Working Smarter

Slam Dunking Job Stress and the Mental Health Taboo

Posted by Joe Robinson

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

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

A GIANT LEAP FORWARD

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

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

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

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

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

CONTEST THE STRESS

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

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

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

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

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

DEACTIVATING FALSE STORIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE UNSEEN BATTLE OF THE MIND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Turn Off Stress Instantly and Be as Smart as Your Dog

Posted by Joe Robinson

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YOU DON'T SEE a lot of dogs running corporations or doing brain surgery, but in some ways they are a lot smarter than humans. Take, for instance, how they respond to a stressful event, say, a neighbor and his dog from up the block passing by the perimeter of your house. Your dog gets a whiff of that intruder, and bam! Let the barking begin.

That makes dogs great security guards and sometimes the bane of neighbors. When the dog reacts, its ancient defense mechanism, the amygdala—the same organ that sets off human fight-or-flight hormones—goes off with the timeless trigger built to insure survival through instantaneous recognition of danger and immediate response.

LIKE IT NEVER HAPPENED

Now what happens after the stranger dog has gone on to sniff the tree trunks, grass, and hydrants blocks away, or heads home for some Kibbles 'N Bits? Does your dog keep barking for another two hours? Two days? Two weeks? Two months? Two years? No way. The dog drops the event like it never happened. Once the incident is over, the stress response is gone, dropped like an old chew toy.

That’s what makes your dog smarter than you. Because we keep barking long after the stressful even is over. We hang on to the stressful event, clinging to the undertow of emotions as if we were caught in a riptide pulling us out to sea and don’t know how to swim.

But, of course, we do know how to swim, or at least most of us. We just don’t know the special technique of swimming out of a riptide, which is a current formed by a trough in the ocean floor that sucks swimmers away from shore. You don’t swim for the shore into the teeth of the rip current. You swim lateral to the shore until you’re out of the rip, typically about 50 yards or so, and then you can swim back to the beach, no problem.

Just as there is a method to outfoxing a riptide, there are ways to avoid being swept away by the irrational emotions set off by stress. We are not helpless. We have the power to shut off stressful incidents right after they happen and avoid turning them into false beliefs we ruminate about for months on end, something we learn in my work life-balance and stress management training programs and one-one-coaching.

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Cutting stress off at the pass after it goes off is crucial because if we don’t, the emotions triggered by our ancient defense equipment—which aren’t designed for the social stressors of the modern world, like work stuff—will feed your brain with catastrophic thoughts. Remember, a part of your ancient brain thinks you’re going to die that second, which is why the stress response is activated. Those thoughts then automatically set off consequences fueled by berserk, raw emotions.

YOU CONTROL HOW LONG THE STRESS LASTS

Because they are in our head, we think the thoughts are true. The longer they remain unchallenged, the more the rumination about them will convince us that the false beliefs and worst-case scenarios are valid. Then we’re stuck with them for days, weeks, months, and, yes, even years.

Managing stress is a function of perceived control over demands, known as cognitive appraisal. Stress is relative, in other words, to how much control you feel over demands. When something sets you off, you surrender control to the emotions of the moment, when you don’t have to. This feeds an emotional state that drives more stress.

The fact is you control quite a bit more than you know. You control how long the emotional reaction lasts and the story that sets off the emotions with the stress response. It’s not the external event that causes stress; it’s your reaction to it, the story you tell yourself about the stressful event. The catastrophic story set off by the caveman brain—I’m going to lose my job, I’ll never be loved again—can be countermanded if we can take a cue from our dogs and drop the whole thing.

This is something we can do by creating a new, factual story in which the rational mind of the 21st century brain can take back control from the clutches of the ancient brain. When stress is activated, the perceived threat streams straight to the neurons in the original brain, the limbic system and its chief sentinel, the amygdala, hub of the emotional brain, bypassing the prefrontal cortex and hijacking our modern faculties. We have to be able to catch ourselves when we feel the emotions of stress go off and reframe the story by waking up our modern, analytical brain.

