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stress

We all talk to ourselves when we’re alone. When we’re walking down the street, when we’re sitting in front of the computer, when we’re waiting for our car to come out of the car wash.

And when we talk to ourselves there’s a narrator with a particular bent. Sometimes our narrator is inspiring, but sometimes our narrator confirms our deepest fears for us. Of course it’s always us narrating our own story.

You’d think we’d always choose an inspiring narrator, yet so many of us – myself included – fall prey at times to a terrible, uninspiring narrator. Where does this narrator come from? He/she is born out of our core beliefs.

Our core beliefs are all the ingrained positive and negative thoughts that influence how we think and feel about ourselves, and the world around us. Unless discovered and diminished, core beliefs tend to solidify and resist change.

Here is a list of some common negative core beliefs:

  • I always get the short end of the stick
  • I must be perfect at all times
  • I can never change
  • I must only look out for myself because no one else will
  • I am not a people person
  • I am never listened to or respected
  • I must strictly adhere to my plans

To compound matters further, our core beliefs start to hang out with our cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are beliefs our minds tell us to reinforce something that is untrue, and they typically reinforce something negative.

So you might start with the core belief, “This always happens to me” and end up with the cognitive distortion, “This will happen to me forever.” (Overgeneralizing)

Another example would be starting with the core belief, “I am never listened to or respected” which is then cemented in the brain with the cognitive distortion, “I must be boring and insignificant.” (Emotional Reasoning)

Do this enough and you will build a world around you that reflects your inner negativity, which will add to your stress, which will reinforce your negative self-talk, and so on and so forth. It’s a self-inflicted Murphy’s Law. The loop has to stop somewhere.

[There are approximately 15 cognitive distortions that psychologists have sorted out over the years that you can find here.]

How Negative Core Beliefs Affect a Leader’s Reaction to Stress

These negative beliefs and self-talk undermine a leader’s ability to handle stress effectively.

If you take as an example the core belief of “I must be perfect at all times” it’s easy to see how this will create anticipatory anxiety: you will not be perfect at some point in the future.

That anticipatory anxiety becomes a daily stress – either in the forefront or as a constant background buzz. The reaction to that daily stress is to mount even more anxiety and high-wire behavior to avoid the fear from coming to fruition.

Then, should we find ourselves imperfect at some point (which we of course will) we do not have the required cognitive energy to handle the stress as the anticipatory anxiety has already burned it up.

As another example, a leader with negative core beliefs might react to the news that sales are down by thinking, “This always happens to me.” Or in anticipation, “this is going to happen to me.”

Again, this response does not have the required resilience to think about how to change course. It has already deemed the current reality as permanent and unfixable.

We all write scripts for ourselves for how we will act or not act in certain situations. Rather than write yourself as the character that gets killed in the first act, write yourself as the hero who thinks outside of the box, who keeps the negative self-talk at bay.

How Negative Core Beliefs Affect a Leader’s Ability to Lead

When we bombard ourselves with negative self-talk, our anxiety mounts. As our anxiety mounts our stress builds, and it becomes contagious for all around us.

You might have an MBA from Wharton and a law degree from Harvard, but if you are a stress case your peers and colleagues will not notice your credentials; they’ll only notice your stressed out behavior.

Neuroscience backs up the notion that people find it hard to work for leaders who do not handle stress effectively. Everything that goes on in our environment affects the brain’s limbic system (emotional center). So it goes to reason that a stressed out leader will contaminate the emotional wellbeing of those around him/her. Frantic people make other people frantic.

Effective stress management makes you and everyone around you more efficient and productive.

How to Manage Our Negative Core Beliefs

Become Cognizant. Listen to your inner voice. How is it talking to you? Would you tolerate it if a friend talked to you in the same way? Pay close attention to your exact words and write them down. You’ll begin to see how the voice in your head contributes to stress.

Challenge the negative thought. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is my negative thought?
  • What evidence proves this thought true?
  • What evidence proves this thought false?
  • What unhealthy feelings and behaviors does this thought cause?
  • What will eventually happen if I continue to think this way?
  • What advice would I give a friend who feels this way?
  • What conditions should I accept right now? What won’t change?
  • What can I do to make my thinking more positive?
  • What words will express my new healthy thought?

