novelty, and challenge. No wonder we need Advil.

The victor is usually the don’t-rock-the-boat team. Don’t try that. This couch is so comfortable. I’ll look like a fool. I don’t have time to take that yoga class. I’m exhausted. And, of course, the most effective weapon of the forces of non-engagement: It’s too much effort. What’s hard is having any work-life balance, or life period, when these and other ephemeral reflexes have us in a headlock.


We're so good at staying in the comfort zone that there is an actual psychological principle defining the behavior: the law of least effort. We are prone to take the route of least energy, difficulty, resistance, and unfamiliarity. Our basic self, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is a little on the I-don’t-want-to-budge side, hence, TV remotes, Amazon, groceries delivered to your door. 

Couch surfing is precisely the opposite path from where a number of branches of science say our brain neurons want us to go—straight into the thick of effort. This is where we introduce the antidote to the law of least effort, the Law of Life Effort. Life takes work.

Of course, we knew that already, when it comes to the job and obligation sides, but it's also true for the fun and fulfillment arenas. Effort is the skill that injects us into the experiences and vicinity of folks that lead to learning and gratification.


A raft of studies show that in the battle between comfort and engagement, it’s the latter that leads to gratification—so much so that the chemistry of satisfaction is based on it. Just the anticipation of something novel and out of routine sets off the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes us feel good. This advance payoff is known as the exploration bonus, a reward designed as an incentive to keep us learning and exploring, whether it’s the next waterhole, food source, website, or money-making opportunity.

Meanwhile, too much of the same thing leads new data-seeking brain neurons to get bored, or worse. The average state of someone watching TV is a mild depression, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Optimal Experience and Flow. When you consider what's been on TV, Dog the Bounty Hunter, the Kardashians, it's no wonder we're depressed.

Brain scientist Gregory Berns makes the point in his book, Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment that satisfaction is a byproduct of doing something that is difficult, something that requires effort. Doing what’s easy doesn’t satisfy. Satisfaction comes after challenge and effort, navigating a novel and unfamiliar road. 

Open road

Where’s the satisfaction for the top team in beating the worst team in the league? They did what they were supposed to do. On the other hand, if the worst team somehow defeats the best team, those players no doubt feel great satisfaction from doing what was a difficult task. 

After studying brain scans of people involved in various passionate pursuits in search of what sets off the dopamine equipment, Berns concluded that the two big keys to long-term fulfillment are novelty and challenge. To get there, though, we have to push past the safety mind that keeps that stuff at bay. That means a different kind of thinking than we are accustomed to in our performance and work life.


The life side requires another skill-set than what gets the job done. The work mind is necessarily focused on external goals, outcomes and results, whereas the life mind is about experiences for their own sake, an intrinsic purpose. The work side calls for control and staying within certain parameters, while the life side, and brain neurons, require that we step out, try new things, take risks, and plunge into challenging experiences for an internal payoff, such as learning or growth.

It takes effort to learn a new language, salsa dancing, or Asian history in an online course just because you would like the experience, skills, or knowledge. No one is there to make you do it. It’s hard in the beginning. There are so many other easier things to do. The temptation to not budge is enticing, but we must resist vegetating and engage, because participation is our prime directive.

We are designed to engage with our world and more than that, to do the selecting of those engagements, to determine the content of our life. The more of that we do, say Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the authors of self-determination theory, the more we satisfy core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence, find novelty and challenge, and set off the dopamine gratification dance in the brain.


You are the entrepreneur of your life. No one else can make it happen for you. You have to initiate to participate. You have to find affinities, ask others to do things, do the research and legwork to find interesting outlets and activities, commit to doing a hobby regularly or often enough to get past the learning curve and enjoy it, discover new music that lifts your spirit, find places off the beaten path that you’ve never been to before, and get in the habit of acting on curiosities, which can lead to the best discoveries, friends, and experiences.

Stefon Harris

I saw a brilliant performance recently from vibraphone master Stefon Harris and his band Blackout (photo above). Prior to going out, the usual array of seeming obstacles tried to tempt me to forego my engagement need. It was raining. It was Friday night, the worst for rush-hour traffic. As usual, the moment the car was rolling, I knew I had made the right move. Action begets agency begets autonomy begets discovery, and, in the case of Harris, a knockout set of contemporary jazz, fusion, and propulsive artistry that begot major bliss.

Making our lives happen takes effort, and that includes happiness and relationships. We can’t wait for it or them. The foremost researcher in positive emotions, Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, has found that we need three positive events to every one negative to stay on the positive side, because the negative is so powerful. For relationships, other research shows we need five positive events to every one negative. The lesson in these ratios: It takes work, proaction, to manage emotions or have a thriving relationship.

We are as happy as the most recent positive and novel event we can remember, says Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri. The memory operates as an ongoing status report of your state of mind. It needs enough recent data from things you have participated in to give you the reading you want. This means a proactive approach—off the chair, planning something, and getting out there and doing it.


Even though we would prefer to not stand up when it’s so cozy sitting down, there is something that can make it easier to act: having the right goal, the intrinsic purpose that is key to unlocking quality life experiences and play. We can get so used to external goals—what am I going to get out of it?—that we write off life activities that can’t advance career, status, or bankbook.

The science tells us that we shove our potential happiness aside when we do that. When we act for the inherent interest, not for anyone else’s approval, we satisfy our inner aspirations—autonomy, competence, and connection with others, not to mention the hunger to learn through novelty and challenge.

In other words, you act unconditionally. Without expectations and judgment, you engage in an activity for intrinsic goals such as fun, amusement, learning, challenge, excellence, or service. In it for the process, the experience, you are then 100% available to the moment of your life, riding the wave of effort.

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Tags: happiness, fulfilling life, live life to fullest, challenge and happiness, law of life effort

How to Bounce Back: Don't Take It Permanently

Posted by Joe Robinson

Girl jumping-1

If you think you aren’t creative, all you have to do is recall some of the wild, projected fears you have had in your life, fantasies that could contend with material from the Brothers Grimm or the Chucky films. We are all highly creative when it comes to dreaming up negative scenarios about things that are going to befall us that never pan out.

Given our talent for conjuring things, it’s surprising, then, that we are abject failures in imagining how we can bounce back from the setbacks of life. When we are knocked flat or struggle with an intractable problem, intense emotions and perceived doom cloud brighter imaginings.


Welcome to one of the hallmarks of the stress response and failure, pessimistic thinking. If we keep this mentality going long enough, it can lead to chronic stress, burnout, and something that has been shown to have a major impact on mental health and depression: giving up. It all comes from a false belief of the permanence of the dire situation, but it’s an illusion. 

Everything changes, particularly in the thoughts and minds of humans, including those who think nothing will change. It’s the law of life on this planet. Yet when negative events strike, they set off the survival equipment of the stress response, which makes an ancient part of the brain think you are in a life or death situation. 

Imminent demise is serious stuff, so your mind blows the event up into a catastrophe, so bad you are stuck with it forever. You take the event permanently, pervasively—affecting every aspect of your life—and you take it personally, getting the ego and its irrational emotions to reinforce your doom. You will be on the street. You’ll never be able to show your face again. You will never make it. No one will love you.

