Working Smarter

How Stress Shreds Impulse Control, and How to Get It Back

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman w hammer keyboard

Too many margaritas, and you may reveal a deeply held fear of bats or a sudden love for a complete stranger. Alcohol loosens something essential to functioning in the world: self-regulation, or discipline. Without it, we are at the mercy of impulse and emotions, not rational thought.

What is less known is that the same thing happens when we are under the influence of stress. Stress undermines our ability to regulate impulsivity, as the higher brain of the cerebral cortex is hijacked by the irrational emotions and unhinged thoughts of the lower brain of the limbic system.


We snap at people under deadline pressure, fly off the handle at motorists who encroach into our space, and say things we wish we hadn’t in the heat of an argument. Stress loosens tongues, wallets, and emotions. Studies show that stress aggravates the aggression hub of the brain, which in turn amps up a feedback loop of more stress. Without an intervening filter of self-regulation, we react to emotional demands without thinking.

Stress shreds the levers of willpower that are the difference between humans and marmosets—such as patience, which is a little-recognized self-discipline tool. Having the ability to pause, reflect, take a breath, and not react to demands is a critical component of self-mastery. When we allow events and others to instantly push our buttons, we self-inflict stress, and with it, still more stress and aggravation that come from the bad decisions of an out-of-control brain.

Patience and strategies such as acceptance, picking your battles, and cognitive appraisal—reframing negative events so our brains can use rational analysis to turn off the false danger signal of the stress response in a non-life-threatening moment—are part of the toolbox of emotion regulation. They are the means with which we use our self-discipline to modify thoughts and behavior to avoid impulse and keep stress at bay.

Emotion regulation is a great stress management tool. When we regulate negative emotions and setbacks, we shut off the harmful thoughts set off by our reaction to a stressful event, and stop stress in its tracks (Sayette, 1993).


Stress is a function of demands outweighing perceived control, so the key to managing it is the very thing that stress erodes, the self-control of emotion regulation. The challenge of life is being able to muster this mental discipline to override impulse, temptation, and emotional reactions to pressure and challenges. It helps us listen to our long-term interests over the immediate gratification of ego, mood, and default emotion.

As researchers Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister put it in one study (Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?), “Refraining from behaving requires an act of self-control by which the self alters its own behavioral patterns so as to prevent or inhibit its dominant response…People may sometimes give in and perform forbidden behaviors because they lack whatever strength, energy, or other inner resource that is needed to restrain themselves.”

No doubt, going to work each day and staying on task for eight or more hours requires a lot of inner fortitude and focus. You’d rather be at a pool somewhere in the tropics or nibbling on cheesecake at a café. Instead, you have to bring your attention to the task at hand while devices and interruptions rattle your startle response, a survival behavior, all day—which jacks up stress and lowers self-control.


As if we didn't have enough pressure on our impulse control mechanism, known as effortful control, the act of self-regulation itself can reduce self-control. Muraven and Baumeister argue that every time we tap self-regulation resources to do something hard or that we don’t want to do, that makes the next act of discipline harder. When you do two consecutive tasks that require mental effort, the second one is often impaired.

We’ve all seen this in action, as we start the workday plowing through tasks and by the afternoon swoon, the ability to stay on task and do mentally demanding assignments becomes much more difficult. We have burned up willpower supplies for the day. There is no resistance left when we get home and raid the refrigerator. Sara Lee! Haagen Dazs!

Mental regulation resources wear down over the course of a demanding day, primarily in the form of blood glucose. We can resupply this fuel, though, with strategic nutrition and fuel such as energy bars, juice, and other fare that can prime the persistence pump of glucose.


There’s more to it, though, than the right snacks. As you might have noticed, some people have a bit more self-discipline than others. They can resist the hot fudge sundae or stay on a job like a laser and not get sidetracked. Were they born that way, or is it a byproduct of practice?

Muraven and Baumeister contend that self-regulation may well be like a muscle that we can build through practice. The more we can accustom our executive brain to resist instant gratification, procrastination, or impulse, and be persistent, the stronger that muscle grows. “Frequent exercise of self-control followed by the opportunity for full rest and replenishment may gradually increase the individual’s total strength for self-control.”

Activities that build discipline—playing a musical instrument, aikido, learning a language, or dancing—can help create a habit of sticking with a difficult task and overriding the temptation to self-distract, quit, or procrastinate. Feeling the satisfaction of accomplishing a task and gaining a new skill or conquering difficulty gratifies our core need of competence, a mastery need.

When you can view the task you do through the lens of intrinsic, or internal, goals, you are also more likely to stick with it, studies show. As Stanford's Carol Dweck has found, intrinsic goals are another lever of self-control that can be used to improve self-regulation skills.

When your goal for a task is internal—excellence, pride of work, craft, challenge, service—in other words, unconditional and not dependent on outside approval or an external metric—money, success, performance, status—it’s easier to regulate your impulse control and stay on task longer. You are rewarded by the inherent interest in doing the task, which makes you less prone to self-distract.

So building up your self-regulation resources is a twofer. You get more attention and focus to complete a task quicker, and you manage stress in the process. Where there's a will, backed by impulse control and the right goal, there's a way.

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Why Our Goals for Happiness Keep Us Unhappy

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman offering hand on river

Despite the day’s grim headlines, we are all in luck. We happen to be alive at a time when the science has figured out what makes us happy. All we have to do is follow directions. For centuries, humans had to rely on the opinions of elixir salesmen, court jesters, peers, and herd instinct to track down hubs of happiness. That didn’t work out too well.

