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.


5 December 2016

Productivity Series: Tips for Worriers

worry loop

Are you a worrier? Do you sometimes spend time and energy worrying about your finances, your children, your career, world politics, whether someone is mad at you? Worry can either be a highly useful, brilliantly engineered cue to action or a useless, destructive energy drain, an endless loop of wasted, miserable time. The challenge is to decide which it is, on a case-by-case basis, and manage yourself accordingly.

Here is a quick and dirty, 4-step, highly effective way to manage yourself when worry is staring you in the face. .

  1. Learn to recognize when you are worrying.

This takes practice. You may not recognize yourself worrying until you’ve been possessed by a particular worry for days or weeks. But whether you catch yourself in the first minute or the first month, the most important step is recognizing the pattern. You can develop your “witness” over time and become more proficient in noticing when you are worrying.

  1. Determine if something needs to be done.

Ask yourself, “Is the worry a cue to action?”

  • For example, if you are worried that your toddler will get lead paint poisoning from the lead paint on your windows, there is indeed something that needs to be done. You need to get the lead paint removed from your windows. And keep your child well supervised in the meantime.
  • If you don’t know whether or not something needs to be done, find out. You need to get more information – THAT’s what needs to happen.
  1. If something needs to be done, get it done as soon as possible.

Often just deciding to take the action can loosen worry’s grip on you. But it’s critical that you follow through – take that action as soon as it is feasible.

  • Call the state agency that deals with lead paint removal and get the names of contractors who do that kind of work. Get moving with hiring and scheduling a contractor. Call your pediatrician and get advice about how to protect your child during the removal process and follow up on every detail.
  1. If nothing needs to be done, release the worry.
  • If the lead paint removal is scheduled, your child is adequately supervised, and you’re following all of the pediatrician’s instructions, there is nothing more to be done. Your job in this case is to re-focus your attention elsewhere.

For most people, relinquishing the worry is the hardest part. If you generally let worry run unchecked, you know that it’s a very greedy dynamic that will steal as much of your attention as you let it. Left unchecked, it will reduce your effectiveness and productivity. Some serious boundary-setting with yourself is absolutely required here.

Experiment with the following strategy. In your mind, respond to the worry with something like this: “Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your concern (this is important). But there is nothing more to be done right now, so I’m going to stop thinking about this.” Then get yourself to focus on something else – find something else compelling and engaging to think about. You might line up some contenders in advance. Just about anything that works for you will do.

Sooner or later, the worry will return. Repeat steps 1 through 4 as needed. This is an iterative process. Hang in there!

Here is a short list of some of the worries that my clients and I have learned to deal with more effectively:

  • Personal finances. My client regularly pictured herself as a bag lady, penniless, homeless, and alone on the street, despite her current (and past) circumstances, which were nothing of the sort. The action that was called for was to develop a strong and detailed financial plan with an expert.
  • Professional failure.  One of my clients worried he was failing in his current job.  The solution for him was to acknowledge that he really needed to improve his performance in one particular part of his job, to get training in that arena, and to get better at it.  He took responsibility for it and had a good outcome, both on the performance side and on the worry side. Another career-anxious client determined there was no action required. She learned to respond to the angst by listing for herself the ways she was effective in her work generally and specifically and  all the ways she was effective today. This activity served to change her state of mind.
  • Someone is upset with me.  Every once in a while I get it into my head that I’ve made some kind of terrible faux pas or exercised terrible judgment and someone I care about (a client, a friend, my son-in-law’s mother) is royally offended, outraged, or angry with me as a result. I’ve learned to muster the courage to go to the person I may have wronged and say, essentially, “I’m concerned that I was inappropriate when I said X to you last week, and I’m so very sorry if I offended you — that was not my intention.” And then to be quiet and listen to their response. 99% of the time, they don’t know what I’m talking about and were not the least bit ruffled by what I said.  Every once in a great while, I really DID say something inappropriate and now I have the chance to clean it up.  Either way, initiating this conversation results in the worry getting cleared up one way or the other.  And at this point in my life, I’m not so reluctant to bring it up, since history has shown me that I’m usually wrong and the person is not upset with me.

Do you need help figuring out whether a worry merits action or how to disarm a stubborn worry-habit? Invest in yourself and get the help you need. Coaching can make a difference. Contact me for an initial meeting at no charge. Get your questions answered, see what it’s like to work with me, and see for yourself if you want to. Most people find the meeting useful, whether or not they decide to work with me.