The belief in the permanence of negative events dramatically increases the power of the setback, driving exaggerated fears that are creative but bogus. If the permanence factor and the false belief behind it aren’t disputed, we can wind up in a cycle of dread that can lead to burnout and depression.


The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman wanted to find the mechanisms behind depression, which has boomed in recent decades. His research led him to uncover the self-reinforcing agent of permanence as a major factor in the process as well as the constituent parts of what is known as explanatory style—how we explain why bad things happen to us.

We all have a style of self-talk that either fans a belief in the permanence of the calamity (pessimistic explanatory style), or allows us to rebound (optimistic explanatory style) by taking the event as a temporary setback.

A permanent blow is hard to bounce back from. It seems futile. Nope. It only seems permanent because we don’t have the imagination to see alternative ways forward. The negative event is, instead, temporary, because everything changes and adjustments are found.

“People who give up easily believe the causes of the bad events are permanent: The bad events will persist, will always be there to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary,” Seligman wrote in Learned Optimism.

One of his examples shows just how massive the gulf is between the two styles of self-talk and why it’s so important to know which style you use and how you can adopt an optimistic explanation for the tough events that happen to us. Someone who takes a setback as permanent would think, “I’m all washed up.” Meanwhile, in the temporary framing of the optimistic style, the personalization and endless ego doom are swapped out for “I’m really exhausted.”


One of Seligman’s discoveries was the role of futility in stoking pessimism that leads to depression. Some people, faced with a difficult challenge, give up and adopt a behavior he called “learned helplessness.” They believe there is nothing they can do to change the situation, so they give up.

Learned helplessness goes against everything the science knows about what makes for thriving humans—the ability to adapt, to turn challenge into strength, and to determine the content of life through autonomy, competence, and personal growth. Action frees us from the yoke of our own minds that keeps us stuck in past setbacks and regrets, and moves us forward. Pessimistic explanatory style locks us out of our own aspirations.

The most accurate prediction for 2019 is change. It will happen in many different ways and we will adjust, because we are the adaptable species. What we need to move past reflex permanence is a belief in the nature of life: change.

You, me, the world around us—it’s all impermanent, always shifting, along with our minds as we gain insights from others, books, reflection, new encounters, new energy and strength, and swing around to another outlook—that the issue is changeable and temporary. It’s not super-imaginative, but it’s all we need to build the optimistic reframing essential to resilience.


We can counter the self-talk of permanence with an embrace of one of the most useful concepts for living in a world of trials and tribulations—the temporal nature of events and especially the ideas in the heads of those who experience them. The goal is to see negative occurrences as one-time, one place and subject to changing conditions. We want to keep the ego out of the situation as much as possible, since it is prone to exaggeration and irrational emotions that perpetuate dire thoughts.

The next time a setback strikes, catch your self-talk. Is the story in your head locking you into unending gloom and doom? Are you using pessimistic-style language such as, “this always happens to me,” or “I’ll never make it”? Ban those words from your vocabulary when they are used to lock you in to a self-inflicted bunker.

Instead, you can reframe pessimistic self-talk by adopting the language of optimistic explanatory style, which sees time as the transitory realm it is. Words such as sometimes, recently, lately, and maybe keep setbacks in their rightful place, as painful, tough, but restricted to a time and place and thus survivable.

You don’t have to be an eternal optimist to change self-talk. Pessimists can learn to catch themselves when the false beliefs go off and reframe their words and interior stories to reflect transient experiences. 

You can also overcome that failure of imagination that strikes when setbacks stagger our ability to see a solution. Instead of having to have a perfect vision of a new reality, focus on the fact that change will come, even if you don’t know how. Tell yourself, “I don’t know how but somehow.” Make it a mantra, and you move forward, activate agency, and your mandate of self-determination, which builds confidence and positive emotions that can overtake the fear factory in that noggin.

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Tags: managing stress, how to bounce back from setbacks, pessimistic self-talk, optimism and negative events

6 Ways to Stop Thinking About Work and Be Where You Are

Posted by Joe Robinson


We don’t have to wait for a time machine to travel into the future or past. We already have one inside our skull. The mind transports us backward and forward in time and to places other than where we are with such abandon, we all have millions of frequent flyer miles racked up in internal jet-setting.

All the travel makes for lots of split-tense headaches and fractured attention. It’s responsible for one of the most popular aspirations of working people everywhere these days. I asked the audience at a keynote I did recently for the Arizona Council’s Thriving in Times of Change conference what work-life balance means to them, and a woman answered: “When I’m at home, I’m not thinking about work, and when I’m at work, I’m one hundred percent at work.”


Great answer. We have to be fully present to our life at any given moment to truly experience it. This is when we are the most absorbed in the experience, connected to others, most in control, less stressed, the more we like what we’re doing, and feel a lot less guilt. And obviously, the only tense in which we can experience happiness, or anything else for that matter, is the one we are in now.

Guilt drives the dislocation experience that undercuts work-life balance, making us feel guilty when we’re at home and there's work to do/think about and when at work, there are people/responsibilities at home to whom/which we're not giving enough attention.

Especially in the era of nattering devices, there are a lot of good reasons we need to be able to detach ourselves from time traveling thoughts that intrude into whatever we are doing, work or home. First of all, guilt drives stress. Ruminative thoughts of needing to be where you aren’t self-inflict anxiety and interruptions that make anything we do seem more aggravating than it is, say researchers.

Beyond that, Roy Baumeister and colleagues at Florida State University found that when we have thoughts of things still left to do orbiting our brains, they butt into the task we’re on, making it more difficult to complete the task. One eye on another time and place hinders any task performance by driving stress about the undone items and making it take more effort to do the thing in front of us.

Given that all of us have more work to do than we can complete by day's end, it’s easy to lapse into guilt mode when leaving for the day. It can make us try to catch up on more work emails at home. It’s very tempting, since the brain hates unfinished loops, and nags us when there are tasks undone.


What we need here is something that has gone the way of the dodo: boundaries. In an unbounded world, we have to proactively set perimeters, or we can never get the mental separation from work thoughts that lets us enjoy time off-the-clock with friends and family, hobbies, or interests.

In a Harvard study (Nash, Stevenson), the key trait of professionals who had true satisfaction in their lives was found to be “the deliberate imposition of limits.” They were able to get to the “just enough” point in a given day or on a given project and didn’t have to overdo it.

Another big factor in exiting the present is ever-shrinking attention spans. Attention is a function of self-regulation, another kind of boundary—the discipline and will power to concentrate on one thing at a time.

The more interruptions you have, the more impulse control is eroded, as the intrusions shred the effortful control mechanism of your executive attention function that gives you the power to self-regulate.

The more you check email, the more you have to check it. The harder it is to regulate impulsivity, the more you self-distract and flit from one thing to another. Your attention span shrinks and the mind devolves to the focus of a frantic flea.


