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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Stress (and ideas to help you cope!)

Most of us are aware that a certain amount of stress, in the right circumstances, can enhance performance. Whether we’re competing in a sporting event, trying to complete an important project, or negotiating the terms of a business deal, the adrenaline surge triggered by stress increases our focus and heightens our efficiency, enabling us to perform at the top of our game.

Yet we also know that stress, in addition to enhancing performance, sometimes undermines it. When our stress level is too high or the stress has lasted too long, we can’t concentrate. Creativity evaporates and frustration sets in. Our performance declines and we become distracted, forgetful, and inaccurate.

So how do the clinicians describe this:

“The primary hormonal mediators of the stress response, glucocorticoids and catecholamines, have both protective and damaging effects on the body. In the short run, they are essential for adaptation, maintenance of homeostasis, and survival (allostasis). Yet, over longer time intervals, they exact a cost (allostatic load) that can accelerate disease processes. The concepts of allostasis and allostatic load center around the brain as interpreter and responder to environmental challenges and as a target of those challenges ( Bruce S.McEwen Ph.D.“ Allostatis and Allostatic Load” In the  Neuropsychopharmacology Journal)

And below are just some of the negative health effects of long term stress:

  • Work related stress linked to increased blood fat levels, and cardiovascular health risks (Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 2013)
  • Activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain. This may result in mental disorders. ( Ruhr Universität in Germany)
  • Stress contributes directly to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. According to the results now published, stress induces the production of amyloid beta peptide – the molecule associated with the neural plaques characteristic of the disease – and also makes neurons more vulnerable to toxicity. (The Journal Molecular Psychiatry, based on a collaboration between scientists in Germany, Portugal and the UK.)

So where is the boundary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress?

  • The first step in monitoring and managing stress is understanding our own bodily responses to stressors.  Stress activates the body’s fight-or-flight response: heart rate and blood pressure go up, and several hormones are released into the blood stream, the most important of which are epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and cortisol.
  • In the short term, these hormones boost our focus, memory, and creativity. Harvard researchers Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, a century ago, calibrated the relationship between stress arousal and performance, finding that as stress goes up, so do efficiency and performance. However, once stress exceeds a certain level, they noted, its benefits disappear and performance declines. Mental flexibility, concentration, and mood all take a hit. This relationship between performance and stress has been dubbed the Yerkes-Dodson law.

To recognize when you’re edging closer to the downward slope of the Yerkes-Dodson curve:

  • Watch your attention. Are you having difficulty maintaining focus and energy following a long stretch of productive work?
  • Monitor your mood swings . Are you less optimistic about the outcome of your project than you were an hour into it? Has your excitement about a challenging problem turned to frustration?
  • Consider your stamina. Do you feel like you’re running out of steam? That you’ve hit a brick wall?
  • Listen to your body. Do you suddenly have a headache? What about back pain, an upset stomach or a racing pulse?

Making some lifestyle changes can also help you keep stress in check:

  • Try to stay grounded: As the phrase goes “Don’t sweat the small stuff” and try to stay on top of the bigger stuff. This means being a good planner and  that you handle the major tasks first.
  • Manage to your time clock: If you are a ‘lark’ then deal with the bigger tasks in the morning when you are at your most productive.
  • Exercise. A walk around the block at lunchtime will do more for your productivity than downing a hasty lunch hunched in front of your computer. My own experience is that being active is a great stress reliever.
  • Eat a balanced diet containing plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Get enough sleep: There are lots of recent scientific studies that show the impact of sleep deprivation on our mood and emotions. This makes us more susceptible to negative stress. 
  • Meditate: If you are comfortable with it, then meditation is a great and proven way to help you manage stress.

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to chose one thought over another.

William James (Psychologist and Philosopher 1842 – 1910)

 

Organizations as Brains!

“The metaphor is perhaps one of man’s most fruitful potentialities.” Jose Ortega Y Gasset

In 1986 Gareth Morgan published a ground-braking book called “ Images of Organization” in which he used different metaphors to understand the complex and paradoxical nature of organisational life.  One of the more interesting metaphors he uses is organisations as ‘brains’. He names the chapter ‘Toward Self-Organization’  as he feels the principle of self-organisation most closely resembles the functioning of the brain .

Morgan felt that in using the brain as a metaphor for the organisation we may improve our ability to organise in a manner that improves flexibility and creativity.

The importance of developing organisations as learning systems is strongly emphasised reflecting the incredible capacity of our brains to absorb and use data.  Morgan introduces the interdisciplinary science of cybernetics to focus the insight that developed from this science of the ability of a system to engage in self-regulating behaviour using negative feedback. He believes that cybernetics leads to a theory of communication and learning based around four principles:

  1. The system must have the ability to sense, monitor and scan significant aspects of their environment
  2. They must be able to relate the information to the operating norms that guide system behaviour.
  3. They must be able to detect significant deviations from these norms.
  4. They must be able to initiate action when discrepancies are detected.

Gareth Morgan identifies the shortcoming of such a system is the reliance of the ongoing appropriateness of the norms set. He then introduces the more advanced concept of “ double-loop” learning which depends on being able to take a “double look” at the situation by questioning the relevance of operating norms.

