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

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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.

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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

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

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

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

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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The Most Dangerous Thing About Stress: How Long We Hang on to It

Posted by Joe Robinson

Burnout Woman 40562450_m

Too many margaritas can make you a traffic accident statistic. Too much sugar and fat, both of which are crucial to providing energetic resources for the body, can lead to obesity and a serious side effect, diabetes. Even too much water can kill you. If you notice a trend here, it’s that things that may be harmless in moderation can boomerang on us in excess. Add stress to the list.

The stress response was designed for short bursts, providing a sudden rush of power to our limbs to help us fight or run from life-or-death danger. It was intended to last a limited time, until we were out of harm’s way and imminent demise. When the saber-tooth tiger left the neighborhood, so did the stress.

KILL STRESS FAST

That was a good thing, since the longer stress lasts, the more damage it does to your body. Stress in small doses doesn’t wreak large-scale havoc on your body and can even be considered an asset that propels you through a challenge or makes something feel exciting as you put your skills to a test.

On the other hand, stress that lasts days, weeks, and months, if not years, causes wide-scale harm to any number of systems and organs in the body and can lead to sudden trips to the ER and burnout. All stress management efforts should be focused on cutting off the most dangerous threat of stress, how long it lasts, and killing it before it can take you out.

It’s the duration of stress that makes it so dangerous, since the stress response rejiggers many parts of your body in harmful ways to prepare your system for battle stations. Some functions of the body aren’t needed in a life-and-death struggle, such as the immune system, digestion and tissue repair systems, so these are turned off or suppressed to focus on the mission of providing more strength and speed and quicker blood flow to the arms and legs to achieve that. Driving the rush of blood is jacked-up blood pressure and a rapid heart rate.

These are all major adjustments to how our bodies operate and the equilibrium they need to function properly. With chronic stress, these and other realignments become the staging grounds for long-term damage. The effects of the increased heart rate and blood pressure can lead to the nation’s number one killer, cardiovascular disease.

The heart, arteries, and blood vessels have to work much harder under the command of the stress response, which they can manage for a while, but after a continuous period of excess emergency mode, things start breaking down.

The intense velocity of blood gushing through blood vessels like water through a fire hose starts wearing down the lining inside the vessel, causing little tears and pockets that attract a crowd—immune cells, foam cells of fatty nutrients, circulating platelets that promote clotting, fat, glucose, bad cholesterol, and plaque.

It’s standing room only inside your blood vessels and a heightened risk for clogs that restrict the flow of blood raging through veins in the form of atherosclerosis.

HEART ATTACK RISK

And that’s not the only way chronic stress alters the critical work of your circulatory system. The force of the blood flowing through veins is so great that it causes muscles to grow around them to contain the load. Those muscles, in turn, can clamp down on the vessels, making them more rigid, restricting blood flow and increasing blood pressure further.

Chronically increased blood pressure leads to hypertension and a host of issues that come from it, including heart attacks. Forcing the heart to pump faster and harder than it’s supposed to beefs up the muscle on the left side of the heart wall, leading to left ventricular hypertrophy, which is the top tipoff of cardiac risk.

Meanwhile, over in the abdomen department, chronic stress is mucking up your body’s digestion equipment by putting the system on idle. It forces the stomach to cut down on acid secretion, and bicarbonate and mucous production, which help protect the stomach. These and other changes left to fester from ongoing stress can lead to gastritis, acid rebound, ulcers when combined with the Helicobacter pylori microbe, and irritable bowel disease.

SUPPRESSED IMMUNE SYSTEM

The need to keep the immune system functioning well is a pretty simple concept to grasp. Without our built-in defenses keeping at bay a world buzzing with bacteria, microbes, parasites, and viruses, we are more apt to come down with any number of health problems. Long-term interruption of the immune system from stress causes a 40% to 70% reduction in the various metrics of the immune system function.

Stress releases a flood of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol and other steroid hormones into the bloodstream. They have been shown to interfere with the body’s immune agents, such as lymphocyte cells, sidelining some, disappearing others inside immune cells, and even killing lymphocytes.