It’s still not working out, since most are unaware of the research and rush headlong for what doesn’t make us happy—money, success, status, beauty. These traditional metrics of happiness provide a quick bump in good vibes, but it is ephemeral, gone swiftly without a trace, and then we have to get more of it. It's called a hedonic treadmill, on which there is always another external want beyond the one we just achieved.


The thrill of a job promotion is gone in two weeks, studies show. Lottery winners go back to however they felt before the winnings six months later. If you want to go for a long stretch of happiness, the thrill of a new home lasts a full year. Unfortunately, the bills for it last a lot longer.

There are several reasons why our go-to happiness goals are a flop. One, they are dependent on external approval, what others think. That can’t make you happy. It doesn’t go to your internal bottom line, what validates you inside. You don’t buy it, because it's someone else's opinion. Only you can make yourself happy through intrinsic goals and experiences, as researchers such as Tim Kasser and Edward Deci have detailed. Happiness is about living richly, not material riches.

Two, our brains are programmed to habituate to the new situation, get used to it, and then it’s no big deal, and boredom sets in. And three, our idea of happiness is at odds with the nature of this highly sought-after emotion. The elation state we associate with happiness is a brief affair. We feel giddy, high. And then we soon come back down to reality. Reality and us suffer in the comparison to the peak state of intense happiness. We can’t hang on to its slippery ether.


The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman draws a distinction in happiness between pleasures and gratifications, a distinction that concerns duration and depth. Pleasures, like a glass of wine or a piece of German chocolate bundt cake, make the senses tingle, a surface happiness, but don’t go to our core, so they fade quickly. Most of us equate pleasures with being happy—and have to keep going for them because they don’t fill us up.

There’s a brilliant description of happiness in the great bossa nova classic, “A Felicidade” (“Happiness”) by Tom Jobim and the poet/lyricist Vinicius de Moraes: “Happiness is like a drop of dew on a petal of a flower that shines quietly, then swings so slightly, and falls like a tear of love.”

De Moraes nailed the fleeting ephemerality of happiness, or at least the form most associated with the happy feeling—something intensely pleasurable. Pleasures are fun, but they are a brief affair.

Our brain neurons are designed to cut us off from excess jubilation and bring us back to our survival default—what’s wrong, how am I going to make it, what’s going to happen, and general worrywart action. This is how the species has made it this far, erring on the side of the negative.


But we don’t face a life-or-death struggle every day as we did 150,000 years ago. We don’t have to stay in the negative bunker all day, and studies show that we are much better off if we go the positive route. Positive emotions and an optimistic framing of events (temporary, not permanent; not taking it personally) are the building blocks of the longer form of happiness that comes from gratifications, which is about doing things that involve seeking, learning, and feeling the satisfaction of growth, gratitude, or helping others.

We need three positive events to every one negative to stay on the positive side, because the negative is so powerful and drags us down, reports Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina and author of Positivity. Her work has shown that positive emotions broaden and build us, buffering setbacks, and driving initiative, new friendships, and opportunities. They are the bulwark of long-form happiness, the gratifications, and key to bouncing back and resilience. 

In other words, happiness isn’t something that happens to us. We have to put ourselves in the vicinity of it. To do that, we need the right goal, an intrinsic one, and act unconditionally.

Intrinsic goals are things we do for the inherent interest, fun, challenge, learning, excellence, service, craft, or community. We act not for instrumental gain or reward. When you dance, the purpose isn’t external, to shake your way to the other side of the dance floor. It’s simply to be in the fun of the experience of body in sync with rhythms. When you act for no payoff, you get one internally, and as a result, it sticks with you, unlike external goals.


The glow lasts, because it’s your personal event or experience, no one else’s. The University of Colorado’s Leaf van Boven and others have documented that experiences make us happier than material things because they can’t be compared to anyone else’s experience. Experiences are also interactive, so they fire off lots of different parts of the brain. The neurons that fire together wire together. That means we remember experiences for a long time.

Memory is key to happiness. It’s your ongoing status report, at any given time adding up the recent happenings and reporting back good or bad. A study by Sonia Lyubomirsky from the University of California at Riverside and Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri detailed that you are as happy as the most recent positive and novel thing you can remember.

Studies show that 50% of our potential happiness is genetic, and another 10% is due to circumstance—the state of your health or the environment you are raised in. You can’t do anything about either of those, sorry. That leaves you with 40% of potential happiness that you can actually control. It’s a realm known as intentional activities, the proactive things we do to engage with our world.

Intentional activities such as pastimes and hobbies fall squarely into the gratification column. They create positive mood, self-esteem, social support—things that not only increase positive emotions but also make us feel we are writing our own script as participants on this planet. As the University of Rochester's Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have documented, that results in gratification of our three core needs—autonomy, competence, and connection with others. Ultimate gratification. 

The brain responds by releasing dopamine, the chemical form of satisfaction. When your skills meet a challenge while doing something fun, you can satisfy both short and long-term forms of happiness through optimal experience, also known as flow. If you have a passion you partake in on a regular basis, you can add eight hours of joy to your week (Villerand, University of Montreal).


Anything that improves skill and makes us stretch beyond the routine gratifies the core need of competence. It’s our mastery need, and we feel great when we are tapping it. We feel we are doing what we are supposed to be doing on this planet. And we are. Your brain wants novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment, reports brain scientist Gregory Berns in his book, Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.

Lyubomirsky and Sheldon say there are two keys to sustainable happiness: initiating intentional activities and sustaining them. Both of these require us to engage with our world and follow our need to learn and grow. It’s about being participants in the journey, since this is when we gratify core needs such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others.

Initiating and sustaining are hard. We have many distractions and obligations, and gratification isn’t considered important enough to vie with it all. Yet all it takes to get the living in we are making for ourselves is to prioritize these behaviors and make them important, which they most definitely are.