Being fully at home when you are not at work and engaged in the moment of the task in front of you when you’re at work requires two main things, the ability to be absorbed in the mental and physical engagement of now, and secondly, being able to reduce the yammering that comes from your survival equipment and the self-referential part of the brain that’s always asking: What’s going to happen? How am I going to make it? What’s wrong? What do I have to do at home/at work?

Our species should be called homo worrywart, since the default is to the negative and time travel to thoughts about what could go wrong. This has insured our survival over the millennia while saddling minds with endless departures from the present to projected anxieties and concerns.

The good news is that we can corral errant attention and keep the self-referential default under control, if we can create perimeters around work and life and manage the thoughts in our head. We can control the frenzied mind and its constant departures to angsty realms too well-known by learning how to not engage with the stuff in the other tenses. Here are some ways to do that:


1. Set boundaries. Set a stop time that tells you the workday is over. What will your stop time be? 6 p.m.? 7 p.m.? Set the alarm on your phone. After this time, you won’t check work email and will be available to interests and people on the home front.

2. Create a buffer zone after work to transition to the life side, something that brings the pressure down and the patience up. You can read, listen to music, do yoga something that adjusts the pulse rate downward.

3. Activate work recovery strategies. The science of work recovery says we have to detach ourselves from work thoughts and the stress that comes with them, or they come back to work with us the next day. You can do that through relaxation, recreation, or mastery activities, such as hobbies that allow you to increase your skill at some activity. The latter is the most effective at reducing stress, since it builds esteem and confidence that make us feel good and crowd out the negative.

4. Choose intrinsic goals. Don’t look for an external payoff. Do whatever you are doing for the fun, enjoyment, excellence, service, learning, for the inherent interest of whatever you’re doing. That roots you in the present. Research shows that we act for no payoff, we get one internally, in the form of full engagement in the moment that satisfies core needs such as autonomy and competence.

5. Don’t engage with the time traveling thoughts in your brain. Just because the thought or belief is in your brain doesn’t mean you have to engage with it or even believe it. Not grabbing false beliefs is one of the keys to managing stress and your mind. Notice the thought and come back to the present.

6. Do the best thing you can do to both increase attention and reduce the self-referential rabble in your brain—meditate. The science shows that meditation, whatever form you use, from mindfulness to the relaxation response, builds attention and calms the worrywart. There is nothing better for cutting out obsessive thinking and rumination and getting you used to just observing thoughts and not having to grab them and get swept down the projection track.

Yes, there is a lot of overlap and intermingling between work and home these days, thanks to technology and our super-busy lives. Yes, it’s not always possible to get the separation we need, but the goal isn’t perfection. It’s creating enough discrete space to experience work and home life as separate affairs during the week that we feel available to our lives and others outside the office and have the ability to participate in that life to the point where we don’t feel resentment about life missing in action.

One of the best things about sharpening the focus on every moment of our lives is that we remember what we do when we’re paying attention, as opposed to the non-imprint that happens when we’re blowing through to the next item on the list. Since your memory tells you whether you like your life or not, being where you are is a kind of insurance policy that you have the kind of memories that tell you life is more than work and errands and utilitarian tasks. Your memory proves it to you.

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Tags: turning off work stress, mindfulness, mind management, work-home perimeter, attention and work-life balance, how to leave work at work

How Nature Stomps Stress and Builds a Positive Mind

Posted by Joe Robinson


Stand in a lush meadow with grasses swaying gently in the breeze, surrounded by dramatic peaks rising up out of a U-shaped valley, such as at Kings Canyon National Park’s Zumwalt Meadow (photo above), and something remarkable happens.

Cortisol levels and a protein enzyme, a-amylase, both markers of stress, go down. Positive emotions and attention go up, which further crowd out the distractor of stress, whose wont is for us to be in the two tenses we're not in, instead of the one we are.

Maybe we ought to be spending more time outdoors? That’s what more and more studies are finding. The natural world is a kind of ambient medicine, an antidote to tension, pressures, and preoccupation, a restorative that helps the mind recover from nagging psychological demands and their physiological impacts on our bodies, and lets us taste some work-life balance.


It’s a stress management strategy you can use even in the middle of the city. All you have to do is stroll in a park or some greenery. As an undergrad at Stanford, Gregory Bratman wanted to understand why urban dwellers and workers had less anxiety in green spaces. He had subjects in his study walk through a green parkway for 90 minutes while others ambled along a highway.

Brain scans measured the state of their subgenual prefrontal cortex, home to brooding and obsessive thoughts, before and after. The folks who walked in the natural setting were found to have less ruminative thoughts that fuel stress and had, as a result, improved their mental health. The highway jaunt didn't have those benefits.

With the growing amount of time spent inside staring at screens these days—which reduces attention and increases stress—there’s no doubt we could use the tonic of natural environments to help manage demands and prevent attention spans from shrinking to that of a gnat.

Today’s science confirms what campers, hikers, visitors to mountain resorts, beach-goers, sages, and nature writers have felt instinctively. As Henry David Thoreau put it, “There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.”

It feels good to be in the natural world for a host of reasons. It overwhelms worries, uplifts spirits, and makes us want to put on our kid hat again. For centuries, a trip to natural springs or mountain lodges, the fresh-air cure, was the medical prescription for a host of maladies.


Greenery, open spaces, bodies of water, towering ridges, and inspiring landscapes have a calming and therapeutic effect on humans, and no doubt the fact that they are where we come from has something to do with it. Researcher Roger Ulrich argues in his studies that natural environments resonate with us since they provided us with elements key to survival—such as water and spatial openness. Perhaps we feel we are back at home at some level.

Certain natural features are particularly uplifting, such as bodies of water. There's some science behind it too. Air molecules in highly humidified environments retain negative ions, and humans seem to have better mood when in their midst.

Ocean waves and especially waterfalls are hubs for negative air ions, which, unlike negative emotions, say some researchers, can elevate mood and function as an anti-depressant. Maybe that is part of the magic of surfing or watching vertical rivers plunge to earth.

Then, of course, there is the beauty and scale of the natural vista itself, which, like music, helps soothe the addled mind and lead to pleasant reveries and wonderment. The German writer Goethe called wonder “the highest man can attain.”

Wondering removes minds from self-preoccupation and ego and makes us realize our small bit part in something much larger. That gets us out of our self-obsessed heads, always a plus on the blood pressure front.


The operative element in this shift from me-me-me to the world and the moment before us is an exotic realm called “attention.” Researchers have found that natural settings promote a particular kind of restorative to overburdened mental faculties, a recovery from “attention fatigue.”

Stephen and Rachel Kaplan developed a framework around the enhancing cognitive effects of being in nature they called Attention Restoration Theory. They found a progression of attentional states that nature helps encourage: a clearer head or concentration, mental fatigue recovery, fascination or interest, and reflection and restoration.

Green settings help that mental reboot by sidelining worries and to-do's as attention shifts to scenes of non-threatening openness and beauty that command focus.

How natural of a setting do you have to be in to get the restorative benefits of nature? Studies have found that walking in a green space, even a city park, is more therapeutic than walking in the concrete jungle and running outdoors is better at reducing negative emotions than on a treadmill.

