Even before the experience of 2020’s pandemic, many reported stress in connection with work. Globally, the Coronavirus pandemic has heightened the fragility of economies, the discomfort of working digitally instead of face to face, and all of our underlying health fears.
Nearly all are impacted by the new dominant global culture of uncertainty. Many report working longer hours and feelings of tiredness, ‘never enough’ and unhappiness.
An example: In physical meetings, we sense each other’s state and mood. On the phone and Zoom, we search visually and auditorily – the two senses available – for what psychiatrist Dr Daniel Siegel terms “critical micro-moments of interaction.”
When we cannot figure something out, or build a bond or connection with someone, our brain develops open loops of uncertainty. It becomes ‘stuck’ trying to make sense of what’s there. These open loops eat glucose and can cause sensations of anxiety, edginess, depletion and stress. Think of it like having a greedy background app open on your phone that drains your battery, or how it felt those first few months when you moved to a new culture without speaking the language.
As a ‘selfish’ organ, designed to prioritise its own glucose needs over that of the body, our brain stays ‘on’ and keep searching when confused or uncertain. When ‘something’s on our mind,’ rumination continues as background noise behind whatever is happening in the moment. This noise detracts from our presence and can cause us to miss vital cues. It is also exhausting.
Over time, heightened stress can lead to mental and physiological breakdown and disease. “If the brain cannot reduce uncertainty, a persistent cerebral energy crisis may development, burdening the individual.” This can lead to “systemic and brain malfunction” including burnout, impaired memory and depression.
Resilience is the antidote to stress – and can be thought of like your brain’s ‘immune system.’ Dedicating time to building stronger emotional resilience is like committing to your physical health through exercise and making good choices.
Three Techniques for Building Resilience
Psychologist Rick Hanson defines resilience as “the capability to recover from adversity, trauma, and setbacks and to keep on going in pursuit of goals and opportunities. We need resilience to survive, but we also need resilience to thrive.”
Resilient individuals are described as having grit, tenacity, good emotional management skills, and an ability to ‘bounce back.’ Most importantly, the resilient are comfortable asking for help. Organisations turn to the resilient in crisis; friends and family members look to the most resilient individuals in their systems when in need.
Taking responsibility for building your resilience is much like training to run a marathon or pursue a stretch goal: Daily practices build skill, strength and eventually, pleasurable habits that may even become a minor (good) addiction.
These three techniques, rooted in neuroscience, can help you ‘circuit break’ how stress affects your brain and body. These techniques build positive neuroplasticity: “the physiological ability of the brain to form and strengthen dendritic connections, produce beneficial morphological changes, and increase cognitive reserve.”
Before you start:
Learning anything new requires a commitment and a dedication of time. What time of day will you claim for yourself? Can you find 15 minutes every day?
Technique One: Create a Gratitude Ritual
A friend who is a thriving global head of talent ends each workday with a reflection on three moments that went well, and one moment of learning. He handwrites insights into a notebook he keeps for that purpose.
M.J. Ryan, a prolific author and one of the founders of the Random Acts of Kindness book series, has studied and written about gratitude, compassion, and habit building. Her shorthand for gratitude is: “Notice what’s right in your life.” M.J. adds: “Gratitude is one of the only totally free, unbelievably simple ways to experience a sense of well-being and contentment on an ongoing basis.”
University of California Davis Professor Robert Emmons, cites two components of gratitude. First – it is “an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” Secondly, we realise the source of good things comes from outside of ourselves – a realisation that strengthens connectiveness and relationship.
In his scientific studies Emmons has found people who practice gratitude regularly experience tangible, trackable benefits. These include stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure, more optimism and happiness, and a more compassionate and kinder approach to the world.
Which gratitude practice will you commit to do for the next 25 or so days? My five favourite are: 1) A daily unhurried walk appreciating fresh air and nature, 2) Keeping a gratitude journal, 3) Surprising a friend or colleague with an unexpected short email or note to say thank you, 4) Taking time to cook and share good food, and 5) Daring to smile – even with my eyes when I’m wearing my mask.
Technique Two: Checking in with Yourself
I learned this technique when I trained to teach mindfulness with Search Inside Yourself, an emotional intelligence-based approach developed by Chade Meng Tan. [Meng was one of Google’s earliest engineers. He retired at 45 with the title: “Jolly Good Fellow (Which nobody can deny).]” Each day I set an alarm on my phone to check in and breathe. If I’m not in meetings, I like the simplicity of 11:11 am or 15:33 in the afternoon.