The great psychologist Erik Erikson, who studied the stages of life and worked with many seniors, said that one of the questions we will have at the end of our days is: “Was it a good time?” Go for intrinsic participation and experiences now, and you can make sure you have the right answer to that question.

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Tags: life balance, happiness speakers, happier life, leisure activities and happiness

Are You Mad? The Link Between Irritability, Anger and Clogged Arteries

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all know certain lifestyle behaviors can be hazardous to the old lifespan. High cholesterol and heart disease, smoking and lung cancer, obesity and diabetes. Yet there is an under-the-radar behavior that can be just as deadly: irritability.

It seems innocuous. You’re just in a bad mood, grouchy. You woke up on the wrong side of bed. Yet a pattern of chronic irritability can lead to the same blowback as that caused by cholesterol—heart attack. The danger is that it is a very short distance from irritability to anger, hostility, and clogged arteries. When you are ticked off, seething, simmering inside, any little spark can set off a burst of anger, which has been shown to be a major risk factor for cardiovascular issues.


One study of 1305 men with no history of heart problems (Kawachi, Sparrow et al) found that anger can triple the risk of developing heart disease. A huge metastudy on anger as a heart attack trigger (Mostofsky, Penner, Mittleman) found that an anger outburst two hours before the episode can more than quadruple the risk of myocardial infarction.

Anger can also take a cumulative toll. A study of medical students found that the angriest were five times more likely to have an early heart attack and three times more likely to get cardiovascular disease (Finney, Stoney, Engebretson).

Anger and particularly hostility do their damage through activation of the stress response, which jacks up heart rate and blood pressure and suppresses the immune system. The flood of adrenaline to help you fight or run from danger can cause heart spasms and arrhythmias, and the velocity with which the blood is pouring through arteries can wear down their lining, causing craters that attract platelets and clogs.

Hostility has been linked to increased levels of C-reactive protein, which can form plaque and restrict blood flow. It’s such a red flag that one study by the Boston University School of Public Health suggested hostility is a better predictor of coronary disease than high cholesterol or smoking.


The real threat of anger is its staying power. It keeps us in a prolonged state of emergency and high blood pressure after even a minor event. Five minutes of anger can suppress the immune system for five hours (Rein, Atkinson, McCraty). The longer stress lasts, putting strain on your cardiovascular system and compromising the immune system, the greater the health risk.

Irritability keeps the prospect of anger close, amping up impatience, annoyance, and aggravation. Irritability is defined as a proneness to anger. It is both an enabler of anger and a low-grade form of it. It is the famed short fuse that some have temperamentally and others have conditionally. The more irritable we get, the better the odds that anger will erupt.

Researchers have connected irritability to the frustration that comes with a blocked goal. We can see this with the cause of much of the irritability in the workplace: time urgency, the frenzy of hurry-worry that most of us work with today that comes from a lack of patience.

Time frenzy is rampant in a digital world as is the impatience that trips it off. Digital devices have conditioned us to expect immediate gratification. Everyone wants the product, report, the email response yesterday. The Internet page won’t load fast enough, so it’s apocalypse now.


Traffic, coworkers, and progress not moving swiftly enough all fill the blocked goal thesis. In fact, time urgency makes every event in the day a potential source of frustration, because little in real life happens as quickly as we want it to. It sets an impossible standard on turnaround time, while locking us into self-inflicted irritation. Some of the most prone to impatience: Type A’s, whose defining trait is a fixation with the passage of time and annoyance with those moving in slow motion.

Chronic impatience fuels rushing, which jacks up aggravation and stress. It also drives crisis mentality and the belief that whatever I’m doing is an emergency, so I have the right to interrupt anyone at any time. Rushing and time urgency put everyone on edge and set off bad judgment and decision-making, since they rely on the irrational lower brain unfiltered by the analysis of the higher brain.

Researchers studying time urgency have identified the irritability/anger nexus as the danger zone. This is where on-edge tips over-the-edge at any slight aggravation, and triggers reflex emotional reaction and the stress response.


Whether the source of the irritability is impatience, something somebody said, a low-value assignment, lack of progress, stressful life events, setbacks, or generalized grouchiness, most of it comes on unconsciously. It’s part of the cloud of negative emotions and moods that can waylay the productive day or mind.

Moods ebb and flow constantly. They rise and fall depending on the time of the day (morning up, night down), the day of the week (Friday up, Monday down, for some strange reason), and multiple other swings throughout the day.

Most of the time we get swept downstream by the automaticity of irritability, and, like with most deeply felt emotion, it’s hard to let go of the mood once it takes hold. It’s as if we want to be irritated, because it allows us to feel justifiably up in arms about something.

If we could opt out of this prelude to anger, we could do a big solid for our heart and mind, not to mention the people around us on the receiving end of our funks. To do that, though, we would have to first become aware of the mood when we are in the middle of it—not easy to do—and then have the willpower and presence of mind to shut it down, and not let it spiral to fight-or-flight meltdowns.


Irritability is essentially a loss of patience with others, ourselves, the world. We’re mad but don’t want to come out with it directly, so it’s kind of passive-aggressive. It’s a grumbling in the brain of unexpressed, unprocessed annoyances, frustrations, resentments, and anxieties. It doesn’t serve any purpose, other than to make others want to give us a wide berth.

How do we off this reflex behavior? Get the triggers into the open. Ask where the irritability is coming from. Did you not get enough sleep (lack of sleep can drive irritability)? Are your efforts not being rewarded? Are there obstacles in the way? If so, what are they? Who are they? Did someone push your buttons?