13 September 2016

Imposter Syndrome: Feeling Like a Fraud

Imposter Syndrome: Feeling Like a Fraud


Do you secretly fear that one of these days the people you work with will realize that you’re not really as good at what you do as they currently think you are?  Do you suspect that the people you work with already know that you’re not as effective as they once thought?  Do you worry that you’re in a higher-level job than you’re really capable of?  Does this type of concern sound familiar?

There are many highly effective people who suffer from some form of imposter syndrome. The key word here is “suffer.” If this is regularly causing you pain, stressing you out, or otherwise using up some of your bandwidth, I strongly recommend that you address it head on and get yourself some relief.

Every person’s fraud syndrome is unique, so there is no single one-size-fits-all solution for it. But here are some strategies that seem to apply broadly.

  1. It is the nature of high-level work that you do not always feel completely on top of it.  Whether it’s the sheer volume of work you’re managing, the weight of the responsibility, the complexity involved, or the massive replica of it that you keep in your head — if you are working to capacity, you will sometimes feel “in over your head.”  Learn to be OKAY with that feeling. It’s part of the landscape you now inhabit.
  2. Trust the sequence of events that led you to doing this work at this level. Think about all the people who believed in you along the way, maybe including teachers from your early years.  Think about the hard work you’ve done in your life so far,  the personal challenges you’ve come through, and the many things you have learned. It is no accident you are where you are.
  3. Take a look at what your imposter syndrome protects you from. What is the payoff for stressing about this? For some people, it is a distraction from something else that’s going on. I experienced it at full throttle when I was a systems analyst. Stressing about my competence was actually more bearable than the underlying truth I eventually had to confront: I didn’t want to do technical systems work any more — and I had no idea what else I would do. Feeling overwhelmed by all the new software I had to learn was unpleasant, but facing my unknown future was absolutely terrifying.  Eventually, I mustered the courage to make a career change.  What’s your imposter syndrome protecting you from?
  4. Do you have anxiety about your work performance?  If so, ask yourself if that anxiety comes from a dawning realization that you need to learn some new skill or develop expertise in a new area.  If so, just bite the bullet and learn the new thing: take a course, get mentored by an expert, muscle through it on your own if that’s your style.  Whatever it takes, just do it.  Your stress level will decline and you will experience enormous relief.  Your imposter syndrome may even disappear for a while!
  5. Remember that you always, always, always have choice. If the stress of being in this field at this level is not sustainable for you at this time in your life, figure out what needs to change, and change it. Take a job at another level, renegotiate your workload, or change fields. I don’t mean to be casual about these kinds of changes — they are huge, difficult, life-changing transitions. But isn’t that perhaps just what is called for? And if you don’t want to leave the field, commit to learning how to do the work in a more sustainable way. You may need help to do this, but trust me, it is much easier to learn how to do your work sustainably than it was to learn how to do your work.
  6. Be sure you have other things in your life to counterbalance the stressors.  Find ways to keep your batteries charged.
  7. Get help if you need it.  Many people have blind spots in this area, and getting help from a coach, therapist, or mentor can expedite your process enormously.

If you’d like to explore working with me on this, contact me for an initial consult at no charge.  During the consult, you can get your questions answered, get a sense of what it would be like to work with me, and we can see if we are a good fit to work together.  You will get no pressure from me — you have enough pressure elsewhere in your life.


11 April 2016

Overhelping: How to Avoid It



There’s helping and there’s overhelping.  The line between helping and overhelping is crossed (according to my definition) when the act of helping actually harms the well-being or effectiveness of either the helper or the helped.

Being able to help, fix, & make things right is an excellent, constructive skill-set, a marvelous ability, and a fine inclination. This ability generally includes recognizing when the need exists and knowing what would help.  If you have these abilities, you are likely to deploy your help generously, in the spirit of service, of being useful.  There is nothing wrong with this!

However, at some point in your life, you may need to fine-tune how and when you deploy your fixing skills.  In short, if you don’t already have a PAUSE BUTTON installed, you’ll need to install one in your repertoire of behaviors so that you can activate it at that very moment when you see what needs to be done but before jumping in to help.

During the pause, you’ll need to ask yourself two questions:

  1. Do I have the bandwidth (time, resources, mental energy, time taken away from other projects, etc) to help this person or project AND STILL attend to and be responsible to my own clear, current priorities? If the answer is no, then to help would be to over-help: helping in a way that’s harmful to you.
  2. Does my helping truly help the other person or is it actually doing them no favor?  If the latter, it would be overhelping: not really in the other person or project’s long term best interest.