ARGUE WITH YOURSELF

This means we have to argue with ourself and dispute the false beliefs set off by the fight-or-flight response. How do we do that? First, we identify the false story that switched on the danger signal. What thought pushed your button and made your ancient brain feel you are about to die? What made you feel you couldn’t cope or handle something, which is the caveman brain's instant trigger—something beyond coping capacity? What form did the imminent demise take? I’m going to lose my job? I’m embarrassed because I made a mistake? I’ll never be a success?

Next, round up the evidence of what happened, looking at the facts, and determine what the most likely story is, not the most catastrophic. What other causes are there for the event other than the worst-case scenario?

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One of the things that fans the exaggerated thoughts of the stress response is that we take the event as permanent and personal, which jacks up the fear and panic by making everything appear hopeless and directed at you personally.

NEVER TAKE IT PERSONALLY

To escape these boxes and drop the event as adeptly as a cocker spaniel, we need to see the situation as changeable, specific to factors that only happened in this instance, and not take it personally. Things happen in the world. You live in the world, so things happen to you. Taking things personally unleashes emotions, ego, and an irrational state that blinds us to the fact that this approach is a complete waste of time.

Then you create a new story, write it out on a piece of paper or put it on a screen, one that shows how you are going to solve this challenge going forward. Say there’s a tough deadline causing you to think you can never meet it. You tell yourself you can handle it, because you always wind up handling it in the end. I can do it by unloading other to-do's that aren't as much of a priority, getting more support, delegating, changing aspects of the deliverables, negotiating more time, breaking it down into daily chunks I can do first thing each morning, or whatever reasons you can find. What's your new story to solve the stressor, something you're going to take action on?

The key to the practice is catching yourself in the act of stress, so you can use your modern brain to find out what’s under the stress, what’s under that, and so on until you have unmasked the bogus belief, which lets your brain know that it’s not a life-or-death emergency.

When your brain knows the alarm is false, the stress response stops in four minutes. And you have shut off stress before it can entrench false beliefs that lead to rumination and emotions that keep us self-inflicting for weeks and months on end.

As a reminder of your new role model, purchase a chew toy from your local pet store and put it on your desk. When stress goes off, grab that toy and drop it, symbolizing the canine approach—and then go after the false story and create a new one that makes you as smart as a Yorkshire.

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Tags: stress response, employee stress management, controlling stress, managing stress reactions, job stress, turning off work stress

Five Ways to Unleash the Antidote to Work Stress and Overwhelm: Control

Posted by Joe Robinson

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WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you saw someone freaking out because they were completely in control of their work? I’m going to take a wild guess: never. Feeling that you have control over demands means that the demands are no longer a threat, and, as a result, they can’t turn on your ancient defense equipment, the stress response.

Control is the difference between managing work and life pressures and being at the frayed mercy of them. It’s a critical distinction in an unbounded world of devices and distractions, where so many things are intruding into working memories and limited bandwidths that it seems we have no control over anything. As the unmanaged email and interruption count skyrockets, so does overwhelm, which explodes when there are more demands than we think we can keep up with.

THE FUEL OF JOB STRESS

When things are out of control, you can bet stress and work-life balance are too. Work-life balance is itself an exercise in control, trying to ensure that both work and home responsibilities are being handled.

Researcher Robert Karasek of the University of Massachusetts identified the central mechanism in work stress as the level of demands versus the amount of control over them. The more decision “latitude” you have, the ability to affect the work you do and how you do it, the less stress. High demands and low control add up to high stress. High demands and high control, though, mean the work is manageable, even enjoyable as a challenge.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

Karasek’s job strain model demonstrated that employees with the least decision-making options had more exhaustion, depression and sleep issues. These unhealthy impacts of little latitude have been vetted by scads of research over the years, including the landmark British Whitehall Studies, I and II, which examined some 28,000 civil servants altogether. Those investigations found a clear connection between stress and the position of the person in the organization hierarchy. The lowest ranking people, who had the least decision-making discretion, had a mortality rate three times higher than administrators.

