Working Smarter

Don't Take the Bait of Panic, Stress, and Catastrophic Thoughts

Posted by Joe Robinson

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You turn your wallet upside down, but can’t find it. Your credit card is AWOL. Immediately, the heart rate quickens and thoughts careen to catastrophes. Is someone running up a huge tab at the local jewelry store? Is your identity being stolen?

Or maybe you just got rejected on a critical sale, one you had told your team was in the bag. The self-talk goes to crazyland. You’re going to lose your job. You’ll be on the street. If you want proof that everyone has a creative side, just look at the worst-case scenarios we all have concocted under the influence of stress and panic. Who needs Stephen King or Wes Craven when we can tap in to the wildest horror movies inside our head?

LUCID TO UNHINGED IN A SECOND

Panic. We can go from zero to 10 on the freakout scale in a second. In an instant, ability to think clearly and use the intellect to solve a problem is blown up by irrational fear and hysteria. Panic is the last thing you want to do in moments like these, so why would evolution select out this over-the-top counterproductive habit?

It's a mistake, just like the stress response is when it goes off and your life is not on the line. Bad gray-matter architecture puts the ancient, emotional brain in charge in times of perceived threat, thereby making us prone to fly off into unhinged territory when something overloads coping resources.

As we discover in my stress management training programs, learning how to manage the panic button and the stress it sets off is a crucial skill we all need. Life is, in essence, a battle to keep the fear down, to not fall for the calamitous alarms of our overwrought security equipment.

Defaulting to hysteria in a difficult moment, not only makes the situation worse, the job worse, the relationship worse, it also is a reaction that is obsolete, built for another time and place 200,000 years ago.

Panic is a sudden shock to the system that jolts all stress response mechanisms into immediate gear for two purposes, neither of which has to do with thinking: 1) fight or 2) flight. Back before humans had the brain organs or ability to weigh pro and con and analyze a potential threat, all we had was the limbic system, the emotional brain, to respond to threats to life and limb.

Early humans couldn’t be trusted to think their way out of a potential mortal jam, so the brain was designed to respond with panic, instead, which would result in either a sprint out of harm’s way or standing ground and battling it out with a caveman stranger or saber-tooth tiger. Panic supercharges the body’s defense system that pushes blood to the arms or legs to survive dangerous encounters.

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The problem is that panic doesn’t work in a world of social stressors, where clarity of thought is needed to solve problems and the threats aren’t life-or-death. The problem is that, even though we have a modern, analytical brain today, we're stuck with the panic response, because stress hijacks the 21st-century faculties of the cerebral cortex and puts the irrational, limbic dolt in charge.

It doesn’t make sense today to run a mile and hide in some bushes when a problem arises, or to deck the first person you see when the 200th email of the day has hit your box and pushes the overload button.

THE STOWAWAY

Panic is an errant stowaway from another epoch that does more harm than good by setting off false alarms that drive catastrophizing, chronic stress, and projected fears that feed thoughts with pure fantasy. We make poor choices, lash out, get in car accidents, because we are not thinking, only acting.

One of the hidden keys to a less stressful and happier life is managing the panic reflex. Don't buy the first disastrous thoughts in your head after something goes wrong. How often have those imagined catastrophes come true? Don’t panic. Process. That’s what the brain is for. It’s a processing center, weighing the facts before a conclusion. Panic removes the modern brain from the equation. We have to prevent that from happening.

Getting it under control means managing reactions. It’s not what someone does or says to you that causes the panic of the stress response to go off; it’s your reaction to those things.

Thoughts triggered by our reactions to setbacks drive the whole stress train. They are false beliefs, since the ancient brain hijacks your modern gray matter with visions that are exaggerated, distorted fiction. The longer panicked thoughts aren’t disputed, the more they entrench in the brain and appear real. Just because thoughts are in our head doesn’t mean they are real. Thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is real.

Panic is triggered by reflex emotional reactions. To manage it, we have to become experts in nonreaction. That means training ourselves not to go off when difficulties arise or catching ourselves when panic strikes.

DON'T FALL FOR THE HARE-BRAIN

We have to learn not to take the bait of stress and fear. Panic and the stress alarms of our ancient brain are cons. They can’t operate without our cooperation. We set ourselves up when we let things push our buttons, and we fall for hare-brained visions of calamity.

When something triggers panic, a racing heartbeat, and thoughts of doom, we need to step back, take a series of deep breaths for a couple of minutes and repeat out loud, “I don’t react.” That brings back the 21st-century brain from the clutches of hysteria. It restores power to you as well as rational thought, and those two work together as your natural smelling salt. The longer a stressor is not disputed and resolved, the more its false catastrophes spiral.

That leads to awfulizing and rumination, or obsessive replay of the event or the fears from it, which turn false beliefs into seeming reality, so it’s crucial to get thoughts out of your brain and on paper or a screen.

Make a list of catastrophic thoughts. How true are they? Now lay out the facts for the most likely story of what’s taking place. Bringing out the facts of the situation and analyzing them restores command to the modern brain. Now tell yourself a new story that reflects your situation and abilities going forward. Say, “Yes, I lost this sale,” or “I’ve got a lot on my plate,” “but I can handle it.”

