July 25, 2012

When the brain stresses you really do lose it

These days many of us are more than a little pressed for time and pushing hard to deliver a high volume of output. While it may look great on the immediate balance sheet, we run the risk of putting ourselves under great mental and physiological stress. The effects can be more serious that you realise.

 When we're under stress, control of our behaviours tends to switch more to our emotional, primitive brain. While this allows for fast reactions and more intuitive decision making, it also can lead to more rigid thinking, lower empathy and poor emotional regulation. Even more importantly are the mental processes that get sidelined. 

 We experience a weakening of our prefrontal cortex (PFC) connections and corresponding functions. This has important ramifications for an area of the PFC that Daniel Siegel calls the "middle prefrontal cortex." This area has been found to be critical in regulating nine key mental processes that in turn, have important implications for leadership, performance and culture in the workplace. They are:

 1. Body regulation: Balance of the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (healing, nourishing, regeneration) branches of the autonomic nervous system. This allows you to rise to the occasion but also calm down, rest and regenerate. That feeling of burn out happens when your body is running too long in a sympathetic state.  

2. Attuned communication: The ability to understand or tune into another person’s state and communicate from a more interconnected place. You need to be able to calm your mind, pay attention to and actually LISTEN to another person to really understand their point of view. 

3. Emotional balance: Regulation of our emotions and the ability to calm ourselves when stressed.

4. Response flexibility: The capacity to respond versus react. Being able to pause long enough to reflect and choose the best options versus an automatic response or accessing past strategies. 

 5. Empathy: Considering the mental perspective and feelings of another person. Ever notice that when you're running around and pushing hard you lose the interest in what other people think and feel? Ever have that thought: "I don't care, just get it done!" That's low empathy. 

 6. Insight: Self-awareness and understanding of our own behaviours and emotions. Notice when you're running on overdrive you tend to focus less on your own self-regulation? 

 7. Fear extinction: The ability to calm our emotional responses to fear to allow for a more considered response to a situation. This isn't just a female thing. Men too can become over emotional and agitated when the pressure is on. At the time it seems real, but it's not until later on when you can step back and reappraise the situation that you notice that you've overreacted. 

8. Intuition: Being able to make decisions based on what feels right (gut feel). The ability to access our own inner wisdom. You need a quiet mind to tap into your higher thinking. 

 9. Morality: The ability to make the right choices in consideration of a greater good or social ideals. It's those moments of high stress that often lead to those "What was I thinking?!" decisions. 
 (Source: Siegel, Daniel J. “An Interpersonal Neurobiology Approach to Psychotherapy.” Psychiatric Annals, 36 4 (2006): 248-256.) 

 I hope this provides a wake-up call—you need to be aware of the toll on yourself and the people around you when you let things get too out of hand. 

 It may seem as if you can't always control your circumstances and you may be right. But you can always put a brake on your emotions and mental processes. It's certainly worth a moment or two of your time to stop and think if there's a better way.

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