Then, based on your answers to these questions, make a conscious, intentional, explicit decision about whether to help, and if so, how much.  These steps can take place in seconds, once you’re practiced at it.  If you have the bandwidth, the desire, and the help is not overhelping, then by all means go for it  — let yourself have the pleasure, and give the other person the benefit of your assistance. If you don’t have the bandwidth, don’t offer.  Or don’t say yes to their request.

It’s neither criminal nor pathological to help too much.  It’s a natural stage of professional growth to start noticing when your “fixing” is counterproductive for you or the other person, and when it is, to dial it down.  It’s really just that simple – no need for soul-searching, complex diagnostic analysis, self-criticism or recrimination.  Again – there’s nothing wrong here.

Every skillset and gift has its built-in liability – and full ownership of the gift includes knowing when not to use it. Moving into fuller ownership of this very powerful gift means becoming more judicious about when, how, and how much of it to deploy.  This makes you more powerful in a good way and more effective.

I’ve written about overhelping before — I see a lot of it, particularly among professional women.  If you’re looking to reduce your stress level or increase the amount of time and focus available for your priorities, take a look at your helping behavior. Do you need a pause button? A pause button is a stress management device which, when used strategically, can deeply support you in moving your priorities forward. Can I help you develop YOUR pause button? Contact me and we’ll schedule a conversation about this.


18 December 2014

No Means No: Reduce Stress by Protecting Boundaries

While checking out Diana Cullum-Dugan’s terrific new website, I found this fabulous quote:

“Learn to say no to demands, requests, invitations, and activities that leave you with no time for yourself. Until I learned to say no, and mean it, I was always overloaded by stress. You may feel guilty and selfish at first for guarding your down-time, but you’ll soon find that you are a much nicer, more present, more productive person in each instance you do choose to say yes.”  Holly Mosier

I am a passionate believer in every element of what Holly is saying.  What she says is true for me, and I know that many, many of my clients have benifitted from this strategy as well.  It’s not an all-or-nothing deal — it’s an incremental process, used over and over again in a lifetime.

Every piece of this quote is true:

  1. Learn to say no to demands, requests, invitations, and activities that leave you with no time for yourself” or for the people you long to spend time with. I once worked with a client who believed she should accept every social invitation that came her way. She’d never even considered the question, “Do you want to go to this event (spend time with this person, do this activity)?” It just was not part of her default behavior. She learned that saying no doesn’t mean you think the person or project isn’t worthy, but rather that it doesn’t line up with your priorities or schedule. She got a lot of traction from learning some gracious ways of turning down invitations, and it became a simple, new habit.  Most people’s response to demands, requests, invitations, and items on the to-do list isn’t an automatic YES, but it might be close.  What’s your behavior on this front?
  2. You may feel guilty and selfish at first for guarding your down-time.” I would say it’s guaranteed you will feel guilty and selfish at first for safeguarding your own downtime. But just because you feel guilty about something doesn’t mean it’s wrong! You might consider re-labeling the feeling “uncomfortable” and reminding yourself that you are doing something different, so it’s understandable that it feels uncomfortable. Start small: practice saying no in relatively benign circumstances where the fallout and pushback is likely to be mild. Reap some benefits from this. It will give you the courage to be bolder in your guardianship of your time.
  3. You’ll soon find that you are a much nicer, more present, more productive person in each instance you do choose to say yes.” At a time in my life when I had begun to safeguard more time to myself some very big ways, I was able to be more present and understanding when I emailed one of my then-adolescent daughters about something we had been struggling over. She responded, “Who are you and what have you done with my mother?”

Guarding your downtime is likely to be a lifelong learning process, not a single learning episode — the good news is, you’ll have lots of time to practice.  As you look ahead to the New Year, consider turning up the volume on your stress management by protecting more of your downtime. You will thank yourself for it.


29 October 2014

Seeing Old Friends


cropped homies

This month I hosted a 5-day gathering at my home with my three closest high school friends (Cass Tech, Detroit, MI).  We’ve been getting together once a year at one of our homes for the last few years.  We live in 4 different cities, 2 different countries.  Here we are in the photo, posed in front of Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott, in Concord MA, on a gorgeous New England Fall day.