How we explain why bad things happen to us is crucial, not just to keep panic at bay, but also to create an “explanatory style,” as researchers call it, that promotes an optimistic outlook. Studies have shown that people who use self-talk that frames events in a more optimistic and passing way, as temporary and not permanent, for instance, have fewer major medical issues earlier in adulthood and lead more successful and happier lives.

The counter to stress triggers and the panic that can set them off is control. The more perceived control you have over a given situation, the less stress. Panic is the state of having no control.

That’s a lie. You do have control. You have a choice in how you respond to the situation. You have imagination to create solutions to challenging scenarios.

And you have resilience. You overcome thousands of challenges in the course of your time here. It’s what we do. There’s no need to panic, because we’ve always gotten through it, and panicking wasn’t even one iota helpful in doing so.

The urge to freak out when setbacks occur is an obsolete reflex we no longer need to survive on this planet. The outlandish, catastrophic thoughts that come from panic are for naught. It’s just the roller coaster of life. What can go wrong will. Accidents happen. And we can think before we react.

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Tags: panic, awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, stress and fear, stress management training, managing reactions

You Are What You Say: Words That Create Stress and the Best Phrase to Shut It Down

Posted by Joe Robinson

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HOW MANY TIMES have you worried about a future event, only to have nothing dire happen? The answer, I’m guessing, is more than a few. We’ve all been down this path so many times—sweating up a dump truck of angst, only to have zero dreaded results take place. It’s almost disappointing that the bad event didn’t happen, you put in so much hard-fought consternation over it. 

Why do we worry when there’s so little chance of any of it occurring? We’re designed to be worrywarts. It’s part of the defense equipment that has allowed the species to survive this far by erring on the side of the negative—and, as a result, to stories as imaginative as anything penned by Melville or Kipling.

FEAR'S FICTIONAL TALES

Fear makes us all expert storytellers—and not-so-expert predictors. It specializes in creative worst-case scenarios and a stream of fiction that drives stress, "awfulizing," and the chronic anxiety process.

Stress comes, not from anyone else, but from the story we tell ourselves about a stressful event—in other words, from our own thoughts. That story is supplied by an ancient part of the brain that is out of its depth in a world of social stressors and sees everything through the lens it was created for, threats to life and limb. Any threat that overloads coping ability sets off this one-track alarm in the emotional limbic system and its hub, the amygdala.

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Since it believes you are about to be deceased, the brain yells fire in your mental movie theater, concocting stories way out of proportion to the event and awfulizing bordering on the hysterical. But you are not about to expire, you are simply caught in a reflex false belief that can only exist if you take it seriously.

Crucial to the illusion is the language of stress. It produces a vocabulary that reinforces extreme, black-and-white thinking and its stories, which must be true, since they are in your own words. Except they are not.

The first thought that goes off in the brain after a setback is a catastrophic one. The self-talk tells us that it’s the end of ego, job, relationship, life as we know it. This all-or-nothing thinking is made convincing by the language that comes with it, such as, “I’ll never get that client,” or “This always happens.” "It's over." Terms like always and never exaggerate the setback, ratcheting up anger, fear, or humiliation into the life-and-death event they are not.

INFLAMMATORY LANGUAGE

The words we speak under the influence of the stress response make the false stories appear real and set up a cycle of rumination, or obsessive thinking, i.e., worrying about the stressful event. The most destructive words are those that explain things that happen to us as permanent and pervasive, such as “never” and “always,” “completely,” “can’t,” “forever,” “finished,” “impossible.” They are a trap, leaving no way out, and they are utterly false.

This kind of language can lead to what's known as a pessimistic explanatory style, describing why events happen to us in a negative way, which has been shown to be very bad for health and performance and success on the job. People with negative explanatory style get major illnesses much earlier in life than those who have an optimistic explanatory style, they are less productive and have less rapport with colleagues.

We are what we say we are. The language of stress inflames the irrational emotions that drive chronic stress and pessimism. Or the words we use can open the door to a response that fosters resilience in the face of challenge.

One of the keys to exiting exaggerated, negative framing is avoiding the phraseology of permanence. Stressful events are not permanent. They are temporary, because the state of life is change.

This is the road out of all-or-nothing catastrophic thoughts—not taking things permanently but merely as a passing storm, after which there will be clear skies again. Words direct the role we play. They have the power to make us either helpless cynics or persistent in reframing stress and making adjustments to stress triggers.

Terms that emphasize the momentary nature of the setback or anxiety, such as “recently” or “lately,” restore the 21st=century brain and rational thinking. It’s the belief that a situation is permanent that fuels the panic that keeps the fight-or-flight response going. We can turn that false belief off by choosing to describe setbacks as momentary and learning how to manage reactions through stress management training something I teach in my stress management training for groups or individuals.

THE POWER OF MAYBE

One of the best terms for doing that is a word that doesn’t get a lot of respect—“maybe” or “may be.” We associate the term with indecisiveness, but in the right context, strategic "may be’s" have the power to defang the false belief of permanence and signal that you’re not out of options. It’s also very useful at keeping expectations in line—another driver of stress—and holding out hope when none is in the picture.

“May be” acknowledges reality as it suggests the potential for better circumstances. It’s a term that recognizes that the indisputable fact of life and mortality is not that situations and people stay the same; it’s nonstop impermanence. It’s our failure to accept the true nature of things, change, that is a key source of human suffering. 