As University of California at Berkeley’s Robert Sapolsky detailed in his fabulous book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “Give someone massive amounts of glucocorticoids, or a huge stressor that has gone on for many hours, and the hormones will be killing lymphocytes indiscriminately, just mowing them down. Have a subtle rise in glucocorticoid levels for a short time…and the hormones kill only a particular subset of lymphocytes—older ones, ones that don’t work as well.”

Clearly, then, the smart thing to do is to stop ignoring stress, or sucking it up, as we are told we have to do. When we don’t challenge stress and turn off its false danger signal, we think about it. It’s this rumination, the circular cogitating over the exaggerated belief kicked up by an ancient brain that doesn’t get the modern world that drives stress—and chronic ailments and diseases that come from it. It’s the story we tell ourselves about the stressful event that causes stress, not the external event.

CATCH YOURSELF IN THE REACTION ACT

This is something we can change by cutting off the stress spiral as soon as possible after the stress response is triggered. The longer the irrational emotions from our primitive limbic system are allowed to fan the false belief of stress (always false unless it’s a real life-or-death event for you), the more the bogus belief is entrenched as real. And off we go for who knows how long with the cumulative damage to our cardiovascular system, digestion, and immune systems, among many other impacts.

We have to become adept at catching ourselves when we go off on emotional reactions. When someone or something pushes your buttons, use the wave of white-hot emotion—rage, anger, embarrassment—set off by the demand or pressure as the clue to not grab those emotions and the catastrophic thought/belief fanning it in your brain.

Notice it, take a series of deep breaths, and analyze the category of stress that has been set off—ego hit, unfairness, overload, or any other impetus. Having to categorize it starts the process of waking up your analytical, modern brain, which can then retake command of faculties from the ancient hijacker.

Next, identify the false story behind the stressor. What is the extreme belief behind it? How useful is this thought? What’s behind this stressor that is setting off the emotions? What’s behind that? What’s behind that? Keep going until you find that the bottom-line cause is not a life-or-death emergency.

Tell yourself you can handle it, because you always do handle it. You may not know how at this moment, but you will, just like every other time you rose to the occasion. With that, you have cut off the destructive wrecking ball of chronic stress before it can spiral into a multi-day/week/month/year destruction derby of life-changing medical conditions.

If you would like to learn more about how to beat stress in your organization or individually, click the button below for details on my employee stress management trainings and keynotes or here for stress management coaching for individuals.

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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.

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 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.

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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

Bounce Back from Anything with the Resilience of Life's Silver Lining

Posted by Joe Robinson

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TO ERR IS HUMAN; to forgive divine. Especially when it comes to forgiving ourselves. It’s hard to let an unforced error or rough event go. We can be tougher on ourselves than the worst boss. That’s despite the fact that most of life is trial and error. 

Setbacks shake our confidence and faith, but they are not the end, even if they seem that way. That is because the essence of our species is adaptability and resilience. It’s hard to see that when we are in the middle of adversity, but we are super-hardy characters.

FINDING YOUR FOOTHOLD

Life itself is tenacious. I was hiking in Kings Canyon National Park a couple weeks ago on a trail that leads into the backcountry of one of America’s wildest parks. The trail follows the ascending South Fork of the Kings River, a raging whitewater flood after this year’s snows, and rises in the shadow of massive granite cliffs on either side gouged out by glaciers thousands of years ago to form a natural stadium carpeted by conifers.

Yet even on the steep walls of granite, it was easy see how stubborn life is. Sugar pine and manzanitas pop out from slivers of cracks in the sheer granite. Seeds blown hundreds of yards by gusts or deposited by birds fell into cracks, and nature did the rest. The trees hang on as if glued to the rock through bitter, stormy Sierra winters, roots battling solid rock to make a stand where they have no right to be.

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Get a foothold, and you can persevere, they tell us. For humans, that foothold comes in the form of a nutrient that helps us persist no matter what shakes us: optimism. It allows us to let go of negative events and the lingering thoughts about them by shining a light on a path forward. It doesn’t end pain and prevent further setbacks, but the more you exercise your option to adjust to circumstances by taking a positive view, the more you broaden and build resiliency to life's slings and arrows, something we learn how to do in my stress management training and resiliency keynotes.