Often, irritability is generalized and as long as it stays that way, we can’t resolve it. As with all stressors, the way forward is shining the light on the trigger, so that we can see that it is not life-and-death, and then turning off the danger signal. We can do that by having a conversation about the issue, changing the way we think about it, and identifying a more productive way forward.


Irritability is one of the ways that humans excel at getting in their own way. It pushes others away, entrenches negative emotions, sets off anger and stress, keeps you in a bunker of me-against-the-world, makes you unhealthy, and hands over the keys to your life to your ego.

One way to keep this self-inflicting behavior at bay is to treat yourself as the enemy, or at least your ego. Make it a competition between you and your ego. When irritability starts up, making you the most important person in the world, aggrieved by everyone, tell yourself, no, I’m not going there.

Make it a game. If you’re impatient, for instance, deliberately walk slower or get in the longer line at the market. You’re not going to take the bait. You act the opposite, using the extra time to take deep breaths to restore your higher faculties and step off the runaway train. You are in charge, not your ego.

Another approach is to identify the issues that set off irritability and create scenarios you will use to defeat it the next time that trigger pops up. You can use an implementation intention, an if-then statement that seeds a new behavior in the future. You tell yourself: If I get irritable, then I won’t take the bait. You solve the issue, let it go, and refuse to be a breeding ground for anger and assorted cardiovascular havoc.

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Tags: Stress and anger, anger and heart risk, irritability and stress, negative mood and productivity

Why Stress Keeps Your Team Out of Their Minds

Posted by Joe Robinson

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As a general practice, it’s not advisable to make important decisions while stone cold drunk. I'm feeling lucky—let's go to the casino. I’m going to send an email to the client and tell them what I really think.  We don’t want to make crucial choices when we are not in possession of all our faculties.

But that is what most of us do on a regular basis under the influence of something that sabotages decision-making ability as surely as too much Jim Beam: stress. When the brain is hijacked by the fight-or-flight response, we are under the command of an altered state, one in which irrational emotions, impulsive behavior, and an inability to see beyond the moment cloud sound judgment and reason.

Call it cognitive impairment syndrome, and it's hazardous not to just individual health but to the people around anyone who has it and company bottom lines.


The effects of a mind bent by stress can be deadly. The world’s worst airline crash, when two 747s collided in the fog on a runway in the Canary Islands in 1977, killing 587 people, was the result of a pilot whose time pressure, i.e., stress, got the best of him and who "decided" to take off without the okay from the control tower.  Versions of this happen every day on the nation’s roads because someone is late or driving aggressively (high stress causes risky driving behaviors and a result more stress), and the impulsive moves or speeding results in an accident.

In the workplace there are a host of impacts of stress on our mental capacities, which can have a dramatic effect on productivity, quality, clients, and profits, but are rarely discussed when it comes to the need for stress management. They may be out of sight, but they are definitely not out of mind.

What stress does to the brain and attention is something every organization should take seriously. It's a major cognitive hazard, blowing up the rational functioning of the higher brain. Stress undermines decision-making, judgment, attention, impulse control, engagement, mood, social rapport, and self-regulation (discipline), among others, all of which affect output. It also drives aggression (see "Why Stress Makes Us Take It Out on Others"), which fuels tension and conflict.


Anything that affects the chief productivity tool of attention is going to impact productivity, teamwork, and workflow, so stress management for mental fitness should be as important as physical wellness to any organization.

Minds addled by stress get easily distracted, take longer to do tasks, act before they think, and make decisions not based on all the data but from a very narrow bias of what’s familiar or most recent. Studies show stress makes us not fully weigh the downside of a given decision (Mather, Lighthall), for instance.

Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment, so we can’t see the bigger picture.  It makes us discount negative data and err on the side of rash behavior turning out positive—say, swerving between two cars to make a light to get work on time—which amps up risk-taking behavior.


It turns out that we are of two minds, two different cognitive systems, to be specific. Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explores their impact on behavior in his fabulous book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which takes a deep dive into the surprising number of ways the brain defaults to poor decisions, deceptions, and illusions.

Most of the damage comes courtesy of fast thinking, which Kahneman refers to as System 1 thinking. This mode is triggered by stress, pressure, deadlines, overwhelm, and time frenzy.  Slow thinking, or System 2, is the deliberative process of weighing pro and con and reflective analysis.

System 1 plays a critical role in making quick decisions in moments of need or crisis, but fails us on a regular basis in a world where overreaction to social stressors keeps us in false alarm mode.

In an unbounded world of constant interruptions, time pressure, and digital bombardment, it’s no surprise that System 1 is getting a workout these days, and that is driving brains and performance south and ratcheting up false urgency and mistakes.

Stress undermines intellect in a variety of ways through an emotional hijack that takes the wheel from the 21st-century brain and leaves it with a part of the brain that thinks the year is 150,000 BC. Here are some of the major cognitive impacts of that handoff.


—Fractured Working Memory. Stress impairs working memory and undermines top-down attention in the prefrontal cortex and, therefore, control over events, while it jacks up task-irrelevant emotional distractors, as one study found. Working memory, which is also known as short-term memory, is what we use to get anything done in the day.

The problem is working memory is a very tenuous affair.  We can only hang on to three or four thought chunks for only a few seconds. Stress and interruptions break the tenuous hold we have on those thought bites, and they disappear into the ether. Interruptions fuel stress and make any task seem harder than it is. They also erode impulse control and with it, attention, by blowing up working memory.