A classic Taoist tale about a farmer’s misfortunes speaks eloquently to how the right phrasing can prevent a rush to the cycle of worry and woe-is-me. In Tao: The Watercourse Way Alan Watts tells the story of a farmer whose horse ran away. “That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, ‘may be,’ The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, ‘May be.’ And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “May be.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, ‘May be.’”

All things pass, especially emotions, which are extremely ephemeral. The goal, then, should be to have words and phrases that counter permanence ready to deploy when setbacks send us down Forever Road. What terms could you practice and have on hand on a Post-It for the next time stress pops up? What about: “It’s momentary.” “It’s temporary.” “It’s not life-and-death.” “I can cope with it.” “I can handle it.” “Stay neutral.” “Recently, these things have been happening.”

These phrases bring back the 21st century brain hijacked by the primitive limbic system. The experience of spoken words can trump unreal thoughts by shutting off the spiral of pessimistic and panicked thinking. The earlier in the stressful event you can fight back with positive terms the better, since extreme, pessimistic thoughts take root the longer they go unchallenged. 

Worrying is a self-infliction. So we have the power to manage the language that give the false beliefs of stress credence. Counter your inner hysteric with terms of resilience, and you take back the script of your life.

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Tags: stress, job stress, stress management training, managing stress, awfulizing, stress management programs, catastrophic thoughts

The Most Important Stress Management Weapon We Don't Know We Need

Posted by Joe Robinson

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The surprising thing about stress is that it's not caused by anyone or anything else. The danger signal that trips the stress response is triggered, not by external events, but by what you think about those events. I hate to tell you this, but it’s the story you tell yourself about a stressful event, that activates stress. And that's very good news, because that means you can change the story and shut off the stress.

WHY BAD THINGS HAPPEN

It certainly doesn't feel like good news when stress erupts. That's because the story set off by stress is a highly catastrophic one. The ancient part of the brain that trips the stress response thinks you are about to die that second. As a result, it feeds the brain with an extreme thought, a false belief that immediately jumps to worst-case-scenario thinking and ruminating about dire outcomes.

The pattern is autopilot, unless we stop the emotional reaction by bringing back the 21st-century brain and the right way to frame negative events. How long we stay trapped in emotional awfulizing and rumination depends on a style of self-talk known as “explanatory style,” how we explain why bad things that happen to us. 

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Explanatory style is a concept that isn’t hard to grasp. I see the light bulbs go on right away in participants in my stress management programs. Our thoughts are the problem, not what anyone else is doing to us. Manage the thoughts set off by the default stress reaction, and you control the demands, instead of the other way around. Turn off the danger signal, and the stress response stops in four minutes.

CONTROLLING SELF-TALK

When a threat overloads capacity to cope with it, whether it’s an argument with a colleague or 300 emails, it activates ancient survival equipment in the brain's defense hub, the amygdala, which hijacks the modern brain and turns over command to a stowaway from the year 100,000 BC. The so-called caveman/woman brain then locks in irrational emotions and the thoughts they unleash, driven by the false belief of imminent demise.

That triggers dire and pessimistic self-talk—“I can’t handle it,” “I’m going to lose my job and be out on the street.” Pessimistic explanatory style entrenches the false belief that the sky is falling or that nothing will ever work out. We buy the catastrophic story because it’s in our heads—it has to be true! No, they are mere thoughts, and thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is real.

There is another explanation for what happened other than the black-and-white, all-or-nothing frame of pessimistic explanatory style. Optimistic explanatory style reframes the reaction by bringing back the rational 21st century brain. Something simply didn’t work out. A mistake was made, and it’s survivable. You’ll do better next time. It’s hard, but you can cope.

PESSIMISTIC STYLE: HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH

Explanatory style isn’t just key to controlling stress. Researchers who tracked the health of a group of Harvard students from college through their sixties (Peterson, Seligman, Vaillant) were able to show that a pessimistic explanatory style is a serious risk factor for poor health in midlife and late adulthood. The way we interpret why things happen to us can literally make us sick, set off major health conditions, and shorten our lives.

The reason is that the stress response was only designed to be active for a short period of time, since it does serious damage to our bodies in longer doses.

It suppresses the immune system, shuts down the digestive and tissue repair systems, sends blood pressure skyrocketing, and increases the bad cholesterol while decreasing the good kind. All this is intended to harness the body's strength and push blood to the arms and legs to help us fight or run during the brief time we are in harm's way.

This is why chronic stress that goes on day after day, week after week, sometimes year after year, is a factor in the leading causes of death and why it leads to absenteeism and presenteeism. Stress ravages bodies, brains, and productivity. It constricts brains to the perceived emergency, so the chief productivity tool, attention, goes missing in rumination.

It’s no wonder, then, that programs that teach people how to control stress with an optimistic explanatory style have an immediate impact on health and performance. Stress management training programs, for instance, have been shown to increase company revenues 23% and cut absenteeism 24% (Munz, Kohler, Greenberg). 

FROM PERMANENT TO TEMPORARY SETBACK

The right explanatory style can make all the difference for an under- pressure organization, team or personal life. The pessimistic style sees negative events as permanent, pervasive (affecting every aspect of life), and personal. It can lead to what the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman identified as “learned helplessness,” a belief that there’s nothing that can be done.