Interestingly enough, this dichotomy is also what Stanford University scientist Robert Sapolsky found in his research with apes. Those on the bottom of the social totem pole were the most stressed and least healthy. Helplessness is stressful, and in humans it leads to a downward spiral of pessimism and depression.

LATITUDE ADJUSTMENT

Having the ability to control the work environment makes a massive difference in how brains process demands. When we can’t do anything about job demands mental strain develops. That in turn can set off the body’s defense equipment, since you aren’t able to take actions to cope with the demands. Not being able to mitigate a demand that is perceived as a threat is the definition of stress—and a fight-or-flight trigger.

Control isn’t just key to managing demands, it’s also the essential element of attention, performance, and doing the tasks that need to be done. It’s a managing partner with self-regulation in discipline and willpower to keep you focused on task. Stress undermines intellect and constricts the brain to perceived crises and rumination in tenses other than the one you’re trying to work in, which shreds focus and concentration. The same is true of missing work-life balance, the lack of which is an ongoing source of concern and guilt, taking minds far afield when home issues aren’t being handled.

Obviously, we can’t all be control freaks on the job. We are there to do what others want, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be more flexibility in how individuals choose to do and think about the practices they are tasked with and how managers frame the tasks to be done. This is the dynamic behind autonomy support, one of the most effective systems for increasing employee engagement, when people willingly put forth extra effort. It’s based on tapping into core human needs such as autonomy and competence, which bolster perception of self-control by increasing employee involvement and responsibility.

Getting more control over your work-life is a matter of taking many practical steps to better organize, plan, and manage an unbounded world. It comes down to something that all humans are primed to do for their own safety and well-being—make life more predictable. Threats are manageable when we have wrestled them into more predictable paths and outcomes. I’m not saying you have to be a psychic, but you do have to take steps to harness the bucking broncos in your life and minimize the possibility of being thrown.

Here are a few steps that can help you feel more control:

1. Control Email and Devices. If you have your email on autopilot, with incoming every five minutes, that’s a potential of 96 interruptions over the course of the day. Unbounded email is a great way to drive overwhelm. Check your email at designated times. Three and four times a day is the most productive, say U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State researchers. Keep your email and phone turned off and check them manually when you decide, not the startle response set off by device noisemakers.

2. Interruption Management. Disable the visual alerts on your screen. Set aside times, 30 minutes here, an hour there, for no-interruption zones. Put a message on your autoresponder that you’re on a deadline. Researchers say that when you’re being interrupted, it makes anything you’re doing seem more difficult, i. e., out of control, than it actually is.

3. Stop Multitasking. Circus clowns can juggle bowling pins, but you can’t do more than one cognitive task at a time. There’s only one neural channel for language to go through. You are not talking on the phone and doing email at the same time. You are switching back and forth. In that switching there’s a cost: stress, as brain neurons try to figure out where they were before they jumped to the secondary task.

4. Ask for a Rationale. Studies show that when we ask for a rationale for doing a task or give one to someone we’re asking to do something, the task gets internalized, and it becomes something more important and makes us feel we are exercising choice, autonomy, latitude. This undercuts hierarchy and order-taking strain.

5. Time Estimation. Take time and figure out how long it takes you to do each of your primary tasks. When you are asked to do one of them, you then have a hard time estimate, instead of wishful optimism, about how long it’s going to take to do it.

And finally, Karasek pinpointed demands that drive low control and strain—time pressure, reaction time needed, pacing, amount of work, having to wait for others to do their part of the task, interruptions, and concentration needed. How could you and your team adjust these demands to make them more manageable?

Propose alternative ways of doing a task that would allow you to feel it’s more manageable. Studies show that speaking up doesn't have the whammy we think. It’s how everyone finds out what isn’t working, in other words, what’s out of control.