Alan Ewert and Yun Chang did a study zeroing in on the degree of restorative benefits of various kinds of natural and urban greenery settings. They measured the effect of a lake area surrounded by wilderness forest and hiking trails, a municipal park with walking paths, and an indoor recreational facility with a running track, treadmills and a weight room. The results showed that the wilderness lake had the highest levels of stress reduction, the least worries about demands, and the biggest increase in level of joy.


The last element is a key one, since it no doubt accounts for the uptick in positive emotions that kick out negative and ruminative states in natural settings. Joy is one of the chief positive emotions, along with interest, contentment, and love, identified by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina as emotions that broaden and build our psychological resources and serve as stress buffers.

Fredrickson says joy helps us engage in enjoyments, and sets off the urge to play and be spontaneous—all participant actions that get us into the thick of experiences beyond the utilitarian that help us gratify core needs.

Follow the green, and you can take advantage of one of Fredrickson's more nifty discoveries—the "undo effect." The joy, inspiration, beauty, and serenity of green space can put you into a state of mind where the positive emotions literally shut off any physiological symptoms of stress. Digestion starts up again. Blood pressure goes back down to normal. Heartbeat slows down. 

What stress would you like to undo today? Find the nearest park and head there on a break or the way home from work. You can write your own prescription.

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Tags: nature and stress, therapeutic effects of being in nature, reducing stress in nature

8 Things You Can Do to Leave Work Stress at Work and Sleep Better

Posted by Joe Robinson

Bicycle riders

More and more of us are taking work home with us, and I’m not talking about checking work email at the dinner table. I'm referring to the stowaway work thoughts that we can’t turn off and keep us on the job, even if we’re at home.

Not being able to shut off work in our heads is a huge problem that drives chronic stress, robs us of recovery time and life balance, and hops in bed at night with us to throttle and blow up our sleep. And if all that weren’t bad enough, new research has found that stress doesn’t just make it harder to sleep, but that the sleep loss it causes itself makes us even more anxious, providing a tag team of stress that operates in a vicious cycle.


It turns out that poor sleep can cause anxiety all by itself. U. C. Berkeley researchers Eti Ben Simon and Matthew Walker found that sleep deprivation caused a 30% increase in anxiety levels, an amount similar to that in people with anxiety disorders. Brain scans showed that the rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, had less activity, while the emotional regions had more.

With the analytical part of the brain subordinated to emotional focus, one of the purposes of sleep—to counter the activation of strain during the day and provide rest and resetting through the body’s own balancing operation—was undermined.

When we take stress home with us and don’t have work recovery and stress management strategies to get the stress down, we set ourselves up for a pattern of cumulative and chronic stress that piles on and becomes an unwelcome bedtime companion.

Insomnia is one of the most common side effects of stress, causing some 75% of cases. The stress response keeps the survival equipment activated even when we are sleeping, including the hormone of cortisol, which is an arousal agent. It’s a stimulant, like drinking a couple cups of coffee before bedtime. 

Guzzling caffeine is not a prescription for sweet dreams, and neither is a flood of cortisol, which is designed to heighten alertness and battle-stations mode for life-and-death moments. The normal pattern of cortisol in the body is that we get sleepy when our cortisol levels are at their lowest, just before shuteye, and we wake up when they are at their highest, in the morning.

Stowaway work stress or any kind of stress blows that up, resulting in fitful nights that, as the new research shows, create additional anxiety. The reason for this is that insomnia and chronic sleep problems set off pretty much the same cascade of sleep-disruption changes in the body as the stress response. The heart rate increases, body temperature goes up (which also wakes us up), and, of course, cortisol jumps too, creating what is known as an “over-alertness obstacle” to getting to sleep and staying asleep.



The answer to this one-two punch to the sleeping gut is to turn off the events of the workday when we leave the office. The key to do doing that, say work recovery researchers, are strategies that allow us to detach ourselves from work thoughts.

This is hard for many of us to do, since our culture has trained us to believe that self-worth comes from only one part of our identity, work. As a result, we fixate on all the events of work with nothing else to take their place.

So the first place to start to get separation from the job is to understand that the performance identity of our professional side is not the sum total of our self-worth. It’s just part of who we are, a persona, that provides an easy social handle for others. If we find worth nowhere but on the job, we default to that and the thoughts it generates even when we are not at the desk.

Our real identity lies in a realm that is the whole point of the work, life. This is the hiding-in-plain-sight counterbalance to the demands of the job and the tensions that come from it, and it's the goal of all work-life balance—to get more of it on the table.

Studies show that engaged leisure activities reduce stress (Coleman, Iso-Ahola), restore energy, boost positive mood through control and social support (Chalip, Thomas), and increase mastery and core needs, such as autonomy and competence.

Work recovery strategies that interrupt, crowd out stressful thoughts, and shift mood can turn off the cycle of stowaway work stress. Yet they don’t happen by themselves. We have to make them happen and be the entrepreneur of our life through proactive decisions to engage with recovery activities—relaxation processes, recreation, and mastery activities, the latter of which is the most effective at cutting stress, since it builds esteem and competence, which crowd out intrusive negative thoughts.

dance class

We have to see life activation, participation in recreation, and, yes, recess as valuable as the work. There’s no success like recess. Stepping back resets the brain, restores energy, recharges and refuels. The two keys to sustainable happiness, Sonia Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon found in their research, is initiating intentional activities and sustaining intentional activities.

So let’s start flipping the switch on stress. Here are some key steps:


1. Mark the end of the workday with a lights-out finishing ritual. Turn your coffee mug over, turn off the light in the office, unplug from work email. Create an action that lets you know the swarm of work thoughts is over for the day.

2. Set stop times. You can set your phone to trigger an alarm to go off an hour before the end of the workday to give you an early-warning that it's time to start winding down and to go off again when it’s time to go. There’s more work and email than anyone can do in a day. We have to cultivate a regular schedule of stopping the work part of the day and starting the life part, or it doesn’t happen.

3. Create a buffer zone after work. I call it a “pressure drop,” the first 30 minutes when you get home. You are like a deep-sea diver coming up from the depths of high pressure and now you have to adjust to another zone. This is a good time for relaxation strategies—walking, listening to music you like (which is super-effective at shifting mood and negative emotions with it), meditation, yoga.

4. Dispute rumination. If you are thinking about some work event over and over, stop and dispute it. The stress alarm driving the rumination is false. You are not going to die from the catastrophic or extreme thought in your head. Identify the false story behind the stress, the most likely story (just the facts), and create a new story going forward. You will handle it. You always do.

5. Counterpunch thoughts of fatigue that prevent you from getting out and engaging in fun activities that reduce stress. It's more of a mood than a state of physical paralysis. You can do this by making a plan, putting it on your calendar and having an alarm go off to remind you to get off the couch. Don't fall for the first mood. As soon as you are out at your intentional activity, you will be glad you are participating in your life.