The cognitive load of trying to stay on task as your emotions react to a disruption and the aggravation it causes slows reaction times and undermines accuracy (Arnsten, Goldman-Rakic, Dolcos, McCarthy). An interruption of 2.8 seconds doubles mistakes, while one of 4.4 seconds triples errors (Altmann, Trafton).

—Hijacked Attention. Our survival equipment is set up to direct our attention in a threatening moment away from whatever we are doing to the danger at hand. If a rhino comes charging at you, horn first, you can’t be thinking about a new dandruff shampoo you’d like to try, only your next move to get out of harm’s way—which is to find a tree to climb ASAP or jump out of the way at the last second, since rhinos have terrible eyesight.

It’s the same when someone or something pushes your buttons at the office. Your countermanded mind will be preoccupied by the stressful event that it thinks is going to kill you, so you can’t focus on the task at hand. The emotional alarm set off by the mistaken life-or-death drill overwhelms the prefrontal cortex’s ability to calmly concentrate and finish what you are working on. We ruminate about the stressful event, turning a false belief into obsessive thoughts that fuel future anxieties and can keep us distracted from what we are trying to do for hours, days, weeks, or longer.

Stress has been shown to reduce the goal-centers in the brain and increase the habit-formation centers, not a prescription for productivity.

—Knee-Jerk Decision-Making. Stress and rushing make us default to System 1 for decisions, and it’s not a good outcome. Decisions are made quickly without the full backup of facts, since System 1 is primed for instant responses. It has no time to dig deep into the memory banks, so it bases decisions on recent events and what’s familiar or feels right.

System 1 glosses over the details, makes impulsive choices, and uses emotionality to render judgment. It uses only the evidence at hand, not what’s absent, suppresses doubt, and is prone to confirmation bias—all of which can be a recipe for disaster when people operating on System 1 are making key decisions.

—Snap Judgment. System 1 makes us think we know things we don’t because of the vast amount of information it screens out in a snap decision. This is one of the reasons why rushing and time urgency result in a lot of mistakes. They drive impulse, gut, and intuition, which are not always correct in the emotionality of a stressful moment. Stress creates shallow, impulsive thinking, which can lead to everything from irate clients to coworker arguments. The belief is that there is no time for thoroughness. You are too busy for that. And, besides, you trust your unvetted gut.

—Depleted Self-Regulation Resources. To get anything done at work, you need to have the discipline to show up and stay on task. The willpower to do that, known as self-regulation, is undermined by stress and demands that surpass coping equipment.

When the emergency alarm is turned on, discipline crumbles as emotions take over. With less focus, it takes longer to do the job and more effort is needed, which increases cognitive load and strain. As self-regulation resources are burned up, it’s even harder to stay on task, but a lot easier to fall prey to junk food cravings to replace some of the lost resources, such as blood glucose, and distractions, such as going online to escape from demands. Productivity takes a tumble. 

In multiple ways every day, stress is reaching into your team’s heads and compromising their ability to make the judgments on which your organization’s operations, performance, and bottom line depend.

The good news is that there are remedies for the smorgasbord of mental hazards set off by stress that restore attention and informed decision-making. A good place to start is an employee stress management training program that gives everyone the tools to manage demands—and suddenly get a lot smarter in a challenging world.

If you would like to learn how to cut stress and build resilient minds on your team, click below for details on our employee stress management training programs.

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5 Ways We Cut Vacations, and Life, Short

Posted by Joe Robinson

Aitutaki Island is the place for vacation copy

Not only do Americans have the shortest annual paid vacations by far among industrialized nations, we also have developed a habit over the last couple decades of self-inflicting even shorter holidays than are in our company policies by leaving untaken vacation days on the table.

It’s bad for your health, productivity, leaves you with life highlights unlived, and I would like to simply plead, don’t do it again this summer!


A Glassdoor survey found that half of American workers give back unused vacation time every year.  Expedia’s annual vacation deprivation survey reports the grim stat that Americans give back some 400 million vacation days each year.

An Australian or German vacationer would find it incomprehensible to give back a single hour of their allotment of four to six weeks. Wait a minute! You are actually going to voluntarily abbreviate your holiday? No, that would be certifiable.

Not taking all your vacation time is like handing back your paycheck, only worse, since you are handing back priceless items such as life experiences, which studies show make us happier than material things. They are the living we are making for ourselves, the proof of some semblance of work-life balance and a reminder of what's out there for us if we are.

The annual holiday is your best chance all year of fully partaking in the panoply of life opportunities free of duty and obligation. The time you shave from your vacay or holiday that's skipped completely is never coming back again. That's not going to sit well when you look back over your life. We regret more the things we don't do than what we do. Researchers call it "the inaction effect."


The research tells us that not taking all our time off is a lose-lose, for you and the company. Reaction times have been shown to increase 40% when we return from a vacation. Studies show breaks of all kinds, from five minutes to two-week vacations increase productivity. Minds and bodies get rebooted after the recuperative time away from the source of stress. It takes less effort to get the job done when we come back to the job.

The tradition of the American vacation was actually started back in the 1920s and 1930s by companies as a productivity tool. Fatigue studies back then showed that when workers returned rejuvenated from their holiday, output increased. It was a factory era back in those days, so you might think, yeah, a physical break made sense. Today, we’re just sitting on our butts, though.


Researchers say the brain goes down well before the body, and when it does, so does your chief productivity tool, attention. The source of productivity in the knowledge economy is a refreshed and energized brain. Vacations provide recreation, as in re-creation, for your mental faculties. They turn off job stress and increase positive emotions as well as gratify core needs such as autonomy and competence.