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Tags: work stress, job stress, stress management, stress, reducing stress, overwhelm, feeling overwhelmed, job strain model

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

Job Stress Increases Risk for Strokes

Posted by Joe Robinson

Memory

Dozens of studies have shown the connection between job stress and cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. Now an important new study has found that high job strain also increases the risk of strokes, or brain attacks, by 22%. The risk is higher in women, 33%, and for the most common type of stroke, ischemic stroke, which cuts off blood flow to the brain, job strain increases the stroke risk by 58%.

As much as we would prefer to ignore it or call it something less charged, unmanaged stress has real consequences no one can afford to turn a blind eye to, whether employee or employer. This latest evidence shows that failure to control job strain can blow up the very source of productivity itself, the brain. This is an unforced error that doesn’t make sense. There are enough competitors out there ready to slice and dice. We don’t need to be doing it from within.

Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting 800,000 people every year. It occurs when there is an interruption of blood flow to the brain, which prevents brain cells from getting the oxygen and nutrients they need, and they can die as a result. Stokes are caused by artery blockage or narrowing, which happens in the 85% of cases that are ischematic, by blood hemorrhaging in brain arteries, or by temporary blood clots in the brain, known as transient ischemic attack (TIA). Stroke can lead to temporary or permanent disabilities and paralysis.

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DEMANDS VS. CONTROL

The Chinese researchers who conducted the meta-study analyzed data from six prior studies on three continents, including one in the U.S. They looked at the effects of strain on a sizable 140,000 people. Their report measured how the subjects fared over four categories of jobs, each with varying degrees of psychological demand, or strain, and control over demands, the key factors in whether you feel you can cope with a challenge or not. Lack of control in the face of high demands flips on the danger switch in the body's ancient defense mechanism, the amygdala, and the stress response kicks into fight-or-flight mode.

The risk of stroke is least for people in low-cognitive strain jobs, such as manual labor, and highest for people whose jobs have high levels of mental load, time pressure, and management and coordination, but who have little control over their work. Even if you have high demands, if you feel you have some control over events, what's known in the stress literature as "latitude," that creates a sense of coping capacity, countering the strain. High threat-vigilant work has been shown to be the most stressful, which includes bus drivers, taxi drivers, nuclear facility workers and air traffic controllers.

High strain jobs are proliferating with the speedup in pace, inundation of email and interruptions, which slow things down and increase time pressure, and leaner operations, which increase workload and the perception you are overwhelmed. Without strategies to adjust these conditions and the perceptions they create, chronic stress can develop, and that is where the serious health and productivity blowback occurs. 

BUILDING COPING CAPACITY

As has been shown in Japanese studies of karoshi (death by overwork) victims, chronic high stress leads to unhealthy lifestyle choices—eating fatty foods, smoking, drinking, and no exercise, as well as other decisions that increase stroke risk. Meanwhile, chronic stress jacks up blood pressure, lowers the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol, decreases the good cholesterol, and boosts the risk of plaque buildup in arteries, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, a proven risk factor for stroke.

As with heart issues, it's critical to know the warning signs. Symptoms of stroke include numbness of the face, arm, or leg (often on one side), vision problems, headaches, speaking and understanding problems, dizzyness, and unsteady gait. 

The good news is that we don’t have to let high strain develop into stress. We can control it in our bodies and companies by making adjustments to how we work that turn high strain into manageable pressure. Our stress management training, for instance, gives individuals tools to increase their perceived control over tasks and events, which moderates strain and builds coping capacity. Simple changes to processes and operations can dramatically reduce stress triggers within the organization and increase performance along the way. There are few blocks to performance as effective as unmanaged stress, which drives absenteeism, cynicism, conflict, mistakes, crisis mentality, fatigue, and exhaustion.

BRAIN MANAGEMENT

Stress management is brain management, and brain management is productivity management. Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment, so it stifles planning and complex decision-making, which require a leap out of the current worry loop.  Brains under chronic stress make rash decisions, since the faculties of the analytical mind get hijacked by the impulsive, emotional caveman brain.