6.Treat recreation like brushing your teeth or watching your cholesterol. It’s your key to health and emotional hygiene. Get out rain or shine to the gym, to run, ride a bike, see a movie. Intentional activities make up the 40% of our potential happiness that we actually have control over.

7. Start life-tasting. Get online and research potential classes you can take—pottery, painting, volleyball, dancing. Sign up and start learning, something your brain craves. Find a learning experience you can do on a regular basis, at least once a week but hopefully a couple times. Once you are out in the activity, focus on the rules of the activity or game disrupts and destroys stress and work thoughts—what are they? Long gone.

8. Stick with it. Don’t be an adult and bail if the new activity gets hard and you may feel foolish because you don’t know how to do something perfectly as soon as you start it. Worrying about what other people think keeps you from growing and having fun as you develop skills and gratify core needs. You, not them, are the audience. Only you can make yourself happy by satisfying your inner need equipment.

Switching off stowaway stress requires getting off autopilot thought-factory action and going into planning mode. We have to put life on the calendar, get off the ad hoc “when I have time” default, and take it as seriously as our work.

When we have an active world outside the job, we build an identity apart from what’s on the business card. This strengthens, not just our resilience to stress, but our identity as a person as well as a professional producer.

The more we have a part of ourselves that boosts us up and makes us feel good no matter what happened that day at work, the more we can close our eyes at night, sleep soundly, and wake up without feeling we have been in a 15-round boxing match. The result: We always wake up on the right side of the bed.

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Tags: stress and sleep, work recovery, stress and recreation, sleep, leave work at work, work stress and sleep

River of Mortals: How to Seize Time on This Planet While You Still Have it

Posted by Joe Robinson

Varanasi sunset

The ancient city of Varanasi on the Ganges River in India has a sunset cruise unlike any other in the tourist book. The attraction isn’t beer, romance, or the last colors of the solar show. Instead, the main event is the funeral pyres along the river.

My boat, filled with Indian tourists, chugged upriver to some 40 yards from one of the outdoor crematoria. Then the barefoot boy steering it turned off its engine. On shore, I could see a shape atop a platform engulfed in flames five feet high. The talking stopped. A few took photos or videos. 

It seemed invasive to me, but death is not a subject kept from public view here. It’s out in the open, a daily reminder of where things are ultimately headed—and we don’t know when. This can be instructive to all of us, a motivation to seize the time we do have to live life to the fullest and have better work-life balance, something we can let all manner of things get in the way of. 

Noting the elephant in the mortal room is helpful on another very important front too. A big part of the fear of death is the fear of never having lived. Another reason to leave no life experiencing on the table.



The ill and dying come from all over India to leave the mortal world on the banks of the Ganges, whose waters they believe guarantee redemption for believers. The river is sacred to Hindus, known as Mother Ganga, named after the goddess Ganga. 

While the family of the individual at the cremation site mourned the loss, they would also be gladdened that their loved one had departed at this auspicious location.

It’s a scene that has been repeated for hundreds of years in one of the oldest cities in the world, known for a long time as Benares. Traces of settlement here reach back to 1800 B.C. Enter its labyrinthine alleyways off the river, and you are back in a medieval warren of narrow passages, some blocked by cows, sacred here, and folks selling homemade food, candles, statues of Hindu gods, and bamboo fans.

Once known for its silk fabrics and sculptures, Varanasi today is renowned as a spiritual hub. It’s the nexus of two of the world’s major religions—Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon in the fifth century B.C. at Sarnath, a town outside Varanasi that has some very interesting Buddhist sites, including the ruins of a massive fifth-century A.D. temple complex and a museum of remarkable artifacts dug up from it.

Pilgrim in Ganges

Temples and offering sites line Varanasi’s riverbank ghats, cement steps that lead down to the Ganges to help the faithful immerse themselves, bathe, or collect its murky water, which, though held sacred, is highly polluted.

I threaded my way to the river through throngs of pilgrims dressed in orange, some of whom had walked upwards of 100 miles, some barefoot, to collect water from the Ganges to bring back to their local Shiva temples in a ritual known as the Yatra pilgrimage. One young man without shoes was limping. He’d hurt his foot on the long walk from his village, but he said he would keep going. He was almost there.

Pilgrims on Yatra

An old sadhu, or Hindu holy man, with a long gray beard chanted in the middle of the street, where cows dozed. Religious songs blared from speakers as pilgrims pushed through a din of motorcycle horns and trishaws. It was rush-hour at 5:30 a.m. 


Though the practices along the river might seem shocking or morbid to some, maybe we could use a shock. We are expert at evading the topic of mortality most of our lives in the West, aside from those in the medical, law enforcement, or CSI murder mystery fields. It can give us a false sense of security and lack of urgency about taking care of the life side, a sense that there’s plenty of time left. There’s always tomorrow.

Boat cruise

The writer Paul Bowles had a great take on this illusory expanse of tomorrow in A Sheltering Sky. “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems so limitless.”

A friend of mine had a heart attack and died at 41. One of my best friends died in a work accident last year, with a recreational vehicle he’d just purchased to cruise the U.S. in retirement parked outside his house. Michael Justice was one of the best photographers in the U.S. He had documented the world’s largest pilgrimage, some 15 million people, in Allahabad, up the Ganges from here and had done some great work in Varanasi. My trip on the river was in tribute to him.

Heather Burcham thought she had plenty of time, but then the Texan came down with cervical cancer in her late-20s. As I reported in my book, Don’t Miss Your Life, once she learned the disease was terminal, she decided to get as much living in as she could, taking up skydiving and putting her remaining strength to work to lobby for a state law to support a vaccine that could prevent young women from contracting the disease. I saw her on an ABC News report. She said something I won’t ever forget, “You are so lucky. You get to live every moment.”

And we are. Except we often don’t realize our good fortune, remaining caught up in worries and trying to fill our time, instead of focusing on ways to make the time fulfilling. How do we do that? Not by waiting for someone else to do it for us.


It starts by becoming the entrepreneur of your life. The science says that our overriding mandate is to determine the content of our life, to put our stamp on it, to write our own script, to participate and not be a spectator, because that is when we satisfy core needs, such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connection with others.

Varanasi sign crowd-1

There is no arena better for doing that than in our life outside the job. This is where autonomy lives, in our choosing of how we want to experience our world. Researchers have found that 50% of our potential happiness is genetic. Sorry about that. Another 10% of potential happiness is circumstance, the state of your health, the environment you are raised in. Again, sorry. The good news is that we control the other 40%, which falls into a realm known as intentional activities.

The key to sustainable happiness, as researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon have reported, is initiating intentional activities and then sustaining them. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how we can get started on a life of no regrets. Keep in mind that we regret more the things we don’t do than what we do. It’s called the “inaction effect.”


1. Get rid of stress. The culture tells us to suck it up. Don’t. When we don’t dispute stress and resolve it, we think about it. That’s what drives stress, rumination. Stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain. The last thing a part of your brain that thinks you’re going to die that second wants to do is have fun. Stress is a story, a false belief we tell ourselves about the stressful event. We can and have to turn stress off and turn on stress management to open up receptivity to life.