Winston Churchill said that the pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, while the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. As researchers led by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina have discovered, the positive emotions that come from the optimistic approach broaden and build our resistance to setbacks and increase resilience by focusing on the opportunity in difficulty.

FIGHTING THINKING TRAPS

Most of us would assume that the essence of resilience was something more macho than optimism. It doesn’t feel “warrior” enough, but the research shows it most definitely is. When we can see past the mistake, setback, or reversal through a belief that the verdict is not final, that all is changeable and momentary, we are defeating our toughest enemy, the inner critic/doubter that wants to stamp every adversity with the mark of permanent failure.

It takes serious fighting ability to shut down the default to view a setback as calamity, which is what the false beliefs triggered by the stress response want you to buy. We can overcome, though, by using what’s known as optimistic explanatory style to vanquish negative events.

It’s an adaptive skill that allows us to reframe events away from the negative three Ps, as the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman calls them—taking things not as “permanent, pervasive, and personal,” which is our first instinct, but as temporary, specific, and non-personal, as one-time, one-off situations that don’t effect every facet of our lives.

Some lucky people come by this skill naturally, always finding a silver lining or having a bias for action that allows them to take steps immediately forward that get them out of rehash, rumination and dwelling on the setback. Yet anyone can fight off the trap of pessimistic framing and bunker mentality if they know how to challenge the stories in their heads.

Managing the stories we choose to buy or not in our brain determines everything—self-belief, confidence, spirit, vitality, defiance, resistance, persistence, internal validation, all the tools we need to overcome setbacks. Most of the time, though, the thoughts and their stories are managing us, instead of the other way around. We take the most ludicrous thoughts seriously—because they are in our head. They must be true.

REBOUNDING FROM THE ABYSS

No, there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam sloshing in and out of our heads without our cueing any of it. Automatic thoughts. Worries. Fears. False beliefs. Our mind has a mind of its own. Taming that mind and the nonsense it can dream up is a daily practice, choosing what to ignore, what to reflect on, what to reinterpret and frame. This latter piece is the foundation of resilience, in which we counter the worst-case mindset with the power of possibility.

Oz Sanchez was a 25-year-old Navy man riding his motorcycle in San Diego when a car ran a stop sign and sent him flying off a 12-foot embankment. He landed on his back on a pile of rocks. He suffered a spinal cord injury, just a few days before his wedding. In an instant all hopes for the future were obliterated.

He would be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. “It really took a toll on me,” Sanchez told me. “I went into a very dark area, depression.”

Perfectly understandable. What could be more defining as permanent than a spinal cord injury? Why go on? The blow seemed too hard to bear. Months and months he lay in a body cast. Feeling helpless was a new experience for Sanchez, who was a proactive personality by nature. His friends and family tried to encourage him, but it seemed bleak.

One day at the hospital, though, he saw a wheelchair with a hand-cycle used for racing. It touched off a curiosity, one of the most important ingredients in finding a new path forward. Could he do that, pedal with his hands and compete in a sport?

The idle thought turned into a goal to try, and the cracks in permanence began. He began to build his upper-body strength and endurance, empowering acts in themselves. After a year of training, he entered a 10K race and finished it. It was exhilarating not to feel helpless. He was back in touch with his core needs of autonomy and competence, which we all need to feel gratified. Sanchez learned that he was not permanently exiled from movement, life, and achievement. He could change things.

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Photo: Oz Sanchez in action.

He would go on to become a multiple world champion in the sport of handcycling, and he won a gold and a silver medal at the Beijing Paralympic Games. Today, he is a renowned athlete and motivational speaker.

He is not alone in his comeback. Studies show that the majority of people who suffer spinal cord injuries go back to the well-being set-point they had before their accident. We are remarkably resilient.

THE COURSE OF COURAGE

The course Sanchez took was fueled by the courage to adapt, adjust, and imagine what-if. He got around the setback by not viewing it as an end to all aspects of life, to his self-definition, to potential achievements. Instead, he saw it as something that he had to work around and work with. His state and most importantly, the way he thought about his situation, was changeable, a key factor in optimistic explanatory style.