That fuels pessimistic self-talk and terms that lock you in to the darkness—things “always” turn out bad, you’ll “never” make it. Seligman discovered that pessimistic explanatory style is a road that leads to depression.

Optimistic explanatory style reverses the negative self-talk with terms that reframe the situation from permanent to temporary. It’s a passing storm, like all storms. It’s not pervasive but specific to a certain situation. Therefore, it’s not going to affect everything you do for the rest of your life. And you don’t take the event personally. That takes the ego out of the equation and the emotions that gush irrationally from it.

The optimistic style brings back the analytical brain hijacked by the primitive emotional brain residing in the ancient limbic system. You can start to weigh pro and con again. The sky is no longer falling.

The power to manage stress is within us all when we shut down the false story of stress and reframe it with the right explanatory style. This skill can transform lives and workplaces. Without an understanding of how to frame pressure, pace, and workload, the default is to the reflex catastrophic story. With the right self-talk, you can manage any challenge. 

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Tags: awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, stress management training, stress, stress management, stress management programs, explanatory style, self-talk

How to Control the Hidden Engine of Stress and Burnout: Rumination

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all hate repeats, especially of dramas we are starring in. Those come most frequently courtesy of one of the main protagonists of stress, a rehash cycle known as rumination. If we weren’t so prone to repeated obsessing over things that push our buttons, there would be a lot less stress and depression in the world.

It turns out that one of the biggest culprits in the stress battle isn’t what happens to us. It’s what we think happened to us. That’s where rumination, or circular worrying, comes in, with exaggerated thoughts informed, not by facts, but by irrational emotions. It’s the obsessive replay over and over again of events that have overloaded our ability to cope with them that fan stress, entrench it, and convince us that there is a clear and present danger to life and limb, even though there isn’t.

GETTING OUT OF OUR OWN WAY

Turning off the rumination reflex is one of the keys to stress management and preventing your brain from being hoodwinked on a regular basis to believe it’s the end, when it’s simply a neuronic malfunction. All we have to do is get out of our own way, a course we chart in our stress management programs for individuals and organizations.

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Normally, thinking is a good thing. We don’t jump off the 100-foot cliff or floor the gas pedal in a parking lot. But that’s when the 21st century brain is in use. We can use rational faculties to weigh pro and con. The stress response, though, puts an ancient stowaway in charge of your mind in the form of the emotional limbic system.

Over-cogitating with a mind that has been sent back to the future to 100,000 B.C. doesn’t work so well. That is because the survival mechanism that is setting off the alarm bell, the amygdala, doesn’t have a clue about non-life-threatening social threats today. It only knows one kind of threat—imminent death.

As a result, the first thought we have when a stressful event occurs is a false belief, an exaggeration that blows events out of proportion with reality. Remember, a part of your brain thinks you are going to be an ex-sentient being at any second. It routes all thinking through what it believes is total calamity at hand. You can’t be thinking about your email, your next report, or going to the movies when you only have a few moments left on earth, at least in the panicky view of the amygdala.

This sets off a wave of catastrophic thinking, or “awfulizing,” which takes the form of constant ruminating about the situation and fomenting worst-case scenarios. The brain is constricted to the perceived crisis of the moment and stuck on a terminal replay loop. The objective is to get you to pay attention so you can save yourself from the perceived danger. 

ONLY EXPERIENCE IS REAL

Stress loves this total monopoly on thinking. The longer the catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged, the more the false belief is amplified and entrenched. Time and rumination turn mere thoughts that aren’t real into real physical problems, since the stress response reduces the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind, and shuts down digestion—and worse. Depending on what you tell yourself about why you think this event happened to you, you can either turn the danger signal off, because there’s nothing there but a false belief, or it can lead to an even bigger problem, depression.

It’s the nature of humans to think that what’s in their brains must be true, because, well, it’s in our heads. But catastrophic thoughts are not real. Only experience is real. The thoughts you have after the stress response is triggered are the byproduct of a hyper-vigilant survival reflex, aided and abetted by what we tell ourselves about the event. “Explanatory style,” as it’s known, is the combustive engine for stress and depression.

What do you tell yourself after a setback? "I’ll do better next time," or "I’m never going to figure it out?" "It’s a one-off," or "I'm going to lose my job?" "I didn't prepare enough," or "There's something wrong with me?"

The all-or-nothing, black-or-white thoughts set off by the ancient brain can either be encouraged by pessimistic thinking or discouraged by an optimistic explanatory style. Even if you have a pessimistic explanatory style, you can overcome it with a bias for action, which is the antidote to rumination. 

CHANGE THE STORY

It’s easy to fall for the pessimistic track at first, since the story and emotions we are being fed are coming from the alarmist ancient brain. Brooding, analyzing, and replaying take the bait and reinforce the false story. If you already are prone to pessimistic thinking, setbacks can serve as evidence for what you already believed, that nothing is going to work out. University of Pennsylvania researcher and author Martin Seligman has written that, “The recipe for severe depression is preexisting pessimism meeting failure.”

