Working Smarter

8 Ways to Increase Adaptability in the New Normal

Posted by Joe Robinson

Brain adapting-1

The pandemic is a big reminder that, despite the best-laid plans, there is much beyond our control. It’s a lesson in humility, and, of course, reality, since it’s always been this way, thanks to the ever-changing, moving ground upon which we live.

Nothing is static, including us. But we are in charge of at least one thing, the mind we use to contend with and adapt to new conditions – and the key to surviving and thriving in a COVID-19 world. 

THE ADAPTIVE ANIMAL

Luckily, humans are very good at using brain neurons to help us adapt. It’s the hallmark trait of the species -- survival of the most adaptive -- and the engine of our resilience. Coping with existential threats is what we do. Proof: We're still around.

We have the capacity to bend, not break, in the face of challenge and shift locations, comfort zones, ideas, and self-images when we want to -- or have to. Each of us is an adaptation professional, shape-shifters with a long history of modifying behavior to deal with weather, transit, city life, parents, teachers, peers, supervisors, and partners. 

To live in a world with others is to adapt constantly. The social world is based on cooperation, and the root of cooperation is adapting to the cues and rules around us. Tradition, law and order, manner of speech, fashion – they’re all about adapting to the environment around us.

TAKING THE HEAT OFF

The essence of adaptability is finding ways to respond to the unpredictable, the different, uncertain, and novel by swapping old ways for workarounds or improvements. We adapt, not only to fit in socially or take a different course when things aren’t working, but also to manage the stress that comes when a new situation demands change. Adapting takes the heat off, keeps us moving forward. In a sense it's natural selection's stress management strategy to help us cope with shifting conditions.

Researchers say adaptability is less of a basic trait or skill and more of a characteristic that combines several elements—cognitive ability, personality traits, personal preferences, and stress and coping skills (Ployhart, Bliese). Amid a pandemic, it’s a good time to dig in to these components and brush up on behaviors that make it easier to shift habits and attitudes in the face of changes large and small.

Behaviors That Increase Adaptability 

  1. Be flexible.

Flexibility is a super-savvy strategy that makes it easier to align with the volatile impermanence of our world, such as the convulsive pace of technological and organizational change and pandemics. We don’t use this tool as often as we should, since we have ego-shaped hard heads and are mostly ruled by the law of least effort. The default is to do what’s easy, the way it’s always been, not what's hard.

When you embrace flexibility, though, you rise above rigidity, indolence, and snap judgments -- that the new thing is bad or too much work or not normal. You then can see flexibility as a path of advancement, a learning tool, and change as the normal event it is. You give yourself permission to not get in the way of your progress.

Of course, you don’t want to be too flexible when it comes to any threat to your health. We have to be guided by the health experts on virus concerns. Period.

  1. Arm yourself with the right goal.

Since most of us don’t want to have to make changes, it helps to have the use of a fabulous tool that can make us more willing. Studies show that having the right goal, an intrinsic motivation behind our flexibility, makes it a lot more likely that we will approve of the new thing and stick with it even when it gets difficult or lasts a long time.

When we act for an internal goal, such as service, growth, or civic duty, we are more willing to do something we may not want to. We’re not concerned with an instrumental gain for doing it, an external payoff—such as a bonus or promotion or getting it done ASAP. We do it for its own intrinsic value, say, helping our fellow citizens stay healthy. Having a goal to beat the virus together reminds us of why we’re making the changes and sacrifices we are and that helps us stick with the new behavior.

  1. Use your creativity.

As the tool-building animal, we have been able to solve obstacles on the road to civilization with creativity and improvisation. We see it today in all the personalized masks people are making. YouTube videos show Brazilians making masks from socks. A French company has designed a plastic lamp shade that shields restaurant diners from each other.

We have to change how we do a lot of formerly rote activities at the office and at home. We can get upset about it, or we can make alterations and see them as creative improvisations. If you are a salesperson and can’t meet clients in person, you could send them targeted video pitches to help with the sale. 