The story he wound up telling himself was not “woe is me,” or “why me?” He opted out of helplessness, a major driver of depression. He took a proactive course to physical training, learning a new skill, handcycling, and he also set a goal of getting his business degree, which he did. None of it would have been possible without Sanchez being able to reframe his story from a permanent catastrophe to a challenge he could surmount.

There is so much more in us than we ever tap, and it has the possibility to emerge when we rise to the challenge of setbacks and not allow them to define us. Negative events we experience and the emotions they set off in us are ephemeral. Only we can perpetuate them by clinging to them and bucking the nature of life: change. The adaptable species may not love to change, but embracing it is what life is all about—growth. That’s what our core, the brain, wants—progress.

Like the tree sprouting from granite, we can make our stand wherever we find a toehold, however small or cramped or exposed. Then we set a course for growth, rising above momentary emotions and circumstances no matter what the elements throw at us.

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Tags: stress management training, resilience, optimism, optimism and stress, optimistic explanatory style, persistence

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

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

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

LUCID TO UNHINGED IN A SECOND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE STOWAWAY

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

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

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

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

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

DON'T FALL FOR THE HARE-BRAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Science of Work Recovery: How to Leave Work Stress at Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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IN THE BEST stress management advice ever delivered in a pop song, Paul McCartney gave it a good try. Though tens of millions heard his plea, few “let it be.”

McCartney had it exactly right. So much angst in life has to do with the inability of the brain to let go of things, like, say, work.

THE POWER OF DETACHING

Stress is a byproduct of exaggerated fears and thoughts we give life to by ruminating about them incessantly. Rumination entrenches the false beliefs of stress and makes them appear real through repeated rehash of the concern in question. 

One of the keys to managing a major source of circular worries, job stress, as well as creating better work-life balance, is leaving work at work. That shuts off the day's stressors and allows the body to repair itself from the effects of strain and tension. That goes for remote workers as well. Even more so, since it's so easy for them to just keep going without self-boundaries at home.

It’s called work recovery by researchers, a process of detaching from work thoughts and engaging in experiences that help restore the body to pre-stressor levels. It's a reset button that flips the switch on stowaway stress with proactive recovery strategies.

Initiating leisure and recuperative strategies is something few of us are equipped for after the age of 20. As a result, most of us go home without a plan for how to let go of the day’s events and shift over to another mindset. And managers would never imagine that they can play a major role in the process simply by encouraging staff to recharge after work in whichever way they enjoy—exercise to music and hobbies.

The science shows that psychological detachment from work through relaxation and recreation isn’t something to feel guilty about—it’s essential for attention, engagement, and wellness at work and at home. Without recovery from the strain that results from unmanaged demands, any number of medical issues, from cardiovascular disease to irritable bowel to burnout can occur, as well as poor performance, cynicism, presenteeism and absenteeism.

RECOVERY IS A TWO-WAY STREET

Research by Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz and others has documented that a break from the work state of mind allows recovery from strain and ends the pattern of negative affect that drives pessimism and chronic stress. Studies show that people who are able to detach from the day's work tensions are more likely to report positive mood in the morning and a reduction in stress. No doubt, these folks are also having a lot more fun, since stress suppresses the play equipment in the brain.

New research shows that turning off the stress replay machine after work is as critical for employees and leaders as it is during work hours, and that managers can play a key role in helping employees restore well-being at home. A study that looked at the intersection of supervisor signals and norms around recovery (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) found that when employees are encouraged by managers to unwind after work, they are more likely to do just that, leading to a healthier staff and workplace.

“If supervisors adopt norms supporting employees leaving work at work, employees will seek to meet these expectations,” the authors wrote. 

Supervisors who are supportive of exercise, recreation, and pastimes have a big influence on the employee’s ability to shift out of the work mind and get the relaxation, social interaction, or detachment they need for recovery.