So what we tell ourselves about what happens to us is essential to counter the rumination that can lead to chronic stress, burnout, and depression. The sooner we can cut off the bogus story and supply another one—"I’ll do better next time," "Sometimes the bear eats you"—we prevent the false belief from sticking and amplifying itself into an ER visit. Find a phrase that represents a different story like “stay objective,” to keep your emotions out of it, and repeat it like a mantra after a stressful event goes off.

There are two main ways to prevent rumination and its flights of stress-concocting fantasy—distraction and contesting bogus beliefs. The time to strike is as soon as the wave of emotion begins. Whether it’s rage, embarrassment, or fear that is flaring, distract the caveman brain with your alternate story—“I don't react,” “It’s a lot of work, but I’ll get it done,” “I move on.” Repeat it for several minutes.

DISPUTING THE BOGUS STORY

The one thing that’s seldom done when stress blows up is to contest it. Disputing stress is one of the most effective ways to shut it down. It’s a thinking process, but unlike the wallowing that takes place with rumination, there’s a point and action to the analysis. In rumination, the thoughts circle in a loop of helplessness.

Disputing the story reactivates the rational mind.  The analytical act of finding reasons why the catastrophic story is false requires the 21st century mind to spring back to life. Bring out the facts of the case and put them down on paper or screen, pro and con. Try to step outside yourself and be objective. Lay out the case like a lawyer would by focusing on the facts.

No, it’s not the end. You CAN cope. The facts are clear. But it is the last stop for wasting hours, weeks, and months of life in the false beliefs of rumination.

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Tags: awfulizing, stress management training, optimism and work, stress response, stress, stress reduction, stress management, job stress, burnout, stress management programs, rumination, explanatory style

The Hidden Heart of Wellness: Leisure Activities

Posted by Joe Robinson

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What goes through your head when you have an unoccupied moment outside the office? Most likely it goes something like this: Get busy! I really should be doing something!

The reaction isn’t just based on habit, but something that is drummed into our heads that couldn’t be more hare-brained: Leisure is a lesser realm that has no value. In fact, quality and frequent leisure time is vital to health and life. It IS our life, the thing we’re working for. We don’t get that message, though, and as result, many of us feel squirmy about stepping back, as if only a slacker would partake.

This is what the psychological world calls a “false belief,” an uninformed notion held dear that holds back health, happiness, and the truth.  If you look at the science, getting a regular dose of leisure is as important to your health as eating the right foods or getting exercise. Recreational activities are the missing piece of wellness, the overlooked antidote to entrenched stress and pessimism.

BEYOND BOREDOM

A new study from Matthew Zawadski, a psychology professor at the University of California, Merced, found that people who took part in leisure activities reported they were 34% less stressed and 18% less sad. “When people engage in leisure activity, they have lower stress levels,” he reports on the UC Merced website, “better mood, a lower heart rate and more psychological engagement—that means less boredom, which can help avoid unhealthy behaviors. But it’s important to immerse in the activity and protect leisure time from external stressors.”

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In other words, to get those benefits, you have to be engaged in the activity. That doesn’t mean it has to be aerobic or muscle-flexing, though those work great too. Quieter pursuits, such as listening to music, doing puzzles, or sewing can also shift minds out of tension and into the positive space where recovery and flourishing begin.

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? When you’re having fun and fully immersed, it crowds out stress and negative mood. Why is this so hard to get? One of the reasons is that we have been taught to feel guilty unless we are on task and that productivity is a function of endurance and stamina, a triathlon in pants. All the research tells us this is bogus.

FATIGUED BRAINS LOOK SOUND ASLEEP

Brains that are fatigued look like ones that are sound asleep, MRI scans show. The true source of productivity in the knowledge economy is recharging and refueling and brains that are fresh. Leisure activities have an amazing ability to provide that refreshment, not just because play and doing things we like energize us, but also because these activities satisfy core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence. That makes us happy. Princeton’s Alan Krueger led a study that found that people are at their happiest when they are involved in engaging leisure activities.

The tonic of engaged leisure acts as a rumination-buster. Rumination—thinking over and over again about our problems—is a core driver of stress. Stress constricts the brain to perceived emergencies that lock us in to loops of doom and gloom, or “awfulizing,” as it’s known in the psychological trade. Leisure activities preoccupy the brain with challenge, learning, and fun, which push out worries and allow a reset.

The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions can reverse even the physical effects of stress. They can “undo” a high heart rate and disrupted digestion. They also build resources, in this case of positive emotions that have been shown to buffer stress and help us withstand setbacks.

BUILDING POSITIVE MOOD

If you don’t break up the self-propelling loop of tension and danger in your head, the stress can develop into chronic stress, which can set off a host of medical conditions, and ultimately, morph into burnout, the last stage of chronic stress. That means a mode of continuous fight-or-flight, which suppresses the immune system, and increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind.

We can escape this rut through psychological detachment from the day’s events in the form of that thing right next to us we think is only permissable for kids and retirees: leisure. Making a psychological break from the strains and pressures of the day is an essential stress management tool. It unleashes the positive emotions that turn off the danger signals and bring us back to our core selves and the things and people we enjoy. 

Without a diversion from the day’s preoccupations, we’re left in a morass of negative thoughts and tension. Researchers have shown that leisure activities after work counter the stress loop and negative affect (grouchy, angry, tense, irritable, a non-pleasure to be around) that comes with it. Studies show that people who engage in leisure activities, whether it’s chess, dancing, reading, and especially any activity that involves a mastery experience, wake up the next morning with positive affect and more energy.

