Working Smarter

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.

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

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

Why a Sleep Problem Is Often a Stress Problem

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Cats can nod off upside down with their paws in the air. Dogs can be out cold in five seconds. The realm of sleep is a little more complicated for humans. There are those racing thoughts to contend with, the hyper state that won’t shut down when you want it to. Trying to do what for any pet is a snap costs Americans $41 billion a year in sleep aids. 

It’s kind of disconcerting that Rover and Fluffy can get the job done and we can’t, but there is hope for better nights ahead and spending a lot less money on sleep meds. The culprit in a bad night’s sleep for many is something we can fix, if we know how: stress. We can shut off the stress alarm just as we can the alarm clock in the morning. When we do, the stress response stops in four minutes.

BAD BRAIN ARCHITECTURE BEHIND INSOMNIA

Stress is part of our built-in survival equipment. It’s an alarm set off in the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system, which triggers a host of physiological reactions to allow the body to find the strength and speed to fight or run from danger. While it has kept us alive through the millennia, it’s a mechanism that was built for another time and place—African savannas 100,000 years ago—not for the social stressors of the modern world.

The stress response and its headquarters, the amygdala, don’t know how to compute the 21st century. They are out of their depth, out of whack with the nature of the threat they are reacting to, and so are we when they are allowed to run us. An impending deadline, 200 emails, or a conflict with a friend or family member may create tension, but they are not threats to life and limb. They are false alarms that come from bad brain architecture.

When something overloads our ability to cope with it, the modern brain is instantly hijacked by the ancient brain, as if the higher brain and the cerebral cortex that evolved on top of the limbic system didn’t exist.

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This can happen before you even consciously feel you can’t handle someone or something. It’s very quick on the draw, and if we’re not just as quick to shut down the false alarm, we can fall prey to the host of physical maladies and conditions stress can set off. Because stress suppresses the immune, digestion, and tissue repair systems, it can lead to cardiovascular problems, irritable bowel, stroke, back pain, chronic fatigue, and, yes, insomnia, among many others.

INCREASE STRESS, DECREASE SLEEP

Research shows that stress lessens the length of sleep—not just how many hours we sleep, but how often we awaken during sleep. A whopping 78% of participants in one study (Bastiem, Vallieres, Morin 2004) reported a link between stress and insomnia.

At the most basic level, stress is at odds with the concept of sleep, which is the act of closing up shop for the day and shutting down. The stress response is an activation agent. It drives arousal. It's a stimulant. It doesn’t want to close down for the night, because you are going to die, or at least that is the message being sent by outmoded brain neurons.

One of the hormones that the stress response floods your body with to help you survive a threat is cortisol. It's not a sleep aid. Sleep starts when cortisol is at its lowest point, and you are ready to wake up when it is at its highest level. Too much cortisol interferes with sleep regulators such as the Hypothalamo-Pituitary Adrenal axis (HPA) (Kato, Montplaisir, Lavigne, 2004), activates the autonomic nervous system, and increases attention and alertness.

Acute and chronic stress have been found in studies of rats to decrease slow wave "delta" sleep, the deepest sleep, when the brain is less responsive to external stimuli, as well as REM, critical to our circadian sleep/wakefulness rhythm (Meerlo, Pragt, Daan).

When stress shuts down the immune system, that also impacts sleep. The immune system is critical to the work of cytokines, which signal immune system molecules such as interleukin-1 beta, tumor necrosis factor, and interferon, which regulate sleep. Without these elements, sleep is interrupted (Han, Kim, Shim, 2012).

THE OVER-ALERTNESS OBSTACLE

Stress-related insomnia itself aggravates these and many other physiological barriers to sleep in a vicious cycle that doubles down on the stimulant effect of stress. Insomnia causes many of the same problems that the stress that created it does—increased cortisol, heart rate, body temperature (which can also cause wakefulness), and oxygen consumption. If you have insomnia, you are in a higher state of alertness, even though you are fatigued from lack of quality shuteye. Insomnia has been dubbed an “over-alertness obstacle” to sleep.

Let’s take a cue from Fido and Ginger, and drop the stress. Just get rid of it. Animals don’t hang on to it. After a trespassing dog pads a few yards past your house, it's like the event never happened for your rabidly barking dog, now docile and ready for a snooze. We can do the same, by switching off the stress when it erupts. That means dropping the rumination and awfulizing that perpetuate stressful thoughts, and challenging the false beliefs behind negative events that keep our brain in the stress vise grip.

Stress is a broken car alarm that shuts off only when we grab the keys and switch it off—by convincing our brain that the danger is not real, just like thoughts aren't real. Only experience is. You are not going to die. You are going to handle it, whatever it is. You always do. 