How to Ultimately Beat the Negative Self-Talk

We don’t have to become Pollyannas to shift our self-talk. Simply by maintaining a healthy dose of realism we can improve our psychological health and ultimately our leadership skills. It is a learned optimism.

1. Get a coach or therapist. If your brain is looping with negative self-talk I highly recommend a coach or therapist to help break the spell. It is a sign of strength to admit you need help and allow an outside perspective.

2. Commit to Your Life. Pardon the new age analogy, but if you were a plant would you be flourishing and robust or would you be withered and half-dead? Get yourself in shape, physically, socially, and professionally. Water the plant! The more you are fulfilling what you see as your innate self the less time you’ll have to listen to the negative self-talk, but also…the less it will actually be talking to you in the first place.

3. Perceive Control Over Situations. You can choose how you react to a stressor and thus exert some degree of control over it. This takes practice, but you have to start. Don’t fret if you aren’t a master at perceiving control over situations at the beginning. You need to create new neural pathways in your brain, which requires repeated tries.

4. View Stressful Events as Problems or Opportunities. Those who cope successfully with stress tend to look at the silver linings as well as the clouds. Plus, once the event happens you have to react to it in some way. Might as well do it in the way where you and those you lead stand to benefit.

5. Give yourself some space. If you find that you are consumed with negative self-talk and cognitive distortions you may need to clear your head with a vacation or some time off. I recognize this may not be possible given your circumstances but see if you can carve out some personal time to re-boot your brain.

The bottom line is how do you want to feel about your life on a daily basis? While it may seem like you do not have control over your thoughts, actually the opposite is true: you do. And in each moment when you hear negativity in your head you have the opportunity to halt it and switch to something that feels good.

There’s no question life throws “unfair” curveballs our way. I’m not asking you to like them, but I am suggesting that once the curveball is acknowledged you don’t dwell on how bad it makes you feel.

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“I’m bigger and I’m faster. I will always beat you.”

This is what Joan Crawford tells her daughter, Christina, in the 1981 movie ‘Mommie Dearest’ after shamefully beating her in a swimming race. When it comes to your phone you might want to think of your brain as Joan Crawford and yourself as Christina; you can’t beat your brain’s phone addiction, it will always win.

new study has found that every time your phone distracts you with its buzzes and beeps your performance suffers, whether you respond to them or not.

A related study by Gloria Mark at the University of California-Irvine revealed that at work we are typically able to attend to one task for about three minutes before we are interrupted. They concluded that it takes about 20 minutes for people to return their full focus to the original task at hand. This does not bode well for productivity let alone our sanity.

Somewhere in the back of our minds we know we should not be beholden to this shiny object of immediate gratification, but there’s a fine line between knowing and doing. So why don’t we practice the doing more often?

1. The Dopamine Loop.

Dopamine makes you crave and desire, seek out and search. The Opioid system makes you feel pleasure. These two systems, the wanting and the liking, work hand in hand with each other to create the productivity zapping cycle known as the dopamine loop. The wanting (dopamine) propels you into action and the liking (opioid) makes you feel satisfied.

The problem is, your wanting system is more powerful and less satiable than your liking system.

Every time your phone chimes, dopamine piques your curiosity and starts you seeking. Then you get biologically rewarded for that seeking, which makes you seek even more. Over time, the reward cannot be great enough to satisfy the craving to check your phone to see if you have a new text, email, like, notification or whatever it may be. As with any of life’s addictions, this dopamine loop can be significantly more powerful than your human gift of self-control.

2. We are Pavlov’s dogs.

Dopamine can be triggered simply by the many sounds your phone uses to alert you, or any cue that you’ve come to associate with pleasure. You hear your phone ding or buzz and it immediately sets off the reflex to check (dopamine loop). If your phone is incessantly alerting you throughout the day the addiction to keep seeking is heightened.

