Working Smarter

Do the Thing You Fear the Most

Posted by Joe Robinson

jumpers_for_home_pg.jpg

Fear is overrated. We know that because time and time again its catastrophes don’t come to pass. The plane doesn’t crash, and the odds of that happening are infinitesimal. We get up to dance, and the whole room doesn’t break into laughter. Everyone else is too caught up in their own anxieties to notice you.

The track record of fear is absurdly bad. We would fire anyone whose predictions were as consistently wrong as the fantasies and false beliefs in our head. At the minimum, we wouldn’t pay attention to their yammerings anymore.

BORN TO WORRY

Unfortunately, we are outfitted with a brain prone to imagine worst-case scenarios, and the one thing it’s better at than that is nagging about its various dreads. We are born to be worrywarts, and that default has worked to the extent we are still around on the planet. Yet unless we know how to manage this default and separate out the bogus from the real threats, we wind up being played by our hyper-tuned amygdalas to the tune of missing out on the whole point of being here: engagement with our life.

It turns out that what our brains really want is not to stew all day and night about things that don’t exist in a tense we are not in but novelty and challenge, as brain scientist Gregory Berns has pointed out. Our mandate is to participate in our experience and do things that the fear police don’t want us to do.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

It’s one of the great, or maybe not so great, paradoxes of the human condition. In your brain every day the forces of safety and comfort are hard at work trying to squelch your craving for growth, otherwise known as progress. The security default seems like the way to go, but it’s completely at odds with the progress you need to be happy.

The source of gratification, the science tells us, are core psychological needs that express fear-busting aspirations such as autonomy and competence. We need to feel like we are writing our own script. To do that, we have to step beyond the comfort zone and fear’s flashing red lights. Not acting on the core needs leads to stagnation, boredom and vital life sources sealed off from our reach. You might be safe, but you’re sorry, because you are not moving forward.

REFLEXIVE FANTASIES

When a perceived risk appears in our consciousness, the primal impulse in the defense hub of the amygdala reflexively triggers the danger signal. Enter catastrophic thoughts of what might happen if you do something outside the bubble. You’ll be a wimp if you speak up about the stress or health issues you have. Other people would judge you a failure at pottery or painting. You might get mugged if you travel to another country. There’s no end to what the amygdala can concoct to keep you in a box.

We buy into these false alarms, because the thoughts are in our head. If we’re thinking them, they must be true. No! Thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is. Fear is a projected anxiety, a figment of imagination that shuts down opportunities for growth, aliveness, and meaning. Who’s in charge here? You or an automatic thought that’s as accurate as “the earth is flat.”

There is no progress without risk, so giving our brain neurons the novelty and challenge they want means not being able to predict what will happen when you take a leap. That’s okay, since the fear equipment has a horrible track record in the prophecy department too. Fear is even more inept when it comes to decision-making. No good choice is ever made from the desperation and panic of fear.

Most fears that dominate our days fall into the social realm. The projected anxieties boil down into the dread of others’ disapproval. Since humans are not born with the cues of how to behave like Arctic terns, we look to see what the majority is doing and try to do that, but that’s a bad yardstick when it comes to satisfying your core needs—since no one can do that for you. We have to look to our own affinities and what is meaningful to us to gratify our self-determination equipment.

THE VISE-GRIP OF SOCIAL FEAR

Fear of looking foolish is one of the top blocks to learning and progress for adults. We had no problem jumping in to try things as kids, but adults are supposed to know everything already and sweat not appearing omniscient. Yet foolishness is merely the state of not-knowing on the way to skill and knowledge. It is the act of learning, in other words. Fools have more fun, which is why kids have more fun. They don’t feel foolish when they jump into something new; learning is their job. It’s our job too, if we want to keep our brain neurons happy.

A young man approached me after I delivered a recent keynote address on empowerment for the staff of Pasadena City College. He wanted to thank me for the talk. In it, I had sketched out a couple of fear scenarios, which hit home for him. “I was at a club and a girl asked me to dance, but I said No, because I’m shy. I really regret it. I won’t be doing that again,” he said with a big smile. He was more in charge of his thoughts now, not the other way around.

Fear is momentary. Regret is forever. Breaking out of the clutches of the fear factory in our heads means stepping into the non-life threatening fears in our life. “Do the thing you fear the most, and the death of fear is certain,” Mark Twain said.

