16 January 2018

Treat the Physiology

Treat the Physiology - Frustrated Woman

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a database developer, I was completely blindsided in a meeting. I was accused by people on the client’s team of not knowing what I was doing. It was so unexpected it took me a minute or two to grasp what was happening — it was as if my mind slowed down as my jaw dropped. I have no memory of the rest of the meeting, but I remember walking out of it with my manager and standing at the elevator when she said, “I know what you’re doing right now — you’re blaming yourself. Stop doing that. You did nothing wrong. This is not about you — this is entirely political. They never wanted us doing this job and that’s what this is all about. Don’t blame yourself, and let’s hope this kind of thing is easier for our daughters.” I was deeply grateful to her, but I continued to blame myself until eventually finishing the project and moving on.

What happened for me in that meeting was a stress response. Once I was “attacked,” my physiology changed. My body was flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, and my brain went into freeze mode (my apparent choice from the cortisol-inspired menu of fight, flight, or freeze). Has this ever happened to you? You’re going about the daily business of your life when some event triggers a stress response?  You flip into survival mode, which is utterly different from your usual way of functioning.

Or perhaps a situation triggers your anger.  In response you draft an email dripping in fury and sarcasm, and maybe have the presence of mind not to immediately send it.  Once things have calmed down and you’ve reclaimed your rational and strategic self, you can revisit the letter and edit or delete it.

Or, something is said that sends you into a full tailspin. You imagine a variety of scenarios that could possibly happen and put these scenarios on rerun all weekend.  On Monday, when you bring up what was said, you find out it was not a referendum on your worthiness after all.  Instead, simply a disappointment in the way things transpired, not a reflection of your performance.  Wouldn’t it have been nice to have spared yourself the weekend of suffering?

Knowing how to calm yourself down from an emotional response is a highly important skill to have. Your effectiveness and well-being depend on it.  I’m not suggesting you ignore whatever triggered your response — quite the contrary — those triggering events very often need to be addressed.

But to address them most effectively, you need to come down from the intensity of the reaction, so that you are back in your “right mind” and can use the considerable resources of your whole brain to respond. Typically, we can’t “talk ourselves down” from the upset because it’s not a cognitive recovery.  But if we recognize what’s going on we can treat the physiology and in doing so stage a recovery.  Once returned to our normal physiology, we can be smart about how to respond to the situation.

Are there specific ways to help our physiology return to its usual state or equilibrium?  Yes.  Here are some ideas.

  • Learn to identify when this is happening to you. Often there’s a physical cue you can learn to recognize when your emotional blood pressure is rising or you’re feeling attacked, possibly one of these:
    • you can feel your face get hot or flushed
    • you feel as if you were socked in your solar plexus
    • your mind goes blank
    • time slows down
    • you forget to breathe
  • Once you recognize what’s going on, you can deploy one of many methods for treating the physiology of your own extreme agitation. Learn which methods work for you.  Here are some examples:
    • In the moment you can:
      • Do things that help you feel physically grounded, such as sensing your feet on the floor, your bottom on the chair, your lungs and ribs expanding and contracting as you breathe, the sensation of your inhales and your exhales.
      • Be sure that you are breathing — some people hold their breath when the world seems to be crashing down.
      • Tell yourself that this feels like a disaster (outrage, etc) but it probably actually isn’t as bad as it seems/feels, that you’ll survive this moment and have a chance to revisit it later.
    • Later, when you’re alone, or away from your workplace, you can do things that use your brain or body in a different but engaging way:
      • Run or walk briskly outside, dance, lift weights, or do anything physical that gets you breathing rhythmically, actively, or even strenuously.
      • Practice a breathing technique, such as the ones taught in yoga classes, including ujayi breath, pranayama breath, or left-nostril breathing.
      • Sing: along with your car radio, with friends, alone in your home or in the shower.  When we sing we become a musical instrument, and in using our body and breathing for this purpose, we subvert the obsessing mind.
      • Play a game that engages your mind in some kind of problem-solving, such as: word puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, or Tetris-like games.
      • Do a low-skill physical activity unrelated to the triggering event. I find that chopping vegetables (dinner prep) is often just the thing for me, and sometimes a real option because I work from home

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having the response or feeling the emotion. But being in the emotion isn’t the best place to respond to the situation from.

Allow yourself to have a learning curve with this whole topic. It’s new for a lot of us, and it holds a lot of promise.


13 November 2017

Getting Angry At Work

Angry Tigers Fighting

How do you handle yourself when you get angry at work?

My client Candace recognizes when she’s getting angry — she feels her face get hot, she’s aware of something that feels almost physical rising within her body, and she has the urge to erupt in some way. To blow up at someone, to pound something, to yell.  But she doesn’t do any of those things she has the urge to do.  Here’s what she does instead.  She says to herself, “Candace, you’re being hijacked by an emotion. DON’T DO ANYTHING at the moment, because it will be your physiology doing it, not YOU, the larger person who actually owns the physiology. So just hold your horses.”