Job strain and time pressure over the course of the day tax mental resources, requiring extra effort to get anything done. If energetic and self-regulation resources burned up over the course of the day aren’t replaced, it comes out of our performance hide the next day and the next in the form of fatigue, researchers have found. The toll has to be countered on a daily basis. 

READING THE SIGNALS

When managers don’t signal that it’s okay to step back after work, the Bennett, Gabriel study found that employees are more prone to take work home with them and to ponder work issues. 

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It starts with something as basic as asking what a staffer is doing to recharge and refuel. Inquire about hobbies. What do they do for exercise? Let them know that performance is the sum total of the whole person—energy, health, optimism, and mood. People who go home with negative affect and stress that is not alleviated come back to work the next day with negative affect.

Let employees know you want them to leave the workday at the office and live a healthy life outside it, since a fresh and energized mind is the key to productivity in the knowedge economy.

So what can we do to restore resources at the end of the day and shut off the stress loop? Let’s look at the four main routes to work recovery: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control. Studies show that these recovery processes can reduce fatigue, increase work engagement (Brummelhuis, Bakker) and improve health and well-being (Sonnentag, Binnewies, Mojza).

 FOUR RECOVERY KEYS

1. Psychological detachment. This is a fancy description of something pretty logical. Stop thinking about work and the worries that flow from it. It's easier said than done, though, when the adrenaline is high after a tough day, and the rumination parade of projected anxieties is under way.

Continuing to think and talk about work issues keeps you mentally at work, so find ways to change the subject. Another option is to create physical and electronic barriers to prevent the default to a desk or work emails and help separate work and home. Imagine yourself flipping a light switch off as you leave work. You’ve switched over to another job now, your life.

2. Relaxation. There is a false belief in our work culture that you have to be near collapse before you are entitled to relax. Taking care of yourself needs no justification. Relaxation is built in to the human physiology. Activation periods of stress are meant to be followed by the reparative parasympathetic system of rest and maintenance. Relaxing is essential to recover and restore the body and the brain's equilibrium to pre-stressor levels. 

Create a buffer zone when you get home from work of 30 minutes or more, if you can, to do what you like to do to relax—go for a run, meditate, hit the gym, listen to music (one of the best stress shifters since stress is dependent on dire mood). Make it a routine. 

3. Mastery. Research shows that mastery experiences are one of the best ways to promote recovery and knock out stress. These are activities done outside of work that allow for personal growth, skill-building, and learning. We all have three core needs--autonomy, competence, and conection with others. Mastery experiences put us in touch with these needs and get us aligned with who we are. 

Whether it’s cycling, salsa dancing, learning a musical instrument or a language—studies show that the mastery process can shut off stress activation even in the middle of work, at lunchtime, as well as at home. Identify things you want to learn, potential passions, and you crowd out negative affect with the positive vibe that comes from autonomy and competence. A passion can add eight hours of joy to your week, the ultimate antidote to stress.

4. Control. The activating ingredient in stress is control, or rather, the lack of it. The more control, or latitude, we feel we have over a stressor, the less perceived stress. There are two sides of the control issue, control at work, i.e., having the ability to make some decisions about work processes, not the work itself, and leisure control, deciding how to spend your off-hours. Find ways during the day to experience more choice over how you work, or get a shot of it on a break. One study found that playing a computer game on a break increases recovery (Reinecke). 

Increased leisure control reduces strain by helping you feel more in charge of your life and able to put aside a bad day with something that lifts you up and is autonomous. The idea here is to identify what you, not others, like to do for fun and recreation and indulge it regularly. You have to be entrepreneurial about your leisure activities. No one can choose them or make them happen but you. Most of what we do outside of work is ad hoc, minus thought or planning. Put leisure ideas and activities on the calendar, or they don’t happen. Take your life as seriously as your work.

The strain-stress cycle is pretty simple in its insidiousness. It goes off automatically and we react on reflex, fanning the false alarms with rumination and helplessness. The solution is getting off autopilot,  contesting stress, and engaging in recovery processes that help us get back to the pre-stress state. Work recovery science shows us the way forward, that managing stress is both a proactive work AND life process in which we learn how to put McCartney’s advice to work. And let it be.

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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

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

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