PUT PLAY ON THE CALENDAR

Stress is a huge energy-drainer. It forces your organs to work overtime under duress, and that is the opposite of employee engagement, whose main domains include vigor and dedication. Recreational activities refuel that energy, which is why they are a significant piece of wellness and enagement programs.

One of the challenges to unlocking this amazing resource is that stress and the belief it sets off in your ancient brain that you are about to die suppresses the play equipment in the brain. Who wants to have fun when you’re about to kick the bucket? The way around this vise-grip is to plan activities, put them on the calendar, and commit to doing them no matter what negative frame of mind you’re in. Moods are transient, so the false emergency of stress will disappear within a few minutes of doing something fun.

Another way to trick the brain so it doesn’t freeze fun out of your life is to take up a hobby or leisure pursuit. This insures that you engage in the experience on a regular basis and allows for a steady dose of psychological detachment and increasing opportunities to build competence and social connection, core needs. Studies show that a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week. I’m betting that’s something you would consider valuable—even if it comes from that slackery world of leisure.

If you would like to improve wellness and engagement on your team or in your company, click the button below for more information on our wellness programs.

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Tags: wellness, awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, leisure and stress, life balance, stress, positive thinking and stress, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management, stress at work, burnout, stress management programs, wellness programs,

Stress Management Tricks: Don't Believe Everything You Think

Posted by Joe Robinson

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It’s not enough that we have to duke it out each day with the mercurial Mr. Murphy and his law that insures that all things that can go wrong will. No, we are saddled with an even more annoying pest: the ubiquitous false alarm of stress, time panic, and guilt generated by our own minds. With friends like ourselves around, who needs enemies?

Most of us take the thoughts in our brains at face value. They are in our heads, so they must be true. But the reality is only experience is real, not thoughts. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t built for the time they live in, for the social stressors of the modern world, which they are clueless to compute. Lost in time, they are prone to conflate non-life threatening issues from deadlines to workload as if they are life-or-death emergencies. 

THROWBACK NOGGINS

Humans have the same brain we did back in hunter-gatherer days, 100,000 years ago, when life-and-death events were a daily occurrence. Few things today threaten your life, but your ancient brain makes you think your existence is on the line anytime something overloads your ability to cope. It happens out of your consciousness in a part of your ancient brain that houses your emotions and your ancestral warning equipment, the amygdala, part of the limbic system that once was all we had for gray matter.

This outmoded defense trigger is out of its depth these days. Feel overwhelmed because you have too much to do? That’s enough for the life-or-death signal, the stress response, to go off, because you have overloaded your perceived ability to handle the load. Does that deadline seem impossible? Before you can even think that or verbalize it, the amygdala switches on the alarm.

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Are you going to die if you don’t meet the deadline? Hardly. Two hundred emails in your in-box are very good at setting off the fight-or-flight button. They make you feel you can’t cope. “Can’t cope” for the caveman brain = “I’m going to die.”

Once the danger switch has been pulled, you and your modern brain are mere passengers on the panicked ride of fight-or-flight. The amygdala hijacks your modern brain and its ability to offer rational analysis.

REFLEX AWFULIZING

The first thought you have after a setback or highly stressful event is catastrophic, in line with the part of your caveman brain that thinks you are about to be an ex-living person. This sets off a pattern we know and don’t love so much, that of “awfulizing,” a loop of dark self-talk generated by the fact that your brain is fixated on your imminent demise. You don’t get a specific death message, though, just the racing pulse, churning abdomen, and relentless negative chatter of impending doom or doubt.

Stress management and work-life balance are about managing the false alarms that bombard us every day, thanks to an overreactive amygdala, the brain’s early warning system. The root of the problem is that we are designed to react before we think.

Humans couldn’t be trusted to think their way out of a jam way back on the family tree, so we were equipped with a defense mechanism that goes off first, before we’re even conscious of the threat. How fast? Daniel Goleman reports in Social Intelligence that it can react within .02 hundredths of a second. You’re not going to beat it to the punch, but you can counterpunch.

CATCH YOURSELF

How do you control a hair-trigger reflex like that? You have to stop and catch yourself, when the false emergency, false urgency, and false guilt go off. Stop and ask when the stress erupts, am I going to die? Is it an emergency? Is the frenzy valid, or am I picking up on the panic of someone else? Is it the end of the world if I don’t send this email in the next few minutes? Is the guilt based on real physical harm I’ve committed, or is it just a projected anxiety and manipulation by others?

If you had someone constantly crying wolf about calamities that didn’t exist, you would stop listening. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore the wolf cries in our heads, because they seem so convincing. They’re coming from us, after all! But they are almost always false, whether the trigger is a challenge that appears insurmountable or a rush that seems so critical, it’s apocalypse now if we don’t get it done in a millisecond.

CONSTANT CONSCIOUSNESS

The way out of the trap is constant consciousness, being mindful of what it is we’re doing and not lapsing into rote mechanical momentum. Stress and time panic thrive on non-thinking and non-challenge of the events around us. They drive overwhelm and the feeling of a world spinning out of control. Disputing the false alarms as they pop up keeps you in charge of your own mind, instead of at the mercy of a remnant from hunter-gatherer days.