2. Identify engaging life activities. Engagement is the key. Passive activities, such as watching TV, don’t cut it. The average state of someone watching TV, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Optimal Experience, is a mild depression. Go online, research areas of interest. Make a list of affinities, local activities, potential hobbies, summer vacation destinations, road trips, and bucket list items.

3. Initiate to participate. Just do it. Get going. Jump in without worrying about whether it’s perfect or you have everything figured out, as you did as a child. Make a commitment to live like Heather Burcham. Now.

4. Learn something new. Where can you go, what can you do to learn something new today? The brain’s party drug, dopamine is triggered at the mere prospect of something new. It’s called the exploration bonus. We are all explorers, if we follow our interests and curiosities.

5. Travel more. There’s nothing that turns on the brain’s satisfaction equipment like travel. The brain craves novelty and challenge. That is the definition of going somewhere you haven’t been before. Travel immerses us in novel experiences, wakes us up to our lives and offers insights and reflections, like those that come on a river trip in Varanasi, that remind us of things we need to pay attention to.

6. Use the play mind. The work mind doesn’t know how to play. This is because its focus is all on results. Play and the life side is about the experience, not where it’s going or an instrumental payoff. We do it to do it, for the fun, amusement, challenge, not to get anything external out of it.

We are going to have three questions at the end of our days, said Erik Erikson, the great psychologist who studied the stages of life and worked with seniors: 1) Did I get what I came her for? 2) Was it a good time? And 3) Did I do what I wanted?

When we proactively put life on the calendar, we can answer a resounding "YES" to these questions and insure a life without the regrets of inaction. 

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Tags: live life, living life to the fullest, life is short, Varanasi, Ganges River, core psychological needs, pilgrimage to Ganges

Secondhand Stress: 8 Ways to Resist the Stress of Others

Posted by Joe Robinson

Secondhand stress

The Delta pilot came bursting out of the locked door of the gangway that led to his plane in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his departure was stuck on hold. “What’s going on here?” he yelled, throwing his arms in the air in exasperation. “I have never seen it take this long to get a flight off the ground!”

He was steaming, but one of the gate agents did not respond in kind. She said calmly, “It’s a system problem with the booking, and we are working on it.” She said it with a smile and didn’t let the captain push her buttons. 

After he turned around and went back to the plane in a huff, she told her colleague. “I don’t know his job, and he doesn’t know mine.”

It was the perfect reaction to a scourge that spreads stress like a virus: the contagion of secondhand stress. She did two things that made her immune to his stress. She didn’t take it personally and separated his emotions and the cause of them from hers.


I wish I’d had it on video as a teaching instrument for most of us who are little more than mood marionettes, picking up on the stress of everyone around us. The reality is we are born to be copycats, at least when it comes to the emotional information on the faces and expressions of others around us.

Humans are designed to pick up on the mood and physical expressions of others, thanks to brain cells called mirror neurons.These cells cause us to mimic the emotional states of others, from laughing, to crying, to yawning.

We’ve all experienced the stereo yawn. You don’t even have to see the other person yawning to uncork an epic yawn. Hearing it is enough to send our simulation equipment into the actions of mock sleepiness, even if we’re not sleepy at all.

It’s all part of the equipment we have evolved as social animals to bond with others, size up threats, and increase our odds of being able to navigate the mysteries of the emotional world. Yet the simulation gear doesn’t work too well when what we are mirroring is other people’s stress, which we pick up in the form of secondhand stress.

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The authors of a study on the physical components of stress contagion, (Dimitroff, Kardan, Necka, Decety, Berman, Norman, 2017), report that “the ability to ‘catch’ aspects of another person’s emotions may serve as a relatively fast and effective way of understanding another individual’s affective state, which likely enhances one’s ability to be a successful agent in a highly complex and dynamic social environment.”


Understanding others is great, but do we have to pick up their stress in the process? As if we don’t have enough angst of our own, we are also sitting ducks for the pass-along anxiety of coworkers, spouses, friends, bosses, family members, neighbors, and cable news commentators, passed along through mirror neurons.

One of the earliest studies to confirm the contagion of stress was the Trier Social Stress Test. The investigation showed that stress-related cortisol and alpha-amylase were released not just in the bodies of nervous people asked to speak spontaneously in front of a group of judges, but also in the observers watching the speakers. It’s not just that we feel for them in their predicament. We feel like they do, their chemistry mirrored in ours.

Dimitroff et al took the exploration of the effect of others’ stress further. They wanted to see if viewing people in distress, watching people speaking in front of a group or watching videos of stressed-out individuals could cause a contagious cardiac response in the observer to reflect the jacked-up heartbeat triggered by the stress response. It did. The study showed a direct correlation, an increase in cardiac response that varied depending on the level of stress in the speakers or videos.

Subjects were able to clearly separate people who weren’t in the stress zone from the subtle and not-so-subtle cues that pulse rates of speakers or people on the videos were racing. Being able to read others emotionally is a finely tuned art that aids social functioning, but it’s hard to turn off, since it’s an “autonomic,” reflex behavior.


To keep secondhand stress from constantly triggering the survival equipment, we have to be able to find the off-switch. We want to be understanding of the plight of others, but we also need a separation. We can’t do our jobs if we are absorbing the anxiety and grief of others all day. This is a particular challenge for those who work in emotionally intense industries, from health care, to social work, and emergency services.

So let’s take a look at some things we can do to catch ourselves and resist the stress of others.


  1. Identify where the stress is coming from. Is it yours or is it coming from someone else? Ask: Whose stress am I picking up on today? The plight of someone going through difficulty is concerning, and we want to be understanding. As bad as it may be for them, though, their stress is not a life or death event for you. You are not under mortal threat. So the stress you are picking up from them is a false alarm.


  1. Talk to the person about the habit. If there is someone raising your pulse rate through impatience, anger, hostility, cynicism, unrealistic expectations, or negativity, call them on it. Let them know that a particular behavior of theirs is counterproductive and transfers strain to you and others around them. Tell them about mirror neurons and encourage them to leave their emotional hot potatoes in the microwave.


  1. Separate yourself from the event/person. Keeping distance between others’ emotions and your own is crucial. Like the Delta gate agent, you want to be able to see that the cause of the stressful behavior of others is not you but something in their own impatience, pressures, and issues. For anyone working in emotionally challenging fields, such as social work or health care, you want to feel for your clients and patients, but you don’t want to feel like them, because if you do, you run the risk of undermining your own health and ability to help them. Emotional distancing doesn’t make you less caring, just less of a potential burnout case.


  1. Don’t take it personally. Taking events personally is one of the biggest drivers of stress. It gets the ego into it, which sets off a boil of irrational emotions. In the case of secondhand stress, the art is to see that it’s personal for the person doing the stressing, not you. The cause of what that person says or mirrors to you is within their head and subject to the irrationality of their caveman brain’s fight-or-flight equipment.