When we alter behaviors and learn new ones, it helps us in two areas crucial for our psychological health—mastery and agency, being able to act on our own and be effective in figuring things out. Those lead to gratification, something we could use more of these days.

  1. Reappraise change.

It turns out change isn’t an enemy but a longtime friend. Our brains actually want novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment, brain scientist Gregory Berns reports in Satisfaction.  We are programmed for engagement with our world, to see what’s over the next horizon. It’s one of the reasons many of us love to travel.

How primed for change are we? We all are wired for it by what is known as habituation. We are programmed to get sick of things we do or eat over and over. It’s a prod from our biochemistry to learn and discover. Fearing novelty is fearing our own innermost aspirations.

  1. Stay open.

If you are willing to try new things or like to dabble, experiment, and follow your curiosity, you are going to have an easier time handling change—and a lot more opportunity to learn and grow from new experiences. Even if you’re not high in the trait of openness, you can still use it as a strategy, a survival strategy, because that’s what it is. We don’t have to be welded to personality behaviors only we are holding ourselves to.

Being open means not having anything on the line when it's time to make an adjustment. Your identity is not up for grabs on the basis of some new way of doing meetings or tracking productivity from home. You measure your worth by internal standards, again, taking the intrinsic road and keeping the ego at bay. Lifelong learners keep pulse rates calm.

 6. Be more agreeable.

Avoiding a killer virus doesn’t tend to put us in a good mood. There are a lot of tough things happening to people who don’t deserve it. Naturally, it leads to a lot of negative mood and anxiety. Yet we have a choice. We can complain, or we can alter behaviors that can save our lives and the lives of others. That’s something to be positive about.

People high on the personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness have an advantage in malleability. They accept changes more readily. But the rest of us can reach the same conclusion using logical deduction. There are many rationales to choose from—survival, community, citizenry, growth—any of which should make us more agreeable as purveyors of an intrinsic goal. We do it to do it, not for an external gain.

  1. Stay patient.

We have to manage emotional reactions to change, so we don’t burn up energetic resources on stress overreactions that we need to accommodate to the modification process. This means staying patient and not losing it when we have to do some new thing that takes longer or makes us go out of our way.

Self-regulation is the engine of patience, the discipline to forego instant gratification or constant email checking. It's a resource that is eroded by interruptions and stress, along with impulse control, without which we can't rein in the stress that goes off with new events or conditions. Is it apocalypse now, or something that's just different?

8. See adapting as problem-solving, not personal.

We can’t take the changes brought on by COVID-19 personally. This is something we are all going through. Taking setbacks or changes personally triggers the survival equipment that then throws us into reflex emotional reactions. The whole point of adaptation is stress reduction, not activation.

Having skills that allow us to shift from the anxiety and false beliefs of fight-or-flight to rational solutions is key. Choosing problem-solving over emotion-based stress reactions increases ability to adapt and find a solution in a tough situation. Research shows that active stress coping measures that help us confront and resolve obstacles are effective at helping us adapt while passive coping strategies—alcohol, drugs, shopping—are not. Emotion-based reactions make us more fearful and then much less flexible.

We would all like the COVID crisis to be over yesterday. Fortunately, we are the products of tens of thousands of years of honing our singular survival talent of adaptation. We have the wiring, and we have the examples in our individual lives of travails we have overcome that show us we can bend and not break, just move forward differently, as is the way of the world.

Learn how to help your employees manage change, uncertainty, and stress in the time of COVID-19 with our CALM IN THE STORM stress management and resilience program. Click the button below for details.

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A Stress Management Strategy Is Essential Work for Every Firm in the Pandemic

Posted by Joe Robinson

Mountain top rally copy

As companies slowly return to a new world after lockdown, there are a host of changes in store for workplaces. Plans call for everything from apps that track who you’ve been in contact with, to regular temperature screenings, carpet that designates a six-foot radius around a desk, snap-on partitions between desks, and foot pulls on doors to avoid knobs and handles.