Burnout is the opposite of employee engagement, which all organizations want, since engaged employees are some 28% more productive. Its main dimension is exhaustion—mentally, physically, and emotionally. Vacations can cure burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, by regathering crashed emotional resources, like a sense of mastery and social support (Hobfoll, Shirom). But here’s the kicker, it takes two weeks of vacation for this recuperative process to occur, so we need to take all our time off to get the health benefits.

It also takes time if you want to travel to another hemisphere and see an exotic realm like the Cook island of Aitutaki (top photo), a series of islets ringing a sunken volcano over which a lagoon has formed. It's jammed with colorful fish, a snorkeler's dream, and devoid of something that usually interrupts our dreams: stress. 


What prevents Americans from taking all the time coming to them? Mostly unfounded fear and guilt, all-consuming busyness, digital addiction, and the inability to plan. These are all conquerable obstacles.

1. Defensive overworking. Fear kills vacation time by making people think that if they take all their vacation time, or take it all at one time, that they will be seen as a slacker. It could make them more expendable in the next round of layoffs. It’s called defensive overworking—working longer, skipping vacations, or cutting them short to underscore commitment and bolster a hard-working image. The reality is, though, that people who skip vacations get laid off like everyone else.

Inle girl

One woman I interviewed had been with her company for two decades, and had five weeks vacation as a result. Yet she only took a couple of long weekends off each year for fear of it making her seem too replaceable and not gung-ho enough. Then she got laid off. Now she wonders where her life went. Let your productivity and engagement at work speak for itself. Vacation denial is futile. All things change, all companies change. Live now or never.

2. Email derangement syndrome. It seems implausible that people would actually forego vacation time because of too much email when they get back to their desks, but no. This actually happens. Nobody likes a pile of email, but is a bunch of it really worth passing on your life? Like all fears, it’s just the prospect of it, not the reality, that makes you think you can’t handle it, which is the cue for the stress response to go off. At the worst, you have a couple of days of heavy email on return, and it’s over.

The better solution is to put a notification on your vacation email autoresponder stating that email will not be checked while you’re gone and to send it when you are back in the office. Many of the issues prompting the email will have been resolved by the time you get back. You can also designate someone else to take care of issues in your absence.

3. Coworker guilt. I hear this one a lot. People are afraid of burdening their coworkers and teams with extra work as a result of their taking time off, so they shave off vacation days here and there. Granted, staffs are leaner these days, but it’s crucial to ask yourself how many of your coworkers would feel guilty about you having to do extra work on account of their vacation. If the time off is in your company policy, you are entitled to take it.

The answer here is to have cross-training within teams and departments. This is one of the secrets to European vacations as well as holidays for those in the U.S. Army. The idea is that each of us trains colleagues on bits of our job—20% here, 30% there, etc.—and while we are gone, those folks fill in for us. When they are on vacations, we pick up the slack for them. Cross-training builds tight teamwork like nothing else. You are grateful to your teammates who help you get your vacay, and they feel the same about you helping them get out and live.

Companies who use cross-training report massive increases in teamwork and productivity. Ron Kelemen, head of the H Group in Salem, Oregon, told me that an extra week of vacation combined with cross-training was the best productivity strategy he’d ever seen.

Girl in Ireland copy

4. The "I'm-too-busy" mental block.  In a culture that celebrates rote busy-ness as productivity, when often it’s just commotion without conscious thought or forward movement, many of us these days can get trapped in a false belief that we can never stop or step back. There’s too much to do. We can’t be out of email touch and might missing something important. The mental block of busy-ness tells us there’s no time to take off. I'm too busy to think about a holiday or plan a vacation.

Busy-ness also drives hurry-worry and time urgency, which aggravate the perception of zero time for anything that’s not productive, like your life. To take time, you have to make time, plan months in advance, and put your vacation on the calendar so it’s locked in for yourself and your team. Ask yourself, am I too busy to live?

Rote busy-ness also fuels mechanical momentum, which can lead to being so wrapped up in the day-to-day duties, that it appears all will fall apart without you. If you aren’t there, things will go to Hades. As former vacation-skippers have told me, the job, the team, and the company did not implode when they finally took a long overdue vacation. It was just a fear, and fears have an abysmal track record as a predictive tool.

5. Macho-rexia bravado. Many a vacation gets shrunk or tossed out of a belief that the job is a macho endurance contest. Whoever is left standing at 11:30 p.m. wins. In this view taking a vacation or one of any length is wimpy or weak. This doesn’t just cut vacations short, it can lead to cutting life short from the diseases of overperformance and workaholism, from heart attacks to stroke and hypertension. Like anorexia, macho-rexia is a self-driven affliction that comes from excess concern about what others think.

Extreme hours and skipping vacations may get a clap on the back, but at what cost? Toughness is an inside job—working smarter, not at the threshold of pain.  Instead of bragging about late nights and weekends worked, try telling others about that bicycle trip in the wine country of California or what it was like to parasail. Researcher Leaf van Boven and colleagues have found that people like folks more who have experiences to share.

Let’s make a vow this summer to not fall for lame, self-defeating busyness, the no-time rut, the guilt and bravado, and forego the masochism, instead of the vacation. Discover the power of the rapture of being alive as fully as you can experience it for as many days as you can squeeze in. 


Tags: leaving vacation time on the table, vacation time, vacations and life balance

The Killer Inside: How Chronic Stress Breaks Hearts

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stress and control

Of all the health problems triggered by stress, few are more vetted in the scientific literature than the connection between stress and heart conditions. A raft of studies have traced the link between job stress and cardiac issues alone. 

People who work more than 51 hours a week, for instance, increase the risk of high blood pressure by 29% (Yang, Schnall, Baker, U.C. Irvine). The study’s authors said 30% of us don’t even know we have high blood pressure, so it ticks like a time bomb inside until enough damage has occurred to an overworked heart and worn-down arteries that it results in hypertension, stroke, or heart attacks. 

