Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Solution to Stress (that goes far beyond stress reduction)

There is a solution to stress that takes people far beyond anything stress management can achieve.  The solution is neuroplasticity.

Stress management focuses on changing your behavior; neuroplasticity focuses on changing your brain.

The problem with behavioral change is that stress-provoking behaviors are often hard wired into your brain. These networks fire at a rate faster than you can catch. It’s the brain directing you.

Neuroplasticity is you directing your brain to rewire through a specific shift in attitude that literally switches the brain’s auto-pilot from one that habituates stress and anxiety to one that sustains a dynamic state of peace.

Neurologically, ‘peace’ represents neural networks wiring and working together to sustain the proverbial calm under siege that enables you to see a problem fearlessly, analyze it intelligently, engage it creatively, and make the best decision.

Neuroplasticity expands higher brain structure (it’s called axonal sprouting) to sustain a high level of cognitive performance, emotional stability and interpersonal strength.   It can lift intelligence from average to exception and enable a person to be more creative.

Stress, on the other hand, shrinks higher brain structure (it’s called synaptic pruning), limiting the capacity to excel.

The Harris Poll says stress is a big time workplace problem

Harris Poll’s 2012 Work Stress Survey found that 73% of the one thousand respondents were stressed by at least one thing at work.  That’s bad news for companies.  Last year U.S. businesses lost a whopping 13.4 million days of worker productivity (Healthand Safety Executive report, 2005). Stress lessens job satisfaction (Belicki & Woolcott, 1996), makes people seriously ill and is estimated to reduce the bottom-line by a third of a trillion dollars nationwide (American Institute of Stress, 2011).

Stress represents an enormous waste of brain power

These are large issues, but they are only the tip of an iceberg. Stress debilitates the higher brain function that can elevate a person from average to exceptional intelligence to sustain creative insight and peak performance.  This represents enormous potential that goes unrealized within most companies.

The neurobiology of stress

All these problems have to do with the way stress hormones impair higher brain function.  Here’s the neurobiology of stress in a nutshell:

  • Stress hormones shrink the higher brain networks that enable a person to make the leap from average to exceptional intelligence and sustain it.
  • Expand primitive networks that lock people into fight,  flight or freeze,
  • Switch the emotional set point to negative,
  • Impair the immune system,
  • Kill brain cells,
  • and eventually kill us.

Human Resource departments recruit the best brains and then drop them into a stress filled workforce that shrinks brain capacity. Imagine recouping that brain power by teaching your workforce how to transcend stress.

Mayo Clinic

Here’s the message companies are slow to get: Stress is not something a company should someday do something about.  Companies need to attend to it today.

How?  If stress is a problem it has to do with the way genetics and a difficult past wired the brain for a hyperactive stress response.  The brain can rewire to quiet stress reactions and amplify the emotional and creative intelligence to succeed.  It’s achieved and strengthened by learning and then practicing simple processes for dispelling worries, refuting anxiety-provoking thoughts, having faith in your strengths, trusting the process as it unfolds,  listening better, judging less, forgiving more and cultivating compassion.

Practiced in the boot camp of everyday life, these qualities form into an attitude that within weeks becomes ‘neuroplastic.’  Meaning it rebuilds your brain to provide the means to an intrinsically rewarding and successful life.

Train your mind, change your brain.

It’s the new competitive edge.  Everything else is just another best practice.

Source for 2012 Work Stress Survey : Perman, C., Stress a big-time workplace malady. NBC News, 2012, August 15

85% of What We Worry About Never Happens

Five hundred years ago, Michel de Montaigne said: My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened. Now there’s a study that proves it. This study looked into how many of our imagined calamities never materialize. In this study, subjects were asked to write down their worries over an extended period of time and then identify which of their imagined misfortunes did not actually happen.

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Lo and behold, it turns out that 85 percent of what subjects worried about never happened, and with the 15 percent that did happen, 79 percent of subjects discovered either they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or the difficulty taught them a lesson worth learning. This means that 97 percent of what you worry over is not much more than a fearful mind punishing you with exaggerations and misperceptions.