What I don’t hear at the top of wish lists is something just as critical to employee and organizational health, something every company needs to be planning in a period of wrenching change, risk, and uncertainty: a stress management strategy.

EVERY DAY NOW IS A MENTAL HEALTH DAY

We are in the thick of the worst pandemic in a century, combined with possibly the worst economic collapse since the Depression. That is having a major impact on mental health. Two-thirds of Americans report feeling anxious, lonely, or hopeless in a survey by the National Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Meanwhile, 88% of workers reported moderate to extreme stress in a survey by the health company Ginger, with 62% of them saying they lost an hour a day of work due to COVID-19 stress, and 32% lost two hours.

We can’t go back to business as usual or act like a traumatic event of the scope of a pandemic didn’t happen. There are high levels of fear for personal and family safety, a steady tide of RIPs in Facebook feeds, ongoing social distancing and isolation, financial hardship, childcare issues, and painful uncertainty about how long it will all last. Employees are going to need a lot of support and guidance to get through possibly another year of living with risk.

COUNTERING THE PESSIMISTIC DEFAULT

You can have the best physical mitigation measures, but if the mental health side is ignored, it can lead to cynicism, burnout, depression, absenteeism, substance abuse, and worse, not to mention the impact all that has on performance under unprecedented pressure. Experts are predicting post-traumatic stress surges for frontline workers. Even if your team is not on the frontlines, we are all absorbing a tremendous amount of grief and anxiety that will affect us and shape mood for a long time.

Organizations need to be able to bolster the mental health of employees under duress in the pandemic by giving them skills to be resilient and counter the default pessimistic track with the science of optimism.

Get Details on Stress Management Training

Of course, there was no shortage of stress at work pre-virus. To transition staff to a mid-pandemic workplace, organizations need a stress management plan to manage major upheaval and change and navigate ambiguity. Most experts say that this battle isn’t going to end until there’s a vaccine, at the earliest next year.

A STRESS MANAGEMENT PLAN FOR THE PANDEMIC

We know how high stress undermines organizations. It creates 46% higher health costs, and 40% of employees who leave companies cite stress as the reason (Sparks). Stress undermines decision-making, intellect, judgment, and impulse control, leading to conflict and poor interactions with colleagues and customers. Stress sabotages attention (i.e. productivity) as it directs attention to thoughts in tenses other than the one with the task at hand.

What would a stress management plan look like? It could start with a stress management training for employees and management that lets folks know we are all in this together and that we can make our lives and work easier with tools that increase resilience and coping capacity.

Almost all of us are flying blind when it comes to stress management, since the culture doesn’t teach us those skills. So the need now for everyone to understand how to manage it is crucial. The default to stressors large and small is to autopilot reflex, catastrophic thoughts and false beliefs that drive stress. Yet everyone on your team has the power to manage demands, instead of be managed by them, even in a pandemic.

HOW TO STAY CALM IN THE STORM

Stress management programs should address the pandemic head-on and the issues created by it, which span work and life. Our virtual stress management training, for instance, Calm in the Storm, brings together tools to navigate change, uncertainty, and anxiety during COVID-19 and also equips employees with stress reduction and smarter-work skills for the task bottlenecks and normal pressure points of the job.

Since our thoughts are what generate stress, employees learn how to reframe the false stories of stress, think before they react, and switch from emotion-based reactions to problem-solving-based solutions.

Did you know we all have, not just a physical immune system, but also a psychological one? We are highly resilient, when we know how to exercise that system, something our stress management training helps your team do.

After the training, it’s important to develop an ongoing stress management and resilience support system—to sustain the new practices and negotiate a long period of ups and downs of the virus, economy, sales, marketplace, and events that fuel pessimism and impatience. This can include ongoing webinars, support groups within the company as well as on-call support with one-on-one counseling and coaching, all of which we can help with.