What keeps fear activated is avoidance. We don’t want to go there with fear, so we step around it or try to ignore it, but it actually becomes the guiding hand in the form of aversion. We don’t realize that under all social fear is one not-so-big deal, a belief we wouldn’t be able to handle it. Guess what? We always handle it. The belief is bogus.

A JOURNEY OF SECONDS

Ditching the paralysis of fear means noticing the butterflies in the stomach and moving anyway. A few seconds of dripping armpits is worth it, because on the other side is exhilaration, competence, skills, autonomy, new friends and opportunities, and the victory of having overcome an impediment to your potential. It’s a journey of mere seconds through the self-imposed barricades that keep out the life we want.

For many, the fear that holds progress back is the fear of making a mistake, again an external approval metric. Even philharmonic musicians dread messing up and playing a wrong note. The answer for those with performance anxiety is the same as it is for anyone wanting to do something that pushes their envelope in some way—understanding that non-life-threatening mistakes are survivable, human. Be okay with mistakes. It’s the fear of mistakes that causes them, as our attention is diverted from the task at hand to thoughts of dread and what might happen.

The more you step through irrational and catastrophic thoughtsto engage with your life, the more you strengthen competence and mastery needs, which cut down on the security reflex. Studies show that people whose self-worth is based on intrinsic goals—acting for the sake of it, for no external reward—are much less in the defensive posture.

The more we push past fear thresholds, the more we see that calamity is not around every corner. We are emboldened to embrace the new and unknown, and brain neurons applaud with a celebration of dopamine, their party drug.

The world of play is particularly good as a place to confront fears, because it’s a no-judgment realm where nothing is on the line except fun and enjoyment. If you want to make the safety equipment cringe and your challenge need celebrate, jump into a new hobby. Learn how to make a ceramic pot, play saxophone, or dance mambo. When you do, you’ll see how easy it is to take on the next challenge and do what a part of your brain said you couldn’t.

If you would like to manage fears and the stress response that creates many of them, click below for details on our empowerment and stress management training programs and coaching.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

Tags: fear, fear and risk-taking, stress management, gratification, empowerment, catastrophic thoughts

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

Crazy guy.jpg

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.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

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.

If you would like to learn about our stress management training programs, click the button below.

Get Prices, Details for Employee Training

 

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

mistaken_id_photo_stress_page.jpg

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.

Click for Top De-Stress Weapon 

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.

If you would like details about our stress management programs for  individuals, click here. For details on our employee stress management trainings, click the button below. 

Get Prices, Details for Employee Training

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

Managing Stress Is Managing Non-Vulcan Reactions and Emotions

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman_w_hammer_keyboard-1.jpg

It would be so much easier to be a Vulcan. Pure logic, no emotion or egos to get in the way at work. Pressure? What pressure? We could handle it all with the serene nonchalantness of Mr. Spock.

No taking things personally. That would be illogical. No obsessing about yesterday's woes or what had to be done tomorrow. That was/would be then. The only tense we can rationally be in is the present. And if we couldn’t get on the same page with somebody, we could just do a Vulcan mind meld. Now I see what you’re thinking.

IT’S THE REACTION

Sure, it would be a little dull, if not a crashing bore, but at least we wouldn’t have stress to worry about, because we wouldn’t have the bane and also boon of human existence, emotions, to get in our way. It’s our reactions to the events of the day and the emotions they set off that create, produce, and direct the stress script. 

Without the ability to manage emotional reactions, we self-inflict false beliefs that lead to rash decisions, impulsive behavior, time urgency, crisis mentality, conflict with colleagues, distraction, disengagement, cynicism, and a host of physical byproducts, from high blood pressure to strokes, irritable bowel, and depression.

Download: "The Top 4 Business  Reasons for Stress Management"

The fallout from stress on any team or organization is so massive—from retention (40% of people who quit their jobs cite stress as the main reason) to profits (23% higher when stress is managed)—that it would be illogical to not have ways to counter it.

The good news is that organizations don’t have to be a breeding ground for unmanaged reactions. You can manage demands and control emotional responses. That's what we teach here at Optimal Performance Strategies in our stress management training programs and classes.

