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.


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.


10 May 2016

Eliminate Energy Drains for Greater Work-Life Balance

Eliminate Energy Drains

Some of the most powerful ways to build more balance into your busy life are readily available to you and entirely within your control.

As a coach to high achievers since 1995, I have observed a range of strategies that make a significant difference in a person’s sense of balance. Each strategy stands on its own and can be implemented independent of any other one.

The strategy that creates the greatest impact is to eliminate energy drains. Energy drains are the challenges and issues that nag at you, drive you crazy, worry you, or in some other way steal your attention and distract you from being in the present with whatever or whoever is in front of you. Many people have a lot of energy drains. The more you have, the more out of control your life feels, and the more stress you experience.

Learning to identify and then to eliminate energy drains is a process, not an instant event. It takes time to develop the habit of recognizing when your energy is draining out of you and then to identify what is causing it to do so. It also takes time to learn to address the source of the energy drain so that it is eliminated, whenever possible, and when it’s not possible, some other adjustment is made.

In the workshops I lead in organizations, one of the energy drains that people frequently bring up is clutter in their home. The solution is EITHER to implement one of the many available clutter solutions OR to make your peace with there being some clutter in your home. Period. Either get it handled or stop stressing about it.

Another one is rush hour traffic. The choice here is EITHER implement an alternative to commuting in rush hour (change your work hours so that you’re not commuting during the rush or move your home or your job so that your commute is short or against traffic – and yes, people do this!). OR make your peace with rush hour traffic (listen to books on tape, learn Italian, dictate your first novel).

Another common energy drain is worrying. People worry about all kinds of things: what does my manager think of me, how will I ever have the money to help my kids with college, does my frequent headache mean I have a brain tumor, what about global warming, does my child have a learning disability, how will we figure out what to do with Mother? (Sound familiar?)

The solution for worry is straightforward:

  1. Ask yourself if there is some action you need to take. If so, take that action, as soon as possible. Ask your manager how you’re doing, hire a financial planner to help you plan for college, call your doctor, join the Sierra Club and act on their legislative bulletins, talk to your child’s teacher, meet with your siblings and start figuring out what needs to happen with your Mother.
  2. IF there is no action you need to take, then focus your attention elsewhere when you find yourself worrying about this issue. Say to yourself: “There is nothing I need to DO about this right now, so there’s no point in focusing on it. I will turn my attention to . . . .” And then turn your attention elsewhere. This is simple but not necessarily easy, though it becomes easier with practice.  I promise you, this is learnable and probably nowhere near as difficult as some of the other things you’ve already learned.

I don’t mean to trivialize your worries or oversimplify potential solutions. But the bottom line is you can’t afford the luxury of dwelling on the things that drain you.  They are taxing you, personally, on a daily basis. Either get them handled, period, or let them go. It’s really a mindset. You will be surprised at how many things you can get handled when you realize how much they are costing you.

When you eliminate some energy drains from your life, it creates some breathing room. Be very careful not to just let that space be claimed by new energy drains. Use that space with conscious intention. Use it to honor whatever YOUR priorities are. Play some tennis. Take your family to a Red Sox game. Get to yoga more often. Whatever serves you.

Bottom line, your overall productivity and quality of life depend on how effectively you allocate your energy and attention. Eliminating leaks can make a big difference.

Does it seem like you could use some help with this?  I would be happy to tailor a short coaching program to meet your needs.  Contact me to schedule an initial, confidential, complimentary consultation about this and find out what you might gain from working with me.