Those are all counterproductive for the individual and productive output, which is one of the reasons stress management needs to be given priority attention in any organization.


The latest wakeup call on the toll taken by chronic stress comes from a massive study in Sweden that looked at 137,000 people with stress-related disorders and compared their cardiovascular issues, from heart attacks to blood clots, to their unstressed siblings.  Researchers followed the participants for 27 years and found that those with high levels of stress had a 60% greater risk of a heart attack within a year of being diagnosed than their brothers or sisters without stress issues. 

In an article in the famed medical journal Lancet, Mika Kivimaki and colleagues Jaana Pentti, Jane Ferrie, David Batty, Solja Nyberg, and Marcus Jokela examined seven studies, covering 102,633 people, on the association between work stress and mortality and found that job strain in men with cardiometabolic disease (which includes everything from angina, to stroke, insulin resistance, and diabetes) has a higher rate of mortality than high cholesterol, obesity, lack of physical activity, and high alcohol consumption.

You can watch your cholesterol and drink moderately, but that won’t help you avoid the reckoning that chronic stress wreaks on your cardiovascular system. Why is stress so tough on the ticker and arteries?


When the stress response is activated by demands, workload, or hours beyond your perceived ability to handle them, your body goes into life-or-death mode as if the year was 150,000 B.C. to push blood to your arms and limbs, so you can fight or run from the danger. That means your heart has to beat faster and your blood pressure has to soar to pull this off.

If you don’t turn off the stress trigger, the response stays activated, turning into chronic stress. This keeps blood pressure constantly high, leading to the number one killer in the nation, cardiovascular disease.

In this state of constant activation, the blood roars through arteries like water through a firehose, a velocity that can wear down the lining inside your arteries, causing craters to develop that attract clotting and vascular obstructions. The blood races with such force that the body does something remarkable. It grows a thicker muscle layer around the arteries to keep them from flying around your body. These can then clamp down on the blood vessels, causing constrictions and cardiovascular events.


Devices we overwork break down, whether they are smartphones, cars, or hearts. Stress puts a lot of extra mileage on your cardiovascular system and particularly your heart. When high blood pressure from chronic stress becomes the new normal for months or years, that’s where the real damage occurs.

Continual high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat can cause a host of damage. The increased volume and velocity of blood balloons and inflames vessels, injuring them, and increases the odds that plaque and cholesterol will find their way to injured sites.

Chronic high blood pressure also sends blood more forcefully to the heart in a collision that impacts the heart muscle wall. This can result in left ventricular hypertrophy, an irregular heartbeat. The heart muscle is thickened from the impact of the blood flow, which puts pressure on the coronary arteries to deliver more blood than they may be able to. Left ventricular hypertrophy is one of the clearest tipoffs to an imminent cardiac event. 

Studies on mice and monkeys show that social stress increases the amount of plaque buildup in veins, or atherosclerosis. Combine that with the torrent of blood set off by high blood pressure, and those plaque particles can get swept along and shoved into smaller veins where they can cause a total blockage, or thrombus, or into coronary vessels, where they can clog the flow of blood to the heart, leading to a myocardial infarct, i.e. a heart attack.


It’s a cruel irony, but chronic stress is the real life-or-death threat, not the social stressors that set off the bogus fight-or-flight response in our day. We have to turn off the false alarms in our brain that drive stress, dispute, challenge, and contest stress, or we put our health at a greater risk than scarfing down platefuls of high cholesterol food or smoking a pack a day.

This is why a workaholic will die before an alcoholic. An alcoholic will have a long demise, while the workaholic has a sudden exit, thanks to a heart attack that could have been easily prevented with some basic stress management strategies.

To avoid an early departure from an overworked cardiovascular system, it’s critical to get an assessment of your stress levels. As the Yang study demonstrated, almost a third of people don’t even know they are highly stressed. The adrenaline released by the stress response masks the fact the body is going down and gives you a feeling of transcendence, a sense you are handling everything. But inside your body is working overtime.

Brian Curin, a co-founder of the Flip Flop Shop sandal stores told me that he was feeling a little sluggish when out jogging. He took a treadmill stress test, and the doctor told him he needed a quadruple bypass, right then and there. He went directly from the doctor’s office into surgery. Curin was 39 years old at the time.


There are a number of tests you can take to assess your stress levels. The treadmill test and electrocardiogram are the best, but you can have your cortisol levels checked with a simple blood test. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and elevated levels of it can be a stress tipoff.

By all means, get your blood pressure checked, but have it done at work, which is going to produce a much more accurate reading than one done in the calm of the doctor’s office.

Stress is part of work, part of life, but if we don’t manage it, it manages us and exacts a crippling toll on what makes us tick.

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Tags: manage stress, chronic stress symptoms, stress and heart problems

Road Rage to Office Meltdowns: Why Stress Makes Us Take It Out on Others

Posted by Joe Robinson

Angry stress

As if we don’t have enough stress of our own, we also have to contend with the impact of other people's stress—the triggered colleague who has a meltdown over some minor delay on a project, the driver with road rage, or the spouse who comes home after a bad day at the office and lashes out at anyone in sight, including the dog.

Stress is more than a personal health hazard. It’s a menace to the planet, since it aggravates a part of the brain responsible for aggression, and does so with zero awareness on the part of the reflex reactor.


Misery definitely loves company. Stress makes you take your frustration or anger out on others. Hormones released by the fight-or-flight response, not surprisingly, make it easy to go into fight mode. We see the cascade of pass-along stress at the office. The supervisor gets chewed out, then he or she jumps on you, then you look for someone else or, smarter, the stress ball to take your frustration out on.