3. Anticipating “The Liking” makes it even more difficult to focus.

Even thinking about your phone potentially buzzing will distract you from the task at hand. Once the buzz does come through, even if you are self-disciplined enough to keep it at bay, the simple fact that you are aware of something waiting for you is enough distraction to make your performance suffer.

4. Curiosity killed the cat and your focus.

Your mind will always pay attention to new stimuli over whatever you are immersed in.

Gloria Mark explains that our brain has this bias towards novel things. As such, our ability to sustain adequate levels of attention and concentration is easily toppled by anything new. So that ding or buzz we hear (and the association we have to it) works on us the same way a shiny new toy works on a baby. According to Mark, “humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we will to get a meal or a mate.” The end game is an ongoing battle between the part of our brain which desires the rewards from staying on task, and our brain’s novelty centre, that is continuing to search out the latest updates from our various apps.

5. We seek to minimize pain and maximize pleasure.

It was not so long ago that when you left the office you were unreachable. Our ever-demanding and connected world has given rise to the expectation of 24/7 accessibility. We have quickly learned to associate that buzz or beep with urgency and/or importance. Thus, not checking the phone can potentially cause anxiety, for fear our boss or whomever urgently needs to communicate something very important to us.

As humans, we will do anything to minimize pain (discomfort and anxiety) and maximize pleasure (the dopamine loop). The insatiability of the dopamine loop is sometimes the lesser of two evils.

Our brains and the addictive qualities of the dopamine loop are tough to counteract. There was a time, however, before the buzzes and dings when we had more self-control (well, some of us). There wasn’t the need for families to implement “tech free dinners.” We made eye contact instead of screen contact. These are all learned behaviors and learned behavior can be unlearned. Just like riding a bike, it can come back.

Here are a few things you can do to regain self-control:

Set some boundaries: If you don’t have to be on 24/7 then don’t be on 24/7. If you always respond in the moment then the world expects things from you in the moment. Set some boundaries to shape other people’s expectations that you are not accessible 24/7.

In case of emergency: Tell the people in your personal and professional life to call if there is an emergency versus text or email. That way you’ll know it’s necessary to pick up.

Re-adjust your settings: When you are working and need to focus, put your phone upside down and turn off the dings, beeps and buzzes on all devices. This is the only way you can stop the dopamine loop. You are not a rat in a cage so stop letting your technology force you to act like one.

Check at scheduled times. If you are working on a task, shut everything else off. Start with 5 minutes and build to 10 and so on. Just like training for a marathon, small wins and small goals help you stay on track.

Take a tech detox. Just for a day or two. It resets the system and you learn that life goes on without Facebook. You may even find that you can have a great face-to-face conversation again!

Get the SelfControl App. This app blocks access to email and certain websites for a pre-determined period of time. Fortunately for us junkies, the block cannot be deactivated until that time expires.

Do it because you care about other people. Just like second-hand smoke is harmful to those around you, so is second-hand beeping and buzzing. Just hearing a beep or buzz, yours or someone else’s, can zap productivity.

My phone is telling me I have to end this here so good luck. You can overcome this productivity zapper!

Originally published at blog.gotomeeting.co.uk on October 1, 2015.

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Nicole Lipkin, Psy.D., MBA is a organizational psychologist and the CEO of Equilibria Leadership Consulting. She is a speaker, consultant, and coach and has shared her expertise on NPR, NBC, Forbes, Entrepreneur, CBS, Fox Business News, and other media outlets. She is the author of “What Keeps Leaders Up At Night” and the co-author of “Y in the Workplace: Managing the “Me First” Generation.” Check out the award winning book trailer for What Keeps Leaders Up At Night.

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We all know the effects and ways of how stress causes ignorance. “I’m so stressed, I can’t take it anymore!” “Why am I so stressed?!” “This stress is killing me!” Any of these exclamations sound familiar? Today’s business environment is saturated with “little yipping Chihuahuas”: financial concerns, too much work, job dissatisfaction, marketplace pressure, time and soul sucking meetings, information overload and a host of other issues, which is why “I’m stressed” is probably one of the most commonly used and most relatable two words we have in our vocabulary.

Continue to AMA Playbook for the full blog…
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