Montaigne’s quote has made people laugh for five centuries, but worry is no joke. A worried mind means a chronically stressed brain, and chronic stress generates serious problems. The stress hormones stress and worry dump into your system shrinks brain mass, lowers your IQ, makes you prone to heart disease, cancer and premature aging, predicts martial problems, family dysfunction, and depression, and makes seniors more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s.

brain-scans-mayo-clinic copy

If we could get a handle on the worry and stress that habitually, incessantly, and often unconsciously seizes hold of our mind, we would greatly increase the odds of living a longer, happier, healthier, and more successful life. It’s a matter of reprogramming our brain. We human beings are called the Crown of Creation because nature blessed us with an amazing brain and Nobel Prize laureate Eric Kandle tells us that we direct our brain with “the most complex set of processes in the universe, the mind.” Until recently, we haven’t had the Owner’s Manual identifying the mental processes that switch our brain to full power … but we have it now. In the last 15 years new research has identified the mindset or mental attitude that literally changes your brain to change your life. In addition, this shift in attitude stimulates the growth of new connections that expand high order brain function to enable you to reach even greater heights.

The process of reprogramming your brain is called neuroplasticity. It takes a decision and a specific practice, but it’s simpler than you might imagine and results can happen quickly, in as little as four weeks. You can learn more about the personal power that neuroplasticity restores in my book The End of Stress, Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain. I present 20 proven tools and processes that are organized into a step by step practice that build the attitude that programs your brain for a better experience of life leading to far better results.Look InsideIn the meantime here is a tool called The Clear Button that can get you started. Here’s how it works. You imagine a button at the center of your palm. You press it and keep pressing it as you count to 3, thinking of each number as a color.

Clear Button 120 Res

  • Breathe in, count 1, think red.
  • Breathe in, count 2, think blue.
  • Breathe in, count 3, think green.
  • On the exhale, completely let go of thinking anything for a moment.

Nature gave us a 90 second window to bust stressful thinking before it takes a long walk off a short pier, and The Clear Button gets us through the window in time. The more you bust stressful thinking during the day, the more your brain will strengthen synapses that end worry.

Here is the neurological reason why the Clear Button works. The part of the brain that causes stress reactions literally has the intelligence of a toddler. And every parent knows you don’t stop a tantrum by appealing to a child’s logic. You distract the child. This tool distracts the terrible two-year-old in your brain from casting you off the deep end. Practice this tool every day and soon your brain will dissolve worried, stressful, self-defeating thoughts at the point of inception.

The Cure to Mental Fatigue

Have you ever felt exhausted in the middle of day and when you got home you were so devoid of energy that all you could do was space out in front of the TV?[i]  It’s a common phenomenon in corporate life.  Yet, if you look at the problem closely the only physically taxing thing you probably did at work was type on your keyboard.  The rest of it was primarily mental.

How can mental exertion make you so tired? Is it possible that the two pound wonder called the brain is able to expend most of your physical energy simply through thinking?

Science says it’s not likely. Sitting at your desk performing cognitive functions doesn’t take much energy.  Your brain is remarkably energy efficient.  It only needs 12 watts of energy to operate smoothly, which is one-fifth the energy it takes to light up your desk lamp.  On top of that, the brain burns only 11 calories an hour, which is the equivalent of one minute of modest exertion on a sationary exercise bike. This is certainly not enough to exhaust a healthy human being.

So, is it the difficulty of a mental task or the amount of time you concentrate on the task that leaves you exhausted?

Science says this explaination is also unlikely.  Mental fatigue is really not about the task.  For example, millions of neurons connecting through a multitude of neural circuits are active when you follow a movie with dialogue and plots as complex as The Matrix or read War and Peace or play a game of mahjong.  Yet you can focus on these complex activities for two hours straight and still have the energy to get up and do something more with your day.  These kinds of intellectual activities can actually be stimulating.

So if the difficulty or duration of mental exertion doesn’t cause mental fatigue, what does?

