Manage Stress at Work by Retraining your Brain
By: Marc Schoen, Ph.D., author of Your Survival Instinct is Killing You: Retrain your Brain to Conquer Fear and Build Resilience (Hudson Street Press, 2013.)
The ability to perform well under pressure -- including how we manage stress at work -- is one of the best skills we can develop. Those individuals who excel under these conditions often report having a critical business advantage.
As important as managing workplace stress can be, few executives or leaders receive training in this essential ability. Instead, most learn about performing under pressure from their own childhood experiences. These may include oral reports, sports, exams or standardized tests that are often given under time constraints.
Yet for a large segment of the population, these early experiences have not sufficiently prepared them to thrive under pressure. Instead, they often prepare us to unravel under pressure.
A small percentage of individuals actually come into the world pre-wired to perform under pressure. In fact, for some of these individuals, they actually do their best work under these intense conditions.
Unfortunately, the majority of us are ill-prepared to manage stress, leaving us to suffer a number of disappointments or frustrations related to high-pressure conditions. The good news is that it is possible to groom ourselves to flourish in these circumstances -- including pervasive work-related stress.
The Brain Must Be Retrained
To successfully manage stress at work -- and stress overall -- requires training two very different regions of our brain to be team players, as opposed to being at odds with each other. The higher-order processing region of the brain is called the cerebral cortex. This is the region that is responsible for problem solving, such as inductive, deductive, abstract, and logical thinking.
Meanwhile, an older region of the brain, called the limbic system, is responsible for assessing danger in the world, in other words, keeping us safe.
When the limbic brain senses danger, it activates our survival instinct or the fear response in the brain and body, shutting off power to the higher-order processing region of the brain. Without sufficient fuel in this part of the brain there is little juice left to run the problem-solving machinery.
The limbic system’s fear response often misinterprets pressure as a threat. The limbic brain is particularly sensitive to this if past experiences of being under pressure have resulted in poor outcomes, such as failure, embarrassment, judgment, or rejection.
The Stress Management Solution
How can we learn to successfully manage stress? The solution lies in retraining the limbic system to experience pressure and discomfort in either a positive or a neutral manner, as opposed to a threat. Stated differently, we are interested in training ourselves to be resilient in uncomfortable conditions.
In a course I teach at UCLA we do this by conditioning students to welcome pressure-related discomfort, rather than to fear and avoid it.
Here are some strategies from this course that can make a significant difference in successfully performing under pressure and in stressful conditions.
Accept that pressure-related discomfort is normal. The goal is not to banish stress-related anxiety. If we seek to exterminate it, we only increase our fear of pressure. Instead, practice being more accepting of pressure-related discomfort.
Welcome and embrace pressure-related discomfort. Learn to love pressure. Use the power of relabeling, which teaches the brain to interpret pressure in a new way. You can even tell yourself that you can’t wait to feel pressure -- and that you love how it makes you feel.
Practice in pressured conditions. Too often we practice our skills in non-pressured situations. It is far better to devote some of your practice time while under pressure. Initially, the goal isn’t to get it right, but instead to become acclimated and more comfortable with pressure-related discomfort.
Practice under imperfect conditions. The world seldom lines up perfectly. It is far better to practice in imperfect conditions where there are distractions, annoyances, and interruptions. With practice, these imperfections are neutralized, and in many cases, become facilitative of performance.
Use Your Sleep to Rewire Your Brain. It is possible to manage stress by using sleep as a tool to rewire your response to pressure and fear.
Build up your discomfort muscle. Since the limbic system’s fear response is related to perceiving discomfort as a threat, it is important to strengthen its reaction to discomfort.
Learn to feel more at ease in other uncomfortable conditions, such as fatigue, hunger, or uncomfortable temperatures. Building your discomfort muscle in other contexts strengthens your tolerance of discomfort and your resilience under pressure conditions.
Conquer Fear and Build Resilience
It’s clear that there is much we can do to improve our management of stress and stress conditions. If we operate under a dated notion that discomfort is something to avoid, then pressure will continue to feel daunting. But if we learn to welcome and retrain our brain’s reaction to pressure, discomfort, and imperfect conditions, then we can significantly alter our fear response to pressure.
I encourage you to experiment with the above strategies. In my years of working with patients, I have found that they can make a profound difference in shrinking the oversensitivity of the survival instinct and the brain’s response to fear.
Copyright 2014 Marc Schoen, Ph.D.
Marc Schoen, Ph.D., is author of Your Survival Instinct is Killing You: Retrain your Brain to Conquer Fear and Build Resilience (Hudson Street Press, 2013.) He has specialized in Mind-Body Medicine for more than twenty five years. In addition to maintaining a busy private practice working with individuals, Schoen is an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine where he teaches and conducts research on Mind-Body Medicine and Hypnosis. His work has been featured extensively on television, radio, and in magazines and newspapers, in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Oprah, WebMD, Fortune Magazine, Health, Natural Health, Prevention, Yoga Journal, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @marcschoenphd.