Very few of us are ever equipped with the skill of managing our default emotional reactions. It’s like never being told that we had to brush our teeth to fight off cavities. Just let ‘em rot. 

Managing emotions is that basic to healthy brains and behavior. It's a daily practice we have to do, or wind up with a lot worse problems than cavities.

We are born with a mind that is easily hijacked by irrational emotions when it believes something has overloaded ability to cope, which happens often in a world of social stress that an outmoded portion of the brain has no idea how to deal with.

EMOTIONAL QUAGMIRE

The tide of dysfunction set off by the stress response is a tsunami that can overtake any team or organization with fight-or-flight behaviors. Suddenly, everyone is snapping at each other. Stress is highly contagious, spreading secondhand stress through what are known as mirror neurons, which make us simulate the emotions and expressions of others. 

We pick up on the emotions of others through facial expressions and tone of voice. Mirror neurons are a social bonding tool. Positive emotions can sweep people up in a buoyant mood that is infectious and that research shows results in increased productivity and rapport, but stress and cynicism bury everyone in a toxic quagmire of anxiety.

Negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. It takes three positive to every one negative event to stay on the positive side, according to University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Fredrickson. Studies show that negative affect drives down productivity, sales, and rapport for those caught up in it.

The key to managing emotions is managing reactions. That’s because it’s the reaction, or the story we tell ourselves about what somebody said or a project that didn’t go well, that sets off the stress response and a wave of raw emotions unhinged from the rational higher brain. The ancient limbic system takes over at this point, flooding our brains with irrational emotions—fear, anger, embarrassment—and the all-or-nothing, catastrophic thoughts that come from them.

The reaction usually goes off unconsciously, as the early warning system, the amygdala, detects within milliseconds a perception that something has overloaded coping capacity. When that happens, it triggers an intense emotional reaction, since a part of your brain thinks you are about to be deceased.

CONTESTING DIRE THINKING

As a result, the thinking is dire, catastrophic, black-and-white. It’s hard to resist grabbing these strong emotions and thoughts because they are in our brain after all, so they must be true. Well, no. They are false beliefs. You are not going to die. The alarm and reaction itself are bogus.

This is where we make our stand against repeated mind hijackings, by not automatically reacting and becoming aware when we do go off and cutting off the stress response before its false beliefs are allowed to spiral and entrench in the brain. We have to do something we’re never told to do: contest the stress. That means challenging the false story behind the alarmist thoughts and becoming resilient in the face of challenges.

Often, we don’t know what that bogus story is. We simply get sucked under by the real-seeming catastrophe and fan the emotional flames by ruminating about irrational reactions like these: 

  • I’m going to lose my job
  • I’m never going to make it
  • It's all going to fall apart
  • I can’t handle it 
  • I'm a failure
  • I’ll never recover from this
  • I’m going to wind up on the street

Focus on irrational thoughts constricts the brain to the perceived crisis, shredding attention and driving mistakes and conflict. It can put teams, clients, patients, and organizations at high risk to have people in the altered state of stress-driven emotional reactions.

In our stress management programs at Optimal Performance, we train participants to recalibrate reactions and reframe the false stories that drive the emotional machinery behind stress. Studies show that we can prime our brains to respond to habitual triggers with new behaviors.

We can manage demands and emotional intensity. We can turnr reflex reactions into responses that keep emotional surges at bay and bring back the 21st century brain—and the voice of reason, our very own inner Mr. Spock. 

If you would like to find out more about how to train your team or organization to manage emotions and reactions, click the button below for details. Or give us a call at 310-570-6987.

Get Prices, Details for Employee Training

Tags: stress management, stress management programs, catastrophic thoughts, managing emotions, stress response

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stress guy.jpg

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. 

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

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. 

Stress management training can put your team on the path to effective performance. If you are interested in a program for your organization, click the button below for details on pricing and content. Reframe the overwhelm game.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

 

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

The Hidden Heart of Wellness: Leisure Activities

Posted by Joe Robinson

Hikers

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.”

"Best Business Case for Stress Management"

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.

Click for a Price Quote

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,

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.

Click for Free Burnout Consultation

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:

Click for Free Burnout Consultation

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.

Click me

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

Subscribe via E-mail

Latest Posts

Posts by category

Follow Me