Most of us individually try to avoid things that make us unhealthy—cigarettes, high-cholesterol foods—but when it comes to stress, we don’t act or ignore the problem. We have been programmed to believe that it’s just the way it is, or that we can take it. Smoking increases the risk of heart disease by 20%. This new study says that job strain is just as risky for stroke, and considerably higher, 33%, for women.

Companies spend heavily to recruit and train the best talent, but then can jeopardize those skilled minds by not being proactive about stress management. The latest scientific evidence shows that job strain is no longer something that can be written off as just part of the day. The activation of stress itself is a signal that something is perceived to be an emergency.

I hope these latest findings can move us closer to a time when we see this threat for what it is—the single biggest threat to the nation’s health ($1 trillion a year in costs annually, according to U.C. Irvine’s Peter Schnall), and to the effective functioning of any organization in a time of digital, 24/7 demands.

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Tags: stress and productivity, work stress and health, stress management training, stress, stress management, job stress, stress management programs, stress and stroke

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

Best Stress Management and Life Tool: Non-Reaction

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If there are two words that sum up the central challenge of work and life, they are these: “Don’t panic!” That is because resisting the urge to react in a way that sets off the stress response and renders our brain’s decision-making faculties stupid goes against our design as emotional creatures.

We are programmed to react before we think. A couple hundred thousand years ago early humans couldn’t be relied on to think their way out of a jam—we didn’t have the higher brain organs yet, so we had to rely on primitive mechanisms that allowed the emotional part of our brain, the amygdala, part of the  limbic system, to call the shots any time we were threatened. The same is true today, even though we have vastly souped-up cognitive equipment. When demands overload coping capacity, the amygdala takes charge again—and rationality goes AWOL.

THE REACTION REFLEX

It’s just one of the many reasons why every individual and organization has to know how to manage reactions, and by doing so manage stress in the process. It's an essential work-life balance tool. The reaction reflex sets off rash, hare-brained, panicked decisions, crisis mentality, vengeful behavior (fight), and, of course, flight in the form of people quitting their jobs. Forty percent of job turnover is due to stress. Along the way, the emotional reaction of stress drives insomnia, cardiovascular issues, depression, and a host of other costly conditions, not to mention the fact that it’s contagious—spreading stupidity around the office.

Ignoring the problem makes it worse, since stress thrives on being unchallenged as the false belief it is. Stress management training gives employees tools to contest stress and the faulty ancient brain mechanism that keeps us reacting emotionally. The reality is we have 21st century brains and a cerebral cortex to think through a setback and do something that completely flummoxes the caveman/woman brain that wants us to go nuts several times a day: not react.

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If we don’t react when pressure builds, and we consistently let off steam from that pressure cooker in the form of stress reduction practices and recreation, we are in charge, not an artifact from early homo sapiens. The art of nonreaction is the key to managing setbacks, expectations, and just about all the other flashpoints and struggles of life. It’s an amazing ability that can transform our lives from fear and loathing to the confidence that we can deal with whatever comes our way.

BLIND EMOTIONS

When something happens that overloads the coping equipment, the goal is to not react blindly to it and buy the emotions that are coming from a bogus life-and-death story in our caveman/woman brain. Instead, you actively don’t engage with the reaction. You know the situation is temporary. You’ll get through it.

Yes, you might have 200 emails, but you can handle it. You’re not going to die from them. Yes, you are caught in a major traffic jam, but freaking out and racing down the median in flight mode to escape the herd is not a smart decision.

I watched a huge collision that happened when two drivers panicked and listened to their ancient flight buttons. A compact car two vehicles up from me on a gridlocked avenue swerved into the median to escape the traffic and go in the opposite direction, where there was no traffic. At that same instant an SUV came barreling up the median, and—crunch—two cars totaled, with who knows how much physical damage to the drivers. All because they reacted before they thought.