When she was a moody teenager she was taught to “count to three before you blow up.”  But counting to 3 isn’t a good enough strategy if your mind is still seething from what set you off.  If you’re still telling yourself the story in which you are entitled to be outraged, to speak your mind and set the other person(s) straight.

But the problem with blowing up at work or verbally swatting someone is that it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t contribute to your overall effectiveness or your being seen as an effective person. It doesn’t result in a good correction, if a correction is what’s needed. And if you’re a leader or an emerging leader, it doesn’t contribute to the evolution of your team; in fact it’s more likely to fracture any sense of connection that exists among your team.

So Candace does not swat, yell, or express. She’s actually fully deployed internally, working with herself. She knows her most immediate job is to somehow get herself grounded and centered.To get BACK into a frame of mind that’s not laced with stress hormones and the other chemicals of anger. Back to a simpler, calmer place — not in order to be “nice,” not because the anger is wrong, but simply in order to be the most effective she can be in addressing what needs to be addressed.

She’s had a learning curve with her anger. She’s learned that her anger response is a reliable prompt to pay attention: a boundary has been crossed, an agreement has been broken, something important has gone down. And after she recovers from the physiology — which can be a matter of moments — she can use her many resources — mental and otherwise — to respond in a smart and useful way. NOT with a swat.

She now has a track record (with herself) of turning this situation around. “I know it’s actually not about me, and it’s not about the other person. It’s all about the work we do. If I can re-focus on the work — our mission, the purpose of our work — then I know I’ll find a way to say what needs to be said in terms of the work. That’s my ticket to losing the red face and becoming my larger, more competent self again.” She’s also learned to say, in the heat of the moment, “Give me a minute,” or “Let me get back to you.” This buys her some breathing room. Literally.

Curious to know more about how to interrupt the anger response?  This article has some great ideas. So does this one. (Don’t be confused, in this second article, by the use of the word “reactionary” at the end of the second paragraph. They mean “reactive.”)

Does Candace’s story sound like a fairy tale to you?  This is how one person is working more effectively with anger at work.  It may not be the right way for you to work with your anger at work — you may have to find a different way.  Could you use some help managing your emotions at work?  I encourage you to schedule an initial meeting with me to tell me about your situation and find out what I can offer you. Email me to get started.


[*Photo by Frida Bredesen on Unsplash]


17 October 2017

Body Language, Cortisol, and Confidence

Wonder woman power pose

Your Mom was right when she repeatedly told you to “Stand up straight!”  Here’s why — and  it’s not just about your appearance.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy’s extensive research reveals that changing our body posture — in the moment — changes our mental state. Check out her Ted Talk if you haven’t already.

Think of the body posture of someone who has just scored a touchdown or won an Olympic gold medal event: arms outstretched or raised above the head or hands on hips, back straight, head high, shoulders back.  We associate this body language with the experience of winning, understanding on some level that the win produces the body language.

But Cuddy has discovered that the process can be reversed.  When you assume a victory pose (or “power pose,” as Cuddy calls them) and sustain it for a full minute or two . . . your body chemistry assumes the body chemistry of someone who has just won Wimbledon — or at least of someone with great self-confidence and sense of personal power.  For more descriptions of power poses, see this transcript of an NPR podcast with her.

But that’s not all it does, as one of my Linked In connections reminded me in a response to my blog post, You and Your Lizard Brain. Body language also impacts the level of cortisol — the stress hormone — in your body.  When you spend as little as two minutes in a power pose, your stress level (cortisol level) decreases. High stress levels have been shown to impede work: we work more effectively without high levels of cortisol coursing through us. And we certainly feel better.

As Amy Cuddy herself says in this NY Times article, “Let your body tell you you’re powerful and deserving, and you become more present, enthusiastic and authentically yourself.”

A Huffington Post article sums it up nicely: “Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shares an easy way that anyone can change not only others’ perceptions of them, but the way they feel about themselves — spending two minutes ‘power posing’ with their arms or elbows out, their chin lifted and their posture expansive. Cuddy’s research, done in collaboration with Dana Carney, has shown that adopting the body language associated with dominance for just 120 seconds is enough to create a 20 percent increase in testosterone and a 25 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. In other words, adopting these postures makes a person feel more powerful.”

Full disclosure, there’s also evidence that her findings are based on flawed research, and that power poses do not deliver these results.  See what you think.

But here’s what I suggest: try it for yourself.

The next time you’re about to have a difficult conversation, present to an audience, or do something else that’s a challenge think about your body posture. Before you pick up the phone, walk into the meeting, or walk out on stage, spend 2 minutes in a power pose.  Do it somewhere private so you don’t have to explain it to anyone —  even a stall in a bathroom will do.  It may feel ridiculous but it will send “good chemicals” coursing through your body — chemicals that are your friend for the next challenge.

Or better yet, start your day with a power pose every day for a week and see what happens. I promise it will not turn you into a jerk.  But it’s likely to reduce your stress levels and allow you to experience more self-confidence.


12 September 2017

You and Your Lizard Brain

When under stress your lizard brain takes over

Some situations can’t be resolved from within them. If you’re having cortisol-fueled stress response to some trigger, you’re not going to be able to simply talk yourself through it. You have to change your state of mind in order to get perspective and regain your equanimity. Then you can address what needs to be addressed. This is a key factor in stress management.