Subject all stressors and hurry-worry to scrutiny. Take a deep breath, then pull out a piece of paper and a pen. What is at the bottom of the stress? What is at the bottom of that? Keep going until you find the trigger. Is it life-or-death? What’s the false story driving the bogus emergency? Tell your brain that you’re not going to die from this particular event, and as a result, that THERE IS NO DANGER.  When you convince your brain of that, the stress response stops in four minutes. Bring out the facts, and the caveman brain has to admit what is already abundantly clear—it’s a drama queen.

If you would like to manage the false alarms of the stress response and keep time panic at bay, explore a stress management training for your department, organization, or yourself. Click the button below and find out how our programs work and how affordable they are.

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Tags: job stress, work life balance programs, stress management, awfulizing, stress management programs, reducing stress, stress and self-talk, time panic

The 7 Signs of Burnout

Posted by Joe Robinson

Burnout is a medical condition

I’m a longtime fan of the Candid Camera show. People being themselves can be funnier than the most brilliant comedian. I recently stumbled upon an episode of the show, which featured a woman driving a car minus an engine. She pulls in to a gas station by coasting down an adjacent hill. When the dead vehicle comes to a halt at the station, the woman complains that it won’t start.

The mechanic looks under the hood, and to his surprise, finds a gaping void. “The reason the car won’t go is you ain’t got no engine,” he says. Another mechanic peers in to the vacant space where the engine should be, scratching his head. The driver tells them the car has been working fine.

NO GET-UP-AND-GO

It reminds me of what happens to people whose engines have vanished, their get-up-and-go extinguished by burnout. Burnout doesn’t just kill physical vitality, motivation, and any semblance of work-life balance, it also guts the entire internal combustion machinery. You can’t get the ignition to turn over, because there’s nothing to turn over. 

Unlike with the gag car, we can’t look under the skin and spot the problem. But the void is as real as inside that vehicle, and we have to recognize it and resolve it or pay with serious consequences for work, health, family, and life. 

In an always-on world, many will face burnout at least once in their careers, and once they do and recover from it, they will never go down that road again because of the misery it inflicts on every part of work and life. Burnout can lead to major health issues.

I have coached hard-working people with burnout from every part of this country and from Switzerland to Australia, and helped them cut off the chronic stress that drives burnout. Feeling without energy or drive is an alien feeling for all of them. In fact, it's the opposite of who they have always been, since people who get burned out are not slackers--they're the hardest workers.

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Burnout isn’t just being very tired, which it is (the main dimension is exhaustion). It’s a serious medical condition that can set off other problems—depression, stroke, suicidal thoughts, breakdown. The last stage of chronic stress, burnout occurs when all your energetic resources—emotional, physical, and mental—have been used up.

With no resources left to counter the catastrophic thoughts of stress, it’s hard to contest false beliefs triggered by an ancient part of your brain that thinks you are about to die. Instead of being able to marshal analytical thought or physical willpower to fight back, there’s nothing, a void where the engine used to be. That feels very odd and fragile to people who have always had the ability to bounce back.

DIRE THOUGHTS

Burnout is a cumulative process, in which the alarm signal of stress goes off day in and day out for a long period of time. The stress response is only supposed to go off for a brief time until you can fight or run your way out of danger, because the process it sets off is extremely harmful in large doses. The stress response suppresses the immune system, tissue repair, and digestion processes to drive blood to the arms and legs to fight or run from danger, so the longer chronic stress lasts, the more damage it does to your body and the more resources it depletes. The stress response increases the bad cholesterol and reduces the good kind.

The usual response is to soldier on, but that doesn’t work with burnout, since by the time you have it there are no coping resources left. You're left with severe fatigue and feeling that nothing really matters anymore--job, success, people you know, everything. 

The way out of burnout is to reach out. When we are sick, we go to the doctor, but when it comes to stress and burnout, we are reluctant to get the expertise to turn off the stress response and get healthy. Studies show that one of the most effective ways to overcome burnout is through stress management coaching. From my experience helping people escape the burnout cycle, I can tell you that the courage to reach out unlocks the door to restoring your health.

Stress and burnout thrive on silence, not saying anything, because the engine of it all is thinking and rumination. It's ruminating over and over about a stress trigger that keeps the perceived danger alive and making your organs work overtime, even when you are sleeping. If you have burnout, I strongly urge you to reach out. We offer a free initial consultation. I strongly urge you to take advantage of this opportunity.

When you are burned out, someone who has always hurled themselves into their work can't bear the thought of working. For people who have defined themselves by performance, it feels shameful. But it’s not. It’s a physical condition that has to be dealt with in the same way as other serious illnesses, by rooting out the cause and rebuilding the body and mind.

Persistence is a great trait, but not at the expense of the immune system and organization.  Let’s take a look at seven key signs of burnout that need to be recognized and acted upon to prevent a cascade of physical and psychological issues and bring back the joy of living.

 7 MAJOR SIGNS OF BURNOUT

 1. Severe exhaustion. You can barely get up in the morning. There’s no desire to do anything that involves effort. Just the thought of work, of doing what you do well but have overdone, can make you physically sick.