If there was ever a time for teamwork, this is it, both within organizations and the nation. One of the best ways to build that is through a stress management plan that gives everyone the practical and emotional support needed in overwhelming times. 

For details on our virtual stress management and resilience program, Calm in the Storm, please click the button below.

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Why Stress Keeps Your Team Out of Their Minds

Posted by Joe Robinson

stressed out team small

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

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

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

STRESS IS A DECISION HAZARD

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

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

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

THE MENTAL WELLNESS IMPERATIVE

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

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

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

WE ARE OF TWO MINDS

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

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

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

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

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

MAJOR STRESS IMPACTS ON THINKING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Stress Shreds the Chief Productivity Tool: Attention

Posted by Joe Robinson

 

Phone zombies.jpgIF EACH OF US had a blooper reel, our most forehead-slapping moments would come at times when we were late, rushing, on deadline, under pressure, times when we were under the influence of stress. That’s when brains take leave of their faculties and default to impulsive decisions that make it appear we have the IQ of a panicked wildebeest.

Stress reroutes thoughts from the top floors of the brain to the lower ones—to the irrational emotions of the limbic system and to rote mode. We don’t have command of our chief productivity tool, full attention, when focus and the tenuous grasp of working memory are hijacked by the perceived crisis of stress.

RELENTLESS SABOTEUR

When racing on deadline, we send emails with typos, forget attachments, or overlook important calculations and may have to do the task all over again. When late to a flight, we leave smartphone charge cables behind and worry about whether the front door is locked. When stress sets off sudden anger or rage, we may lash out in ways we regret later.

A raft of studies show that stress is a relentless saboteur of attention, and without the ability to manage it, we subvert intellect and devolve to a state as reckless as someone who’s had too much to drink. We do things under its command that we never would with full, unsidetracked presence of mind. That means stress has a major impact on all the things we need attention for: productivity, engagement, and work-life balance.

“Acute stress impairs the intention-based attentional allocation and enhances the stimulus-driven selection, leading to a strong distractibility during attentional information selection,” note the authors of one study (Sanger, Bechtold, Schoof, Blaszkewicz, Wascher).

The stress hormone of cortisol sends us on a chemical bender, a detour away from goals, focus, and the directed concentration of what’s known as “top-down” attention (you choose what you pay attention to) to “bottom-up” attention, a survival mechanism that hijacks the higher brain in moments of perceived threat.

As Daniel Kahneman reported in his sweeping survey of how wrong our brains can be in “Fast and Slow Thinking,” there are two basic cognitive gears. System 1 thinking is a rapid, if not instant, response to a stimulus, and its triggers include the stress response and danger. It’s marked by rash, impulsive, jump-off-the-cliff, knee-jerk familiarity, and mostly speed. There’s no time for weighing pro and con. There’s just an immediate reaction.

STRESS DUMBS US DOWN

System 1 thinking refers decisions to emotions and feeling. This can help extricate you from a life-and-death event in which you would have no time to think your way out, but it’s of little use when trying to make decisions that require thought and reflection. It shreds focus with intrusive thoughts that fan the flames of the perceived crisis of the moment.

The other type of thinking, System 2, is what we use for thoughtful analysis, complex decisions, planning, anything with a goal attached to it. It’s essential for concentration and decision-making, and utilizes the direction and discipline of the higher brain. You are in charge, not an external event.

Subjects in the study above under the command of stress-induced bottom-up attention made a lot of mistakes. Stressed individuals were prone to mis-weighting the information in the tests they participated in and confusing less relevant data with test targets. This is one of the things stress specializes in, causing us to make decisions without considered examination. Errors for the stress group included “a very large portion of response misses, emphasizing a lack of top-down controlled selection bias toward the less salient target feature.”