  1. Exercise choice. Like guilt, secondhand stress is a manipulation by others. It may be unintentional, but it nonetheless takes your free will out of the process and leaves you a spectator in your own emotional life. That doesn’t work for humans, since one of our main core needs is autonomy, having agency over our lives. The next time someone mirrors stress, refuse to have them dictate your emotions. Tell yourself you determine the content of your life. If I grab someone else’s stress, then I will drop it, because it’s not mine.


  1. Stop mirroring others’ negative emotions. When people transmit negative emotions, the default is to pick up on that cue and go negative too. Instead, don’t respond in kind. React to complaining with positive body language and comments. Change the subject. Don’t feed the beast.


  1. Shift Mood. Moods are ephemeral. They can change in an instant. We don’t have to go with the first rote emotion that comes up from our mirroring equipment. You can crowd out the negative emotions of secondhand stress by shifting attention to a positive event or exercise. The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Frederickson has found that shifting attention to gratitude, for instance, can switch off the physiological effects of stress instantly. Think about something you should be grateful for and suddenly, your blood pressure goes down and your digestion starts up again, as the stress response is shut down. Music is another great mood shifter, so have some music handy that lifts you up, and turn to it when secondhand stress bites.


  1. Try a Secondhand Stress-Free Zone. Let’s take a cue from the social sanctions on smoking, and have your team or organization print up signs and bumper stickers to place around the office, declaring it a Secondhand Stress-Free Zone. Explain what that means, and that rampant stress transmission can be as harmful as nicotine.

When people around us understand that they are unwitting drivers of the poor health of people close to them, we can all start to get more control over our reactions, which will be healthier for the stress inflictors too.

The emotional life of humans is a cauldron of reflex fears and false alarms. When we bring awareness to the role that the moods and emotional displays of others have on us, we are no longer puppets in the dramas of others. We have less consternation to wade through to tackle the stress dramas we are starring in.

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Tags: contagious stress, mirror neurons, secondhand stress

Work Identity and Self-Worth: What's on Your Life Card?

Posted by Joe Robinson

Feet Palm Tree Medium

EUROPEANS SAY they know only two kinds of Americans, college kids and senior citizens. They are the only Yanks they see traveling in Europe. The vast demographic between those two groups is a mystery. Of course, we know why. From mid-20s until retirement, heads are down, immersed in the scrum of career, family, and mortgages.

Yet those are not total life-breakers, if not combined with another bigger issue: identities wrapped up in one side of the work-life hyphen. We define the self through labor in the U.S., unlike in many other lands, so self-worth tends to get tied up in what we do and identity with what’s on the business card. Yet what we do for a living is only a part of who we are, known as a persona, a social handle for others.

The real you is much more than the work I.D.—it’s a mix of your enthusiasms, interests, friends, family, humor, creativity, a whole bunch of things that come from the life side, your actual experience of living, in other words.


Now there’s definitely nothing wrong with the productive side. I lead productivity trainings, so it’s something I’m partial to. The performance/accomplishment component is essential for our core need of competence and is one of the keys to well-being.

It’s just that we get so one-tracked that we can wind up missing out on the living we are making for ourselves. When all worth comes from output, there’s no value in input, which is also bad for work—no recharging, stress relief, new ideas, plenty of negative affect. We wind up defaulting to the only worth we know, performance, skip an engaging life, have trouble getting a life on the agenda, and forget who we really are.

A former casting director I know in Hollywood opened up a side business as an identity detective. He helps professionals, such as doctors and lawyers in particular, retrace who they are/were before the career. They dig back through high school yearbook comments, old love letters, and sports activities to try uncover the essence of who they were before they became known as their job. 

We need some evidence too of our own lives. I suggest a business card for life. In my work-life balance trainings I have folks create their own life cards, on which they describe themselves by an interest, hobby, something they used to do but shelved, something they always wanted to do, like learn a musical instrument.

They could be a "travel enthusiast," a "dog whisperer," a "gourmet chef." When we have an identity outside the job, we are more apt to take part in it. Many, though, have trouble coming up with anything, because they have been told there's no value outside the office.

When we don’t participate in our life, we quickly lose touch with the skills and goals of play, curiosity, and exploration that make a fulfilling life happen.

The life side takes a different skill-set than the work mind. The goals are intrinsic, meaning we act for no payoff or result. We try something fun for the sake of it. The output goal is so rote, though, that we may skip a softball game or a vacation. What am I going to get out of it? 

The need for an instant payoff makes it hard for adults to learn, try something new, or stick with a leisure activity long enough to learn it. The double-whammy of not acting for an external reward and worrying that you might make a fool out of yourself by doing something you haven’t tried before keeps many adults sidelined from fun and stuck in spectating after work hours.


Even the words “play” and “fun” seem unworthy of adults, slackerish. That’s because we never learn the value of stepping back from performance mode. Idle time is the devil’s time. Or is it?

The University of Maryland’s Seppo Iso Ahola has found in his research that recreational activities reduce stress. They operate as a stress buffer, taking our mind off problems and building up our resilience. No matter what’s happening at work, you can climb on a bike or jump in a dance class, and the positive emotions soon crowd out the negative that drive tense work thoughts. Iso Ahola says that the more engaged leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction. That doesn’t sound too devilish.

It's time to revalue time off-the-clock from notions that are antithetical to the whole point of the work and counterproductive to quality output, since engaged leisure activities provide the recharge our chief productivity tool, attention, needs to get work done with less effort and stress. These fun outlets vitalize mind and body, allowing us to bring a positive frame to the office.

Researcher Laurence Chalip at the University of Texas has found that engaged leisure activities increase positive mood through more self-control and social support. Overwhelm and stress on the job make us feel out of control. At ease in activities we like to do, especially those that can advance our mastery skills, we bring control back to our day. We also tend to have fun with others, so we get an internal payoff for one of our core needs, connection with other people.


And it gets better. The University of Montreal’s Robert Vallerand has discovered that having a passion, an activity that you do on a regular basis that you love, can add eight hours of joy to your week. Vallerand’s research shows that we internalize mastery activities, and they become a part of our identity. “I’m a runner." "I'm a musician.” 

These self-images serve as bulwarks of our real identity and are not subject to other people’s approval, so they provide ongoing self-esteem and root us in positive events that inform our memories, our ongoing status report, that we like our life. How important are these off-hours attributes of identity? Play scholar John Neulinger called passionate play pursuits none other than the “central life interest.”

Alan Waterman of the College of New Jersey says when you’re engaged in activities of personal expressiveness, ones that are self-chosen and that advance your life goals, you are operating from the “true self.”

So far from being a waste of productive time, recreational activities, play, fun, and hobbies are the road to who we really are. Getting a life I.D. as well as a work I.D., then, is essential for the complete picture of self-image and unlocking the experiences that tell us we are doing what we are supposed to be doing here—determining the content of our lives through participation in it. 

No doubt, this is why a study out of Princeton led by Alan Krueger found that of all the things on the planet, what makes humans the happiest is participating in engaging leisure activities.