Say you’re in a downward spiral set off by an event: your great idea was publicly shot down during a meeting today, in a way that felt dismissive and mean-spirited, and you’ve been reeling from it every since. Your primitive fight-or-flight-or-freeze stress response got triggered, and your brain and body are suffused with cortisol, the stress hormone.  You are not in your “right mind.”  Your lizard brain is in charge.  And your lizard brain isn’t up to the task of helping you recover from the emotional hit you took today.

In this cortisol-laced state, you just can’t access to the range of internal resources you’re used to accessing. Your physiological response to the upsetting event is the same response your long-ago ancestors had when they encountered a sabre-toothed tiger: everything in your brain shuts down except the sense of immediate threat, and you focus on whatever you can do to save your own life. At that moment, your ancestor didn’t need sensitive, nuanced thinking — he just needed to get away from the tiger. So that’s the response that evolved: our more primitive, “lizard-brain” takes over.

The lizard brain stays in charge until your brain state changes, until you’re no longer engaged in fight-or-flight energy. But as 21st century sophisticates, we think we can effectively respond to the stress spiral by “talking ourselves down” from it.  But the reality is we don’t have the resources at that moment to do so.  Our brain and body are suffused in a cortisol bath: a physiological state unlike any other. We won’t be effective working with ourselves the way we can in a more normal state.

THIS state, the state of the lizard brain, requires something different.  First and foremost, we need to recognize it for what it is.  If some situation has flipped you out of your normal state of mind into a paroxysm of humiliation, shame, fear, anger, or other such intensely negative emotions — that’s a good indication that you’re in cortisol-land.  Once you recognize what’s going on, you can help yourself out of it.

How can you help yourself out of it? By resisting your powerful urge to do what you always do and instead choose the solution of using your brain in a completely different way. I have a friend who loves crossword puzzles and other word games. When she needs to deactivate her lizard brain, she goes to her puzzles. Working the puzzles uses her brain in ways that result in the creation of a different chemical bath, which translates into a different felt experience. Or maybe it goes the other way: working puzzles makes her happy again, and the happy brain cranks out serotonin or oxytocin, or some other happy chemical we love.  As she migrates into a calmer, clearer brain state, she becomes able to more effectively process the precipitating event from earlier in the day. And meanwhile, she’s had a break from it. She’s recovered from the physiological impact.  Now she can deal with the rest.

I learned by chance that I get relief from chopping vegetables. When in a downward spiral I would sometimes conclude that since I couldn’t get any work in that state, I might as well make dinner. And by the time I’ve finished chopping the onion and setting it to brown slowly in some olive oil in my good non-stick pan, my mood has begun to shift. And once the carrots and celery are cleaned and chopped and added to the pan — I feel OK again, even happy.  I now have perspective on what happened earlier and can figure out what action I should take, if any.

Can’t do word puzzles or chop vegetables at the office? Try leaving the building and getting outdoors for a brisk enough walk that your breathing changes. Focus on your breathing or the muscles that are firing as you walk.

Talking with a trusted person can also be a lifesaver at times like these, but it has to be a good enough friend who really understands what’s going on and what you need. You need to have some shared language and understanding, established long before the crisis.

As I’ve written in a recent post, there are many ways to change your brain state and in doing so, change the particular Kool-Aid your brain is sloshing around in, which eventually stops the downward spiral of the profoundly negative experience.

The best way to try this yourself is to come up with a real-world short list of tactics that might work for you, and plan to try them out when you recognize that your lizard brain has been triggered. See what works for you.

Does this sound new or interesting to you? Would you like some help recovering more quickly from injuries sustained in the hardball game played in your profession?  Or the interpersonal jungle that is your life?  Let’s talk.  My initial consultation is a no-fee meeting.


8 June 2014

How Going Outdoors Can Help Your Work

It’s a beautiful day, and you’re at your desk — again.  You wish you could go outdoors to enjoy the sun and flowers, but you’re behind schedule on a big project. Who has time for a walk in the park with an important deadline looming?

Actually, taking a walk might boost your productivity, not reduce it. Exercise increases the flow of oxygen to your brain, which helps you stay alert and think clearly. And a walk in a park or garden may be especially helpful. Research has shown that looking at trees reduces the flow of the body’s stress-related hormones, cortisol and adrenalin.  That translates into feeling less stressed.  (In children, spending time in green outdoor spaces has been found to ease the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.)  So connecting with nature may have additional benefits if you’re so tense about a deadline that you’re having trouble focusing.

You don’t need to block out hours on your calendar to get a lift from going outdoors. Just take a quick walk on your lunch break (yes, take a lunch break), or before or after work. Or go outside to make cellphone calls that don’t require access to files you keep at your desk. You might also do some business reading — memos, reports or journal articles — on a deck, porch, or park bench.

Summer, with its warmer weather and more hours of daylight, is an ideal time to start. If you make a habit of spending more time outdoors now, when it’s easiest, you may see gains that will help you stay motivated to continue later on when the weather is less seductive.