Stress makes us reach for quick answers, easy fixes, because it forces us to make decisions before we have adequate information to base them upon and ones clouded by raw emotion. It dumbs us down to retaliatory and reflex behavior in which we react before we think. Our job is to build in the thinking before or after the reaction. The key to that is the very thing stress steals: attention.

Attention is the act of choosing from a stream of information and data what you want to pay attention to. It’s a selection process in which your executive attention function in the high brain screens the incoming data and chooses the information that best matches your goal, task, or the tenuous thought associations at top of mind in your working memory. Stress impairs your brain’s ability to stay focused on the task. The release of stress-fueled cortisol impairs intention-based thinking and, suddenly the tail, external stimuli, is wagging the dog.

Minds that can’t stay on task or focus take longer to the get the job done and may have to do the work over again after errors. Obviously, then, the drain of attention has a big impact on productivity. Highly stressed employees don’t just have lower productivity; they also have poor engagement, a survey by Watson Towers found. 

Instead of ignoring the siege of devices and interruptions that afflict most offices these days and the stress they aid and abet, we ought to be finding ways to bring stress management tools to every office to combat attention hijackers. The more stress we have, the less attention and productivity. The more attention we have, the less stress. It's simple, but yet impossible to achieve unless stress management strategies can take root.

The solution is more absorption in every moment of every task we do. Studies show that when we have full attention and engagement, we get the job done faster, remember it longer, and like it more.

The same goes for life outside the job. The more we can stay immersed in the moment, the happier we are, our problems emanating from the realm of the other two tenses. Harness attention, and we can tap the power of the most potent motivation, intrinsic goals, doing our work for the inherent interest, and find optimal experience, when our skills meet a challenge. 

It all starts with doing things that increase attention--putting limits on device time, participating in activities that build concentration (chess, dancing, learning a language), reading, and strategies such as mindfulness and other forms of target focus that increase the attention center in the prefrontal part of the brain and decrease the self-referential hub, where the thoughts and anxieties of stress live and badger us.

In the era of distraction, you still have the power to direct your mind and reduce stress and increase productivity by boosting top-down attention and reducing bottom-up attention. That's if you can regulate the impulsivity of System 1 and let System 2 take back your mind from the attention-stealers.

If you would like to increase attention and productivity on your team or in your company, please click on the button below for details on our stress management, productivity, and work-life balance programs.

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

Dog barking.jpg

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.

This 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—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 an old chew toy. It's like it never happened. 

That’s what makes dogs smarter than humans. Because we keep barking long after the stressful event is over. We hang on to the stress, clinging to the undertow of emotions.

But we don't have to. We have the power to shut off stressful events 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.

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 isn’t designed for the social stressors of the modern world—will feed your brain catastrophic thoughts. A part of your brain thinks you’re going to die that second, which is pretty catastrophic. These thoughts form into a false story we tell ourselves that drives the stress reaction.

YOU CONTROL HOW LONG THE STRESS LASTS

Because they are in our head, we think the catastrophic thoughts are true. The longer they remain unchallenged, the more we think about them over and over, which convinces 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, how you weigh the threat. Stress is relative, in other words, to how much control you feel over demands. You can reframe the story of the threat to one that is controllable.

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 false story set off by the caveman brain—I'll be fired for that missed sale—can be countermanded if we can take the canine cue 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 triggered 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 never going to get over that criticism. (You will.) If I can't get it all done, I'm going to lose my job. (No, you won't). These are exaggerations, and you can overcome them.

Next, round up the evidence of what happened, looking at the basic 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?

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 fear or embarrassment 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 taking things personally is a self-infliction.

Then you create a new story. Write it out on a piece of paper or put it on a screen, showing 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 reason 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. You have to shut off stress before it can entrench false beliefs that lead to dire ruminations that keep you 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—or go after the false story and create a new one that makes you as smart as a Yorkshire.