Stress management training teaches participants how to override the ancient machinery that desperately wants us to go crazy when something happens that we don’t like. It shows how without the reaction there is no stress. It’s not the deadline or what somebody says that drives stress—it’s our reaction to those events that causes stress. It’s the thoughts that arise from the emotional reaction, the story we tell ourselves about the stress, that creates the stress. 

DON’T TAKE THE BAIT

How do we change such an ingrained behavior? Instead of letting a story fanned by irrational emotions run you, the trick is to shut down the storyteller. There is no story, just the frame you put on it. You are not going to die from the stress trigger, and you don't have to be manipulated by it. You can catch yourself as the emotions go off and bring back your 21st-century faculties.

This neutral approach allows you to not take the event personally, since the emotions of that default are a mega-driver of stress. The task is to simply observe the situation, the thoughts, and not engage with them. Let them slosh into your brain and slosh out again. You aren’t going to fall for it. 

Nonreaction is a superb weapon against ourselves, against all the ways that we set ourselves up for failure because our expectations aren’t met, or we aren’t perfect, or things don’t work out. The art of nonreaction prevents us from getting too high or too low. You cut off the pattern as soon as it starts. No, I’m staying neutral. I’m not taking the bait. You resist judgments about the event. You’re not going to get tangled up in its effect on your ego, a trigger of so many of these emotional wildfires. You aren’t taking sides.

It’s a great feeling to know you can’t get pushed around by yourself, that you are in charge of your own mind. It’s a state of being jaded to the manipulation that has happened so many times before. We are on to it, to ourselves, to the buttons others push.

You and the people in your organization or team can be on to this toxic saboteur too, leaving dramas, unmanaged demands, frenzy, conflict, and poor performance behind. Being able to control this reflex with nonreaction is one of the most useful things in the life arsenal, and the earlier we learn it, the quicker we can get it out of our own way.

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Tags: stress tips, work-life balance training, stress and self-talk, work overload, stress management training, stress management speaker, stress, stress management, job stress, work stress, managing stress

Work Stress: 7 Stress Tests That Can Save Your Life & Team

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Humans made it through the survival gauntlet of evolution because of our legendary adaptability. Cold, heat, bad food—we adjusted and kept on ticking. Yet adaptability is a habit that can threaten your survival—and the productivity, decision-making, and bottom line of your organization when it comes to stress.

At first, you might feel the churning stomach or the headaches of a stressor overloading coping ability. Then the body gets used to it. The adrenaline set off by the stress response to help you fight or run from danger masks the fact that your body is going down in any number of ways—heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel. Your team or department also gets used to the stress and adapts to it.

The adrenaline set off by the stress response makes you think you are handling it, but it’s an illusion. Stress is eating away at your health, suppressing your immune system, increasing the bad cholesterol, decreasing the good cholesterol and providing a false sense of energy and transcendence. Chronic stress can lead to stroke, depression, and burnout, the last stage of stress and a three-way shutdown of mind, body, and emotions.  

STRESS KILLS

Stress is nothing to mess around with. It’s a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death and some estimates have it as an element in more than 75% of doctor visits.

Stress is a killer. At one workshop I led for a large consulting firm, I learned that one of their top consultants, in his forties, had a heart attack on a bathroom floor while on assignment. He was known as someone who would go to the wall on every job. At a federal agency, managers told me about hospitalizations and nervous breakdowns because of stress. One entrepreneur I spoke with had a heart attack at the age of 29 from out-of-control stress.

Of course, all this has a massive impact on productivity, health costs, errors, and absenteeism for organizations. Stress costs U. S. companies $407 billion a year in health bills, absenteeism, lost productivity, and recruiting and training, according to U. C. Irvine stress researcher Peter Schnall.

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The havoc doesn’t have to happen. We can manage stress with one simple new habit: regular stress testing. We do eye checkups, mammograms, blood panels, but we are never taught to identify and manage stress. We need to measure stress levels on a regular basis, say experts like Schnall, or we wind up at the mercy of a runaway medical train.