When the alarm goes off, I stop whatever I’m doing, stand up if I’m seated, and do a quick scan:
How am I breathing? Am I taking time to inhale (through my nose) all the way into my feet, and to breath out so my exhale goes to the corners of the room? I sometimes spend a couple of minutes on the simple 4-7-8 Method (breath in for 4, hold for 7, then breath out for 8). There’s scientific evidence that longer exhalations significantly calm our nervous systems. When calmer, our brain (the biggest organ in our nervous system) has an opportunity to rationally assess threat. Once we are clear that there is NOT a potential threat lurking, we have more energy to make better decisions.
I also ask myself:
1. Am I thirsty or hungry?
2. Have I been sitting too long?
3. Have I made a plan for exercise today
4. What are my plans for today’s social connection, a laugh, or catch up conversation with a friend?
Through making small commitments to ourselves – “micro-goals,” then achieving them, we not only gain the benefit of the activity, but we also feel better when we complete the actions.
Technique Three: Take Time to Connect
Our brain’s function is to safeguard our current and future physical, mental and social well-being. It is constantly looking for patterns; seeking to categorise people, their statements and situations.
When we don’t know much about colleagues or people in our worlds, our brains can make up stories or hypotheses, based on our perceptions of their actions and behaviours. If we do not have the psychological safety and openness in our relationships to ask direct questions and communicate freely, we risk making poor judgements based on fear instead of facts. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson has found: “Companies with a trusting workplace perform better. Psychological safety isn’t about being nice, she says. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.”
Human beings seek connection, acceptance and belonging. A clear sense of your authentic best self can boost your confidence in connecting with others. When reciprocated, sharing information about who you are can warm connections and build rapport. I like these questions, developed by organisational behaviour professor Laura Morgan Roberts and cited in social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s book Presence:
1. What three words best describe you as an individual?
2. What is unique about you that leads to your happiest times and best performance?
3. Reflect on a specific time – at work or at home – when you were acting in a way that felt natural and right. How can you repeat that behaviour today?
4. What are your signature, or personally defining strengths and how can you use them in your work and life?
Once you work through these answers – “Who are you really – Really?” for yourself, you may feel braver sharing more with your friends and colleagues. Acknowledging our real, human, well-intentioned, open to feedback, and imperfect selves can help us be more compassionate with ourselves and kinder to one another.
Do you have an interested and supportive friend, colleague or community with whom you can share your commitments to boosting your resilience? It’s an easy way to build a level of accountability. Simply writing down, then saying goals aloud has been proven to help you achieve them. Plus, of course, most experiences in life are richer when shared.
As a Master Somatic Coach and certified Search Inside Yourself Leadership teacher, Lydia Kan has studied emotional intelligence and meditation with Chade Meng Tan, Daniel Goleman, Daniel Siegel, Rick Hanson, Jack Kornfield, Mirabai Bush and Richie Davidson. She teaches leadership, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship in business schools and retreat centres globally. A former strategist and finance professional (mentored by Vartan Gregorian & Madeleine Albright), Lydia spent her early career advising governments on emergency and disaster response.
1 Sykes, M. and Turner, L. (n.d.). The Attuned Therapist Does attachment theory really matter? [online] Available at: https://www.drdansiegel.com/uploads/The-attunded-therapist.pdf [Accessed 23 Sep. 2020]
2 A. Peters, et al., Uncertainty and stress: Why it causes diseases and how it is mastered by the brain, Prog. Neurobiol. (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pneurobio.2017.05.00
4 Vance DE, Roberson AJ, McGuinness TM, Fazeli PL. How neuroplasticity and cognitive reserve protect cognitive functioning. J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv. 2010 Apr;48(4):23-30. doi: 10.3928/02793695-20100302-01. PMID: 20349891
7 https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/technology/google-course-asks-employees-to-take-a-deep-breath.html and http://chademeng.com/books/
8 See Breath by James Nestor: https://www.mrjamesnestor.com/breath
9 How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167876018303258
10 Psychology Today. (2019). Longer Exhalations Are an Easy Way to Hack Your Vagus Nerve. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-athletes-way/201905/longer-exhalations-are-easy-way-hack-your-vagus-nerve
11 The Role of Dopamine in Motivation and Learning. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2958859/
12 A. Peters, et al., Uncertainty and stress: Why it causes diseases and how it is mastered by the brain, Prog. Neurobiol. (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pneurobio.2017.05.00
14 Cuddy, Amy. Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015
Photo credit: Nicholas Creswell