For details on our stress management and work-life balance training programs for your team or organization and tools to control reactions, emotions, and excess barking, click the button below. 

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

Start 2017 with Smarter Work and the Key to Engagement: Progress

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all go through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to learn the trade of our craft, but when it comes to how we actually do the task practices that make up our profession, it’s a big zilch. We never learn how to work in a way that’s not knee-jerk reflex mode, reacting to stuff all day. It’s like a high jumper who knows about all the great athletes in the sport and techniques but has never gotten training on how to actually leap over a bar without killing themself.

Today, we have a lot of people quietly killing themselves and their team’s productivity because they’re on autopilot mechanical momentum. They are acting before they think and, as a result, driving time frenzy, crisis mentality, and, of course, the king of reactionary behavior, stress.

ACTING BEFORE WE THINK

Stress is the result of not having control over events to the point where capacity to cope is overloaded. It’s the definition of overwhelm and doing more than we can do well, which is rampant in every organization these days. It’s so widespread because we never get stress management training, either. There’s a tendency to see no stress, hear no stress, speak no stress, when everyone knows it’s shredding performance and teamwork. You can turn stress off, but it takes instruction to make that happen.

This unconscious cycle undermines productivity, since attention is focused on the perceived emergency, instead of the task at hand. It leads to absenteeism, retention problems, health issues, mistakes, and cynicism, the opposite of engagement.

But there is a way to change things in 2017, to have your team work in a way that improves performance as it reduces stress by making adjustments to how they do their tasks that make them more effective, engaged, and less susceptible to stress and frenzy. It all happens by changing work style, something we never think about, from mechanical to full engagement based on the latest tools proven by the research.We do precisely that at Optimal Performance Strategies in our work-life balance development trainings.

Employee engagement is defined as discretionary extra effort. It comes from informed performance, energized performance, not how robotically fast you’re working or how many things you think you’re doing at one time (you can only do one cognitive task at a time, say researchers; multitasking is a myth). Engagement doesn’t happen without training and development. It has to be taught.

DEVELOPMENT DRIVES ENGAGEMENT

Your employees are waiting for you to help them improve their skills. Research shows that development trainings are one of the biggest levers of employee engagement. So just the mere act of outfitting your team with more knowledge makes them more apt to be committed and engaged.

Why is that? Our brain neurons crave two things more than anything else for long-term fulfillment, novelty and challenge. We are born to learn, because we are born to seek progress in our lives. The gratification of growth and forward movement set off a chemical in the brain called dopamine, which rewards us after we acquire new knowledge and makes us want to learn more. Studies have shown progress to be one of the key markers for job satisfaction worldwide.

Your team can make progress that will activate everyone’s brain neurons in 2017 by learning skills that allow them to work smarter, get more done in less time, and recharge the chief productivity tool, the brain, on a regular basis. Our work-life balance programs give them strategies to:

--Manage stress, pressure, and pace

--Control email and information overload

--Manage interruptions and attention

--Improve time management

--Develop prioritization and time estimation/deadline skills

--Navigate the work-life divide

--Improve health and wellness

--Activate the most fulfilling life

The new year is the best time of the year, when minds are receptive to change, to chart new paths and replace what’s not working with what works. Learn how our work-life balance development program can give your team tools they can put to work immediately to improve work effectiveness and quality of life. It’s the “how” of workplace progress.

Just click the button below for details.

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Tags: employee development programs, stress management programs

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.

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. 

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

Managing Stress Is Managing Non-Vulcan Reactions and Emotions

Posted by Joe Robinson

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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.

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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.

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

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. 

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

CONTROLLING SELF-TALK

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

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

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

PESSIMISTIC STYLE: HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH

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

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

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

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

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

FROM PERMANENT TO TEMPORARY SETBACK

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

If you would like to learn more abou how to control stress in your organization or get details on our stress management programs, click the button below. Manage stress, and unleash performance.

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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

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