How do you know if you are in the danger zone? There are a number of tests you can do to monitor your stress levels, from saliva to blood and treadmill tests. If you are under a lot of strain, and even if you think you are managing the pressure, you need to make the time to take a stress test. Tom Row, a Tennessee scientist I spoke with, didn’t even know he was stressed when he had a heart attack at his office and was carried out on a stretcher. He’d been doing 12-hour workdays for years. 

ASSESS YOUR STRESS

Let’s take a look at some of the main types of stress tests, beginning with cortisol testing. Stress sets off a flood of hormones from your adrenal glands, including adrenaline and cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, to help your body prepare for action to confront danger.

Elevated cortisol levels from stress, though, cause a host of problems, from high blood pressure to heart disease, and can increase the risk of depression. Interestingly, researchers have found that cortisol levels drop in people who have burnout—another reason to do the test. Burnout depletes your adrenal glands of the hormones and energetic resources you need to function. Chronic fatigue and Addison’s disease are marked by low cortisol levels. So cortisol testing can determine both if you have abnormally high levels of the hormone or very low.

  • Saliva Test. This may be the simplest stress test, one which checks cortisol levels at various times throughout the day. The process involves leaving your saliva in a test tube-like device and sending it off to a lab for analysis. You can buy saliva test kits over the counter and online. Most experts, though, feel that the saliva test is less accurate than a blood serum test.
  • Cortisol Blood Test.  We all know the drill here. Needle time. Have your doctor draw blood and submit it to a cortisol analysis. The test will determine whether you have abnormal cortisol levels, high or low. Certain medications can interfere with test results, such as steroid drugs, estrogen, androgens, and anti-seizure drugs. According to the National Institute of Health, the normal values for a test at 8 a.m. are 6 to 23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
  • Cortisol Urine Test. You can also measure your cortisol levels with a standard urine test.  The National Institute of Health reports that the normal range is 10 to 100 micrograms per 24 hours (mcg/24h).
  • Cognitive Stress Test. This non-invasive approach can be very helpful in identifying stress and various physical byproducts of strain and high demands. The questionnaire can be used in conjunction with other tests, such as a blood test or blood pressure test to map out the larger picture of demands outstripping coping ability and the effects that is having on your body and thinking. 
  • Blood Pressure Test. Keeping an eye on blood pressure is an important tool to track the effect of stress on your cardiovascular system. U. C. Irvine’s Schnall says that it’s crucial you get your blood pressure measured, not just at the doctor’s office, but also at work. The true state of elevated blood pressure may not appear in the calm of the doctor’s room. He strongly recommends that you test BP at work to measure how your body is faring in the heat of the workday. According to the American Heart Assoc., Stage 1 Hypertension begins at a systolic number (the top number on your BP reading) of 140-159 or a diastolic number (the lower figure) of 90-99. Hypertension Stage 2 is a systolic of 160 or higher and a diastolic of 100 or higher, while a Hypertension Crisis is higher than 180 for systolic and 110 for diastolic.
  • Electrocardiogram Test (EKG). This test can find underlying issues of heart disease and hypertension. Electrodes measure electrical signals in the heart that can find patterns of rhythms and heartbeats that may be a tipoff to problems. The devices have gotten very streamlined and much easier to use, and can spit out results on the spot, so you can get a very quick analysis of your heart health.
  • Exercise Stress Test.  An EKG, though, may not always be enough. Brian Curin, co-founder of the Flip Flop Shops, can thank the exercise stress test for saving his life. An EKG didn’t catch the massive jam in his arteries. Sometimes known as a treadmill test, the exercise test measures the way your heart responds to physical effort, and the extra demands can ferret out issues other tests can’t. This test pinpointed an array of problems so serious that Curin was advised to go directly into surgery, where he had to have a quadruple bypass at the age of 39. Do yourself a favor, and take the time for your health and get this test done.

Beyond monitoring and testing, if your office or department has a stress problem, don't ignore it. Fix it. Reach out and contact us, and we can show you how a stress management program can give your team tools to control demands, instead of the other way around. Stress is optional. 