It’s your mental attitude.  Science has found that if you believe a task is going to be difficult, it will be.  If you expect a meeting to drain your energy, it will. If you think of a task as stressful, it will activate your stress response system. Stress hormones will pour into your bloodstream.  They will drain your energy by elevating heart rate and blood pressure.  These hormones will dull and debilitate the higher brain function that sustains performance, further compounding the problem.  You’ll be more prone to emotional upsets, memory lapses, bad decisions and errors.  This will lead to more stress hormones burning up more energy, causing more emotional upsets and derailing more cognitive functions.  It becomes a pattern that supports the initial belief that the day was going to be difficult.  Here’s the point: The long exhausting day had little or nothing to do with the task and everything to do with your attitude.

So, is it hopeless?  Science says no.  We may not control our to-do list but we do have control over our to-be. Our attitude relates to how we want to be as we do what we have to do.  Attitude is the inner dimension of consciousness that makes you larger than circumstances, instead of an exhausted victim of circumstances.  You can start building this capacity in the boot camp of ordinary life.  Practice shifting your attitude in a situation as innocuous as standing in line.  For the next two couple weeks, whenever you go to the store, choose to stand in the longest line. Allow yourself to be aware of all the unpleasant thoughts you think and how you feel as you watch other people in shorter lines or how annoyed you become with someone who slows-up the check-out process. Then practice consciously shifting your attitude by letting go of the upset and being at peace, enjoying the moment exactly as it is.  Imagine you’re building the muscle in your brain that empowers a positive attitude to face any situation. Then translate what you learn from standing in line into reframing more challenging problems, like doing a budget or attending a boring meeting.

After two weeks of practicing in long lines, you can take the process a step further by using a guided process called PreAttitude.  It reframes your attitude around a task you consider boring, tedious, irritating, stressful or even frightening.

Source

Ferris Jabr, ‘Does Thinking Really Hard Burn More Calories? Scientific American, July 18, 2012, 13


Note

[i] I’m not referring to chronic fatigue syndrome but to the common fatigue of employees in the modern workplace.

PreAttitude

 

Reframing A Stressful, Annoying or Tedious Situation

The PreAttitude process can be used to reframe major issues such as a problem that is about to become a crisis, a deadline you forgot, or facing a person you perceive as difficult or scary.  It can also be used to shift your attitude toward mundane tasks such as reading a bunch of emails, sorting through data, or doing the laundry. Whatever task or challenge makes you groan or freeze, let it become a vehicle for strengthening your ability to shift your attitude.

Here’s all you have to do:

  • Recall a specific place or time when you felt happy and peaceful.
  • Bring that happy, peaceful feeling to life by remembering anything particular about that time, such as the weather, the surroundings and the period of the day, or who you were with.
  • As this happy, peaceful state comes into focus allow it to lift your mind with the good feeling it produces. Relax into feeling good.  Allow it to form your attitude as you look out on the world. Sense the shift in consciousness this generates.
  • Next, bring to mind the situation you perceive as irritating, stressful or tedious and imagine you are in that situation right now.  Bring the peaceful, happy attitude into this situation.
  • See yourself at peace, confident, optimistic, and energetic in this situation.
  • Imagine that, as you work, you are absolutely present in what you are doing. You sense an awake, alive stillness within you.
  • You are open-minded, not so focused on the outcome that it pulls you away from the peace you feel.
  • Imagine that you feel increasingly larger than the situation simply because you are no longer afraid of it.
  • If other people are involved, imagine that you don’t abandon your sense of personal power.  Rather, see yourself able to communicate what you want to say and able to listen carefully to what they have to say, with no antagonism toward them.
  • Imagine that as you settle into this state of heightened awareness the situation is no longer stressful, but is actually becoming enjoyable.

What you are enjoying is not really the task but rather this positive inner dimension of attitude that flows into the work.  Make a positive, peaceful attitude your primary aim as you approach whatever you have to do, and you’ll return home at the end of the day with the vitality to enjoy the evening.