Having this time with my old friends is a great treasure.  I experience with them a level of unconditional acceptance and being deeply known that I don’t really have with my current friends to the same extent.  We knew each other when we were 15, we knew each others’ parents, and we can see the 15-year-olds in the women we’ve become and appreciate how that 15-year-old is (and isn’t) still alive in the current version of the person.  There is a lot of laughing when we get together —  a lot of lightness and fun like we used to have together in high school days.  We did that well back then, and it comes back when we get together.  We don’t take it for granted.  After everyone left, one of them wrote, “Unconditional love and support.  It’s . . . mystical, spiritual, and yummy.”  And this from someone who’s not typically new-agey in her expression or beliefs.

As this blog post from Scientific American notes, research shows that “connecting with friends can lessen stress” in a person’s life. In fact, “social connection doesn’t just help us survive health problems: the lack of it causes them.”

Research documented by the Mayo Clinic corroborates this finding.    “Having close friends and family has far-reaching benefits for your health. . . .  A strong social support network can be critical to help you through the stress of tough times, whether you’ve had a bad day at work or a year filled with loss or chronic illness. Since your supportive family, friends, and co-workers are such an important part of your life, it’s never too soon to cultivate these important relationships.”

This week I happened to see some amazing footage of reunions of cross-species old friends, each one moving and remarkable.  In this one  a man who raised a gorilla he later released  into the West African wild goes to see him after 5 years.   If you’re hungry for more of this, check out this reunion of a lion with the couple who raised him as a cub; their re-connection after 1 year is amazing to witness.  And finally, here’s one of a different lion and the woman who rescued him when he was injured, abandoned, and dying, and nursed him back to health.

The third video ends with this advice: “True friendships last a lifetime. Get in touch with someone. You’ll be glad you did.”

I want to second that recommendation and suggest that seeing any of your friends, old or new, can re-charge your personal batteries in profound ways.  Of course this is not NEWS to to any of us — it’s something we know intuitively, and there’s lots of research that supports it.  But I’ve seen that spending time with friends is one of the first things that people jettison when they’re stressed by a relentless schedule.  And yet even small amounts of time with a friend can nourish and hydrate a person very deeply.  Friends give you a lot of bang for your buck.

A recent Forbes article reports that connection to friends might even save your life.



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.







12 November 2013

Let Me Get Back To You

I heard it again today from a client – what a huge difference it made for her to say “Let me get back to you about this” instead of her habitual “Sure, great, tell me more!” It gave her the space to think about whether or not she had the leeway to take on the new thing and whether she wanted to.  She didn’t have the leeway and she didn’t want to do it.  Now she had time  to form a response.  Having this sentence in your repertoire is good for stress management.  It supports you in having a boundary between you and the incoming request.  You don’t always have to respond in the moment!

For many of us, the habit of saying yes is so ingrained and automatic that it takes enormous strength of intention and vigilance to do something different.  But oh, what a difference it makes when you do. 

Even if you do want to take on the new project (or whatever is on the table), you might need the space to check in with yourself and come back with more of a conversation, not just a yes or no.  For example, you might want to say no, you won’t chair the committee, but you’ll co-chair with someone who knows what they’re doing.

You may get some pushback to the change in behavior.  My client today said  that when she said, “Let me get back to you on that.” The other person said, “Really? I thought you’d jump at this.” So be prepared.  No need to get defensive.  You might say something like, “I’m not saying I won’t run with this.  I just need to think about what else is on my plate.  I don’t want to say yes and then not be able to deliver.”  Or handle it lightly: “Yes, well, I’m learning that I have limitations.”

People choose to institute new behavior like this when the old way (saying yes immediately) isn’t working for them at the time, for any reason.  Maybe they’re completely overcommitted already and can’t possibly take on another thing.  Maybe they’re clearing space to finish a dissertation, write an article, or train for an endurance event. They could be grieving, and they just don’t have the energy to take on anything new right now.  Maybe they can’t stand working with the person they’d be partnering with and they need some time to figure out a tactful way to tell the truth or a way to clearly say no without telling the underlying reason. 

And sometimes it makes sense to use “Let me get back to you” even when it’s not a situation of being asked to take on a task.  You may be asked your opinion about something going on in the office or the family and you haven’t really thought about it so you don’t have an opinion to share yet.  Or you’ve thought about it plenty and you have a very clear opinion but you don’t want to share it because it’s too raw and negative.  Or what you’re being asked about is really, really important to you and you want to craft just the right response. 

There are many reasons for invoking the “Let me get back to you” option, and many situations in which it’s completely appropriate.  Consider it part of your stress management and boundary-setting skill set. 

Please share your comments, questions, or experience with this.