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Tags: productivity and stress, stress management training, stress, job stress, burnout, cost of stress, heart attacks, job burnout, stress management programs, chronic stress, burnout prevention, stress testing, managing stress

Crisis Mentality: The False Emergency Driving Overwhelm and Job Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Crying wolf is a behavior frowned upon by society at large, but celebrated in the workplace. Did you get that email I sent two minutes ago? We need that report by noon! Or what, apocalypse now?

How about that person who sends every email with a giant red exclamation point on it. New cat video!

Granted there are deadlines and competitors to reckon with and work that must be done in a swift way, but that doesn’t mean everything is an emergency every minute of the day, as has become the norm in most organizations caught up in the Crazy-Busy Model of performance. Time panic has become the order of the day, setting off a vicious cycle of clenched necks, churning stomachs, absenteeism, and dismal productivity.

SIEGE OF INDIVIDUAL HEROICS

Harvard management professor Leslie Perlow found in a study she did while at the University of Michigan that nonstop rushing sets off a state of “crisis mentality,” that in turn triggers “individual heroics,” which cause people to believe they can interrupt anyone at any time, which drives more time panic as the interruptions make people fall behind in their work.

Technology has played a large role in amping up the hyperventilation, creating an illusion that the speed with which communications travel can be duplicated by the humans on the other end of them. Devices and the interruptions they rain down on us have also undermined attention spans, and with that the ability to regulate impulse control. Without self-regulation, we have no ability to resist interrupting others or practice patience, which requires self-discipline. We want what we want NOW!

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Perlow found that crisis mentality had a huge impact on performance and engagement at a technology company she studied, reducing both.  The engineers tasked with designing new products were so inundated with interruptions, they would have to work nights and weekends to get anything done. It took longer to finish tasks. The obsession with speed above all else caused people to focus on individual needs over group goals and sapped any commitment the employees may have had for the company.

WHEN EVERYTHING IS AN EMERGENCY, NOTHING IS

It was all-emergency, all the time—even though the emergency was false. Everything became life-and-death, which is a perfect description of the stress response that crisis mentality sets off. It's a false emergency, unless you are literally about to die. You’re not going to expire from a deadline or 300 emails, but time panic can convince your ancient brain otherwise. When everything is an emergency, nothing is.

The frenzy at this company was toxic to deadlines and quality work. One of the insidious things about interruptions is that they make you believe the work you’re doing is more difficult than it actually is.  Studies show that interruptions can increase annoyance and aggravation more than 100%. That makes it easier for irritation to click over into anger, increasing the stress load further.

QUIET TIME

In her study, “Finding Time, Stopping the Frenzy,” Perlow argued that blind rushing is counterproductive and countered it with an intervention at the company that cut crisis mentality and dramatically boosted performance. Her solution, Quiet Time, mandated two periods during the day free of all interruptions and contacting. From 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. in the morning, the engineers couldn’t be interrupted. Normal contact and messaging resumed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then it was back to an interruption-free zone from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Performance increased 59% in the morning no-interruption zone and 65% in the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. focus slot. With minds more focused, productivity even shot up 42% in the period with normal interruptions. The engineers created a new product on time without needing to work every night and weekend for months on end.

Crisis mentality undermines intellect, since stress constricts thinking to the perceived emergency of the moment. That means poor decisions, snap decisions, emotional decisions, and an inability to see beyond the latest crisis—no planning, in other words. It means colleagues at each others’ throats. And it means lots and lots of exclamation points on the emails in your in-box.

We can do better by learning how to qualify urgency, setting boundaries on messaging, respecting others and being judicious about interruptions, getting clarity on what a true emergency is, resisting the hurry-worry of others, and practicing the hidden weapon of excellence: patience.

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Tags: effect of stress on productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, productivity and stress, employee productivity, productivity training, interruptions, false urgency, increase productivity, stress management, job stress, burnout, chronic stress, time frenzy,, crisis mentality,

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

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