2. Excessive workload. Excessive workload drives stress and prevents the body from physical recovery and the mind from replenishing mental resources. It leads to little sleep, bad diet, no exercise, and unrelieved stress, and eats away at the immune system. Physical exhaustion leads to mental and emotional exhaustion.

3. Cynicism. There seems to be no point to anything, no sense of accomplishment anymore. What used to fuel—pride, service, ambition, challenge, even money—seems meaningless. Belief, in the profession, achievement, anyone else, it's pointless.

4. Emotionally draining work. Burnout was first identified in social workers whose clients and large case loads burned up excess emotional resources. If your work involves intense emotional demands, and there’s nothing to replace those resources or help with them, the constant stress can dry up adrenal glands, causing severe physical fatigue and a lack of defense chemicals to manage stressors.

5. Absence of positive emotions. This is one of the hallmarks of burnout. A brain on chronic life-or-death watch from chronic stress fixates on the perceived emergency, on threats, resentments, problems. Even what you used to enjoy outside work feels meaningless. 

6. Catastrophic thoughts. Burnout leads to dire thinking. It colors everything dark and strips away the will and effort to change the situation. It sets off awfulizing and worst-case scenarios on a grand scale. “I can’t do this job anymore." "I won't be able to take it." "Why bother?” It’s all coming from an ancient part of your brain that doesn’t know how to interpret the social stressors of the modern world. It feeds false beliefs, and there are no coping resources left to fight them.

7. Lack of support or rewards. When you go beyond the call of duty over and over, it can lead to a loss of emotional and physical resources. You may be able to work long hours for a while, or for rewards that make you feel the work and you are worthwhile, but when there’s no payoff for going the extra mile, all that’s left is exhaustion and resentment. You wind up detaching yourself from everyone and everything, lose social support, a key resource, and have no opportunity to feel effective, a core need.

Burnout can happen in any industry, from engineering, to healthcare, to administrative assistants who work for nonprofits or even churches. Take proactive steps to reach out. Burnout can seem like the end, but it’s not. With changes to how you work, think, and take care of yourself, you can make a complete recovery and, with keys to work-life balance, put the engine back under your hood.

Learn about our stress management and burnout prevention coaching by clicking on the button below:

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Tags: employee stress management, reducing burnout, burnout coach, stress and burnout, stress management, job stress, burnout, job burnout, stress management programs, catastrophic thoughts, awfulizing

How to Stop the "Awfulizing" of Job Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Screaming woman time urgency

We burn up a lot of time and nerves worrying about what’s going to happen next. The fears almost always turn out to be just that, wild projections. You’re going to get fired because the boss is in a bad mood. You’ll never make the deadline. You'll never have another good idea.

You would think we would know the routine by now, but, no. Our brains love to stew, since they are tuned to a survival instinct that sees things through the prism of imminent disaster whenever possible.

That’s particularly true when stress is at the helm. The stress response turns on the ultimate alarmist, the amygdala, the brain’s primitive emotional hub and fear central, which floods the mind with one overriding theme: catastrophe.

A brain built to keep us alive in 100,000 B. C. hasn’t made the transition to the modern world. We may be carrying 21st century technological devices and wearing duds from Macy’s, but inside our heads, there’s a caveman/woman waiting to freak out at the slightest threat.

Keeping down the panic reflex is the challenge of our lives, and, increasingly our work too. Job stress can do what sabre-toothed tigers never could, keep us in a state of chronic stress, which can have a major impact on health, performance, and bottom lines. More than two dozen studies show the connection between job stress and heart disease.

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When work stress activates the amygdala, the trigger sets off a pattern many of us are too familiar with, known as awfulizing. Since the amygdala believes your life to be in imminent danger, it blows things well out of proportion. The unreturned phone call, the meeting you weren’t invited to, the disapproving tone of someone’s voice, signals impending doom.

Awfulizing is the byproduct of irrational self-talk set off by an activated amygdala. It turns everything into a worse-case scenario, which fuels the stress response and more calamitous thoughts. A few minutes of overreacting can trigger fight-or-flight. The awfulizing default exaggerates mistakes, slights, flaws, and behaviors into apocalyptic scenarios.

It’s pure fantasy, and unless we challenge them, they become the reality, not a pleasant one for any department or company where awfulizers are running wild. It leads to a perpetual state of crisis mentality in any organization.

One of the triggers of awfulizing is the tendency to take things personally. The reality is that things happen in the world, and we can choose to see them in a neutral way or take them personally. That’s not an easy choice, I admit, given the fact we have this thing called an ego, which always wants to have its way and believes it is at the center of the universe. Once the ego is into it, off goes more raw emotion that feeds more irrational thoughts. Irrational self-beliefs also enable catastrophic thoughts, as events seem to validate pet fears—I must never make a mistake; my worth depends on how much I achieve or produce, etc.

We have better things to do than run a fantasy factory all day. The best stress management programs and work-life balance trainings (see ours here) build skills to control the self-talk and the exaggerations that come with it. People learn how to recognize the patterns and shift to realistic self-talk that keeps the horrors confined to the Sci-Fi channel.

The next time your brain starts spinning out catastrophic scenarios, catch the awfulizing and remember the caveman inside your head, a character long past the expiration date.

 

Tags: job stress, stress at work, work stress, awfulizing, stress management programs, irrational self-talk, catastrophic thoughts

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