Engagement with life is a proactive affair. You are the entrepreneur of your life. No one can make it happen except you. You have to put leisure activities on the calendar for after work, on the weekend, and make sure to take every day of your vacation. Take your life calendar as seriously as work appointments, because these are events of the highest order, your appointment with life.

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Tags: play,, getting a life, get a life, positive mood, work and life identities, work life balance and play, self-worth and work identity

Slam Dunking Job Stress and the Mental Health Taboo

Posted by Joe Robinson


IT'S ONE OF THE FEW REMAINING TABOOS left in the closet: mental health. This is particularly true when it comes to the wellness of the brain on the job and conditions invisible to the naked eye, such as stress, anxiety, and burnout.

Few speak up about these health and job hazards, out of a fear of being seen as weak or less promotable, and it's making us sick. Millions suffer in silence, the very condition that fuels more stress through what happens when we don’t talk about and manage demands—rumination.


This is why it was big news when one of the top stars in pro basketball, six-foot-ten inch Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, stepped forward to tell the world about his struggles with anxiety. Outwardly Love seems the calmest player on the court, but inside it's a different story.

He had to leave a couple of games because of anxiety. One panic attack left him gasping for air on the locker room floor and thinking he was going to die. His heart was beating out of his chest, and he could barely breathe. He thought he was having a heart attack, which is what everyone thinks who experiences the profound terror of a panic attack.

He was taken to a hospital, where doctors gave him a clean bill of health. Without an obvious physical disorder, some teammates and many fans started questioning his commitment to the team and toughness. After a period of intense speculation about whether he was a slacker or malcontent, he decided to open up.

Love admitted he suffers from anxiety and depression, a family issue from way back. The revelation lifted a huge load from his broad shoulders, and people started to understand that this All-Star athlete, a giant of a man and fierce rebounder, had a medical condition, except, instead of it being a knee or hamstring or physical problem we can see on a scan or x-ray, it was in his brain. Lebron James shook his hand and told him he had helped a lot of people with his disclosure.

There’s a great article on here about Love and the challenge of getting NBA players to seek mental help. One insider estimates 40% of the players league could benefit from a mental assistance program, and the league is now making them readily available. Yet few players think they need assistance, primarily because they think a session with a mental health expert makes them less tough and might affect their valuation on the market.


The story got me thinking about what I see in the corporate world and how similar it is. People suffering from high stress seldom seek out the help they need. People who would think nothing of getting a broken arm fixed, endure months and years of high job stress, which is doing much worse things to their bodies and brains. They have been led to believe they are supposed to take stress as a badge of courage. To admit anxiety is almost to admit defeat. You can’t handle it.

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Wrong. Courage comes, not in enduring punishment and getting sick, but through speaking up and resolving demands and getting healthy. Stress has to be challenged, contested, and disputed, or it doesn’t go away. You can’t do that unless you can get it into the open and admit to yourself, your spouse, a friend, a coach, a counselor, or a supervisor that the bottleneck, deadline, high stress levels or pressure are not sustainable, that something isn’t working, and that it’s draining you and your productivity.

When management doesn't get any feedback to the contrary, it's assumed all is well, but when people speak up, it can lead to adjustments that can solve the stressors and to training programs of the sort I lead, in stress management or work-life balance. The most common phrase I get from clients is that work-life balance or stress management "keeps coming up on our surveys of employees."

It's also good idea to speak out, because it's much healthier to do so. Studies show that verbal expression of emotions reduces stress (Pennebaker) and suppressing emotions increases anxiety (Roemer). 

The ostrich approach is the first instinct, but it’s a waste of health, performance, and life too, since stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain. You can’t have fun when a part of your brain thinks you are about to die every second of the day. The false belief and catastrophic thoughts of stress will keep orbiting the brain until you convince it there is no mortal threat and turn it off.


When we switch off the false danger signal of non-life-threatening stress, the stress response stops in four minutes. Yet almost none of us are taught how to do this by managing the thoughts that cause stress.

We don’t know how to turn off catastrophic thoughts and increase perceived control over demands, the key to shutting down stress. We don’t know that it’s not others or external events that are driving stress—it’s the stories we tell ourselves about the stressful events that fuel stress. These are stories we can change and deactivate as triggers when we know how to reframe appraisals from life-or-death autopilot to manageable.

Stress does its damage when it lasts for a prolonged period of time. So nipping it in the bud by addressing it head-on is crucial. Chronic stress left unchallenged can lead to burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, and to depression, stroke, and other serious health problems.

I work with many people in my coaching and stress management training practice who have had chronic stress long enough that it has morphed into burnout. They typically have had chronic stress for six months to a couple of years. That takes a huge toll on the body, from heart problems to insomnia to irritable bowel.

Yet breaking through the stress cycle usually only takes three or four one-hour training sessions. As the optometrist says, “Which is better?” Three or four hours? Or upwards of a year or more of anxiety? 

Many of my male clients come to me because their wives have convinced them to seek help. This is why it's so important to talk to loved ones, friends, and family members about stress and anxiety issues. They can help us see beyond the emotional impasse to an outside solution.

In 2018, it’s still hard for men, but also women in the ruggedly individualistic culture we celebrate, to come to terms with the fact that they can't figure it all out themselves. A social worker I met told me she didn't tell her supervisor or even her husband about how overloaded she was until she was in the hospital with a nervous breakdown.

The stigma on mental health can make it seem we are not as capable as others, if we need some help. But stress isn’t about capability; it’s about a brain that wasn’t built for the social stresses of the modern world. We have defective brain architecture that makes us prone to go off unless we know how to manage reactions.


Since we are not psychics, we don’t know what’s in the heads of the people around us. I can guarantee you, though, that there are plenty of others who may not look it but feel the way you do, who are struggling to manage intense pressure every day. Even top professional athletes, such as Kevin Love.

Stress left unmanaged can build to high anxiety levels that can tip over into panic. If you have ever experienced a panic attack, you know you don’t want to have another one. It’s a condensed burst of terror that sends blood pressure sky high and heartbeats pounding like bass drums. It’s sheer panic that comes from a feeling of being trapped, like being cornered by a grizzly. It mimics a heart attack, but it’s simply a state of intense anxiety that has a finite duration. Twenty minutes, and it’s over.

Yet, as Love discovered, once it happens, you live in fear of it happening again, the biggest fear being that others will see you having it. It can lead to avoidance of anything that might trigger another attack, which can lead to seclusion and aversive behavior that leaves you isolated and fearful.

Love took the hardest but surest step to end the syndrome. He disclosed his vulnerability, sought help, and did so under the glaring lights of television cameras and Twitter feeds. He got help, and now he knows that talking about his mental challenges was the best thing he ever did. So much so that he is helping many others who have reached out to him for advice. He is now looking to set up a foundation to help young boys manage anxiety and depression.

“I think I found my life’s calling,” he told

Finding ways to manage reflex reactions and emotions is a life calling for all of us. Reaching out puts us on the path to awareness and knowledge, without which we are at the mercy of events, and with them, master of those events.

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Tags: job stress, mental health, mental wellness, speaking up, panic attacks, Kevin Love

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