The process starts by understanding the mechanisms of the stress response, that the first thoughts that go off when negative things happen are false beliefs, all-or-nothing, black-and-white distortions and exaggerations. We have to catch ourselves when stress sets the worries and dreads off and submit them to a vetting process—disputing, challenging,  contesting. False beliefs and fear projections can't hold up to scrutiny when we dig in and unmask them.

Proven processes I teach in my stress management trainings and coaching help you defang triggers that set off stress and bring back your 21st century brain to resume command of the ship. You are no longer back in your hunter-gatherer mind, but present, and well-rested, in the 21st century.

If you are having trouble sleeping, have stress in your life, and would like to get back to restful nights again, click here or give us call at Optimal Performance Strategies at 310-570-6987. We turn off the stress. 

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Tags: life balance, stress response, managing stress, insomnia, burnout and sleep, stress and sleep

The Hidden Agent of Job Stress: the Startle Response

Posted by Joe Robinson

Bracing for impact

You’re walking down the sidewalk thinking about the mouth-watering hoagie sandwich you’re going to sink your teeth into for lunch, when you hear a loud, “Bang!” In milliseconds, the hoagie vanishes from your mind, and your head jerks around to see what the danger is. It turns out that it’s only a car backfiring, but your blood pressure and breathing are still racing from the brush with this potentially ominous threat.

It’s known as the startle response, an instinctive flinch and bracing move at the sign of a threat. Even babies have this early warning system. A sudden, loud noise will cause them to bring their hands and feet closer to their chest. The reflex is designed to go off before we can even think and prepare us to brace for harm’s way.

EMAIL ALARMS

Like, say, another email or text dinger or a pulse from your smartphone. That’s right, digital alarms and noisemakers can also set off the startle equipment, along with the stress that comes with it. The more anxious you feel or stressed, the easier it is to overreact to the incoming stimuli and go into startle formation, ducking, cringing, blinking the eyes, and otherwise ready for impact.

In a world of unbounded email and smartphones, that turns most days into a startling performance—and that’s not a good thing. It amounts to repeated, jarring alarms throughout the day that signal threats, drive a defensive posture, and hijack attention.

Startling might be fun at a fright flick or on the local roller coaster, but it makes for lousy work and health. University of Minnesota researchers Brian Bailey and Joseph Konstan found that interruptions can lengthen the time needed to complete a task by up to 27% and increase annoyance by as much as 106% by making everything seem more difficult that it is. In other words, a steady diet of startling from flashing and noise-making devices lowers the threshold of coping, which increases the stress load. That makes sense, since the startle reflex activates the sympathetic nervous system associated with the stress response, which colors all in doom and gloom.

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FLINCH MODE

What doesn’t make sense is to be in flinch mode all day from unbounded devices. We have to set the terms of engagement with email and smartphones, or they will keep the the startling coming, raising the stress level and stealing attention for survival threats that don't exist. Most people answer the flashing visual notifications in the corner of their computer screens within six seconds. Because it plays to a survival instinct, these notifications are almost impossible to resist.

So much for free will. Or whatever it was you were thinking about when you got startled by the incoming noise or light. Interruptions vaporize short-term memory, which is why an interruption of just 2.8 seconds, can double the risk of error, according to researchers at Michigan State and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

The rings, bongs, chimes, and light shows that we’ve come to know and love not so much are part of what is known as “bottom-up” attention, part of the startle reflex that takes priority over anything you want to focus on. These intrusions are seen as perceived threats in a part of our brain that never got the manual for the 21st century.

BOTTOM-UP ATTENTION

Bottom-up attention lives to startle. Everything is an alert, 72-point headline font. It’s like having your own Breaking News ticker interrupting you every couple of minutes.

Luckily, there’s a better way of getting things done than cringing for the next alarm. It’s called “top-down” attention. Humans were designed to select and pay attention to one thing at a time. When we do that, we no longer have to be on guard all day, waiting for the next threat. We get to choose what we pay attention and when. That puts us in control. The more control we feel we have over our work environment, the less stress, the faster we get tasks done, and the more we like what we’re doing, say researchers.

How do we get more control and reduce the volume of startling we go through in a given day? Start by turning off mail software and noisemakers unless you are using it. The same goes for your smartphone. Check them both at designated times. Researchers from the University of California at Irvine to Oklahoma State say that the most productive email checking schedules are three or four times a day. If you have to have your email software on, turn the sound all the way down or set the volume extremely low on your desktop (higher decibel levels activate the startle response) and ask someone in IT how to turn off the visual alerts. These are easy and highly effective stress management tools.

The humans are allowed to set the rules on devices, and in the process reduce a lot of needless startling and stress. If you want to get the tension and time urgency down and improve work-life balance, make a vow to check messages on your terms, and not at the hysterical beck and call of every call or spam message that appears in your in-box. 

Tags: email overload, interruptions and productivity, overwhelm, stress and email, startle response, smartphone addiction, stress response, setting boundaries

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