It’s known as stress-induced displacement aggression, the practice of dishing out to others what you just got served up, and, believe it or not, it actually reduces stress for the person acting out as it increases it for others. No doubt, it's a prime suspect in why humans have such a hard time getting along.

As primate expert Robert Sapolsky reports in his book, Behave, “Shock a rat and it’s likely to bite the smaller guy nearby; a beta-ranking baboon loses a fight to the alpha, and he chases the omega male; when unemployment rises, so do rates of domestic violence."

If we want to reduce the volume of mindless violence and aggression in the world and at the office, I’d suggest a Marshall Plan for the psyche, giving people stress management tools to turn off the stress that drives reflex hostile aggression. When you switch off the false danger signal of the stress response, the emotional cyclone that can wreak damage on anyone nearby stops in four minutes.


Stress and aggression are linked together in a chemical dance in which each feeds off the other in a way that prolongs aggressive feelings and removes inhibitions that would normally keep irrational and violent acts at bay. The dynamic is neatly summed up in a study led by Menno Kruk of the University of Leiden in Holland, where researchers investigated the connection between stress and aggressive behavior. 

Scientists removed the adrenal glands of rats that produce stress hormones, and then injected them with corticosterone, similar to the cortisol that surges in humans during stress. Stimulating the aggression hub of the hypothalamus set off attack mode, bona fide rat rage even without another rat in sight.

Kruk’s research showed that the stress response sets off a swift feedback loop of hormones that contribute to aggressive behavior. Stimulating the hypothalamus produced more stress hormones, adrenocorticoids, and those in turn ratcheted up overall stress and more aggravation.

It all happens very quickly and can set off violent behavior even in tranquil settings. Kruk reports that there seems to be a threshold of stress that sets off aggressive behavior.


A study of road rage (Lipaz Shamoa-Nir, Meni Koslowsky) found that aggressive driving style predicted high levels of stress. The more aggressive the driving style, the higher the stress. Drivers with high stress perceived other drivers as the cause, and this made them act more aggressive towards them.

No doubt, driving is stressful. It involves what is known as “threat vigilance,” having to be on guard for hazardous conditions and potential life-threatening incidents. Taxi drivers and bus drivers are at the top of the list for jobs with the highest stress levels.

Yet the road rage study showed there is an alternative to stress-induced, aggressive or hostile driving. It depends on the stress coping style of the driver. People who respond to stress with emotional, reactive behavior are prone to drive aggressively. Drivers who use a problem-solving approach to stress, focusing on the task at hand with their modern analytical faculties, don’t plunge off the aggression deep end.

Problem-solving is the course we want to take in stressful moments, because it keeps the emotions down and reasoning in charge. It's a challenge, not life-or-death. This allows us to weigh pro and con before acting and analyze the situation, instead of default to reflexive action and what’s known as System 1 thinking—rash, impulsive, get-out-of-the-car-and-fight-the-other-driver mode. This is the Cro-Magnon state we are reduced to when stress uncorks the aggression equipment. 


Knee-jerk, irrational emotions set off by the stress response make us do incredibly stupid things without thinking, and when combined with the aggression-turbocharge of the fight part of the survival instinct, incredibly stupid, violent things. In this state inhibitions vanish as if you were stone drunk.

The sad part of the story is that displacement aggression actually helps reduce stress hormones. Sapolsky says that when a baboon loses a fight, picking on someone further down the chain results in a drop in glucocorticoid levels.

A study on the connection between family violence and pro football (David Card, Gordon Dahl) uncovered a similar dynamic in humans. When a local pro team unexpectedly loses, violence by men against female partners increases 10%. There’s no increase in violence if the supported team wins or is expected to lose. The violence increased 13% if the team was in the playoffs.

Another study (Ganz, Bradley, Wang) connected police reports of home violence to NFL football games. Game days, it turns out, have more domestic violence. As the authors put it, “emotional cues based on the outcomes of professional football games exert a relatively strong effect on the occurrence of family violence. The estimated impact of an upset loss, for example, is about one-third as large as the jump in violence on a major holiday like Independence Day.”


The central theme connecting stress and aggression is anger. It's a short distance from anger and hostility to the stress response and cardiovascular heart disease, studies show. We have to be mindful of the stages of anger to keep it and aggressive acting-out at bay.

It's a building process. Frustration and impatience lead to irritability and then the slightest spark can tip it over into anger. We have to catch ourselves before that tipping point. Ongoing anger can morph into hostility, which is a better predictor of cardiovascular disease than high cholesterol, drinking, or smoking.

The impatience/irritability threshold in time urgency, for instance, or the stress of time pressure, is the most dangerous part of a process that can lead to hostility and clogged arteries. Studies show that the risk of heart attack in men in the first two hours after a bout of anger is five times greater and the risk of stroke three times higher.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? It’s kind of a miracle that humans are still around, considering the built-in self-destruction buttons we have. For a species designed to feel better by taking out frustration on other humans, it could be a lot worse.

We’d be doing a lot better, though, if we could get as many people as possible into stress management training—to get out of their own way, and ours, by learning how to turn off the stress response and make the world safer for those around us.

If you would like to help your team manage stress and not take their stress out on colleagues, customers, or patients, click the button below for more information on our stress management training programs.

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Tags: office stress, road rage, Stress and anger, stress and aggression

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 body 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 and burnout. 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 can take you out.

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 can 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 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.

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Tags: stress management training, stress management trainer, stress management speakers, 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 copy

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 show us how to be happy. 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

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