In another highly acclaimed book, four years later, “ The Fifth Discipline” by  Peter Senge developed this whole concept of learning in organisations.  The concept of the ‘Learning Organisation’ became a core theme in the management of organisations.

Returning to the idea of the organisation as a ‘brain’ the Harvard Business Review had an excellent article in July-Aug 2013 edition, called “ The Brain at Work”. In the article the authors considered four core brain networks and described how they might be considered in improving the way we work.The four networks outlined were:

  • The Default Network: : The default network is responsible for one of our most prized abilities: transcendence. The capacity to envision what it’s like to be in a different place, a different time, a different person’s head, or a different world altogether is unique to humans and most potent when the default network is highly engaged. During transcendence, people’s brains “detach” themselves from the external environment, meaning they stop processing external stimuli. If we now consider this in the context of Gareth Morgan’s metaphor of the organisation as a brain we might think of this as the Strategic Innovative aspect of the organisation.
  • The Reward Network:   in response to stimuli that induce enjoyment—such as food and water, money, and praise. Considering this in relation to the metaphor we could view this as the Motivational aspect of the organisation – engagement, monetary recompense, praise etc.
  • The Control Network: when people weigh long-term consequences, check their impulses, and selectively focus their attention. In Gareth Morgan’s metaphor this could be likened to the Formal aspects of the organisation, the policies & procedures that align and control the risks within the organisation.
  •   The Affective Network:  Activates when people experience their emotionsThe Organisation Culture in the Morgan metaphor.  The drivers, the passion or entropy existing in the organisation as exhibited through the human aspects of the culture. How do people deal with each other?

The great hope is that by using metaphor or by developing greater understanding of our brain we may learn to create better organisations that are both more effective, innovative  and more suitable for people to learn & develop their individual potential.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.Isaac Newton

We have so much information readily available to us through the internet and multiple other sources, it is sometimes hard to separate the valuable from the vacuous. We know through various studies that our brain changes, either positively or negatively, based on our experiences which includes our reading and learning.

The following are, in my opinion, valuable sources listed under relevant headings:

1.   The Examined Life

Socrates said – “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Many of the great Greek and Roman philosophers spent their lives trying to understand human nature. One of my favourites in that regard is Marcus Aurelius who was also emperor of Rome. His reflections on human issues in his “Meditations” sketched out the essential traits of human character and describe ways of coping with adversity.

2.   The Importance of Meaning in our Lives

In a study on happiness published in 2013 in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) the authors wrote “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided

My favourite book on this topic is by Victor Frankl and is called “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Victor Frankl is an internationally renowned psychiatrist who endured years of unspeakable horror in Nazi death camps. At the core of his psychotherapy is the belief that man’s primary motivational force is his search for meaning.

3.   Understanding the Power of the Subconscious Mind

The subconscious is ceaselessly murmuring, and it is by listening to these murmurs that one hears the truth. Gaston Bachelard

We have learnt so much in the past 20 years about the human brain and everything points to the fact that the unconscious mind is the place where most of the brain workings takes place, including most of our decision making and also where character is formed. Read David Brooks very readable book, written in 2011, called “The Social Animal” and gain a real understanding of how our subconscious drives our lives.

4.   Why Emotional Intelligence is more important than IQ

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective  relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”      Daniel Goleman

Although Daniel Goleman is undoubtedly the author who brought emotional intelligence to us as a core concept I would recommend reading Dr.Martyn Newman’s book called “Emotional Capitalists” as I think it is more readable and practical in its approach.

5.   Being Positive

“Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.” William James

Besides the obvious emotional benefit to ourselves and those around us, we know now that being positive will prolong our life. We also know from that great psychologist Martin Seligman who started the Positive Psychology movement that we can do a lot to create a positive frame of mind.

I would recommend “ Flourish by Dr.Seligman and/or a visit to his website: http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/

6.   Resilience

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling,
but in rising every time we fall.” ― Nelson Mandela

We all face challenges and conflicts, though some people seem to get more than their fair share. It is how we deal with these hurdles in our lives often is the difference in leading a successful fulfilling life or in failing to achieve our potential as humans.

I found the book by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte called “The Resilience Factor” useful in understanding how resilience affects our lives and gives us a sense of our own resilience.

On the other hand a book called “ Chasing Dayllight” by Eugene O’Kelly was inspiring in demonstrating that, even in the face of death, how someone responds to events makes all the difference.

7.   Spirituality

“Spirituality is that which gives meaning to one’s life and draws one to transcend oneself. Spirituality is a broader concept than religion, although that is one expression of spirituality. Other expressions include prayer, meditation, interactions with others or nature, and relationship with God or a higher power.” ( Burkhardt, M.)

I could refer back to the ‘Importance of Meaning in our Lives’ as many find this through religion or other spiritual routes but I wanted to include a separate section on this. Identifying your spiritual path is a very personal issue but also a very important one to maintaining a balanced life. Two of my personal favourite books in this regard “Anam Cara” by John O’Donoghue and The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran.

 

Why do Good People do Bad Things in Groups?

When people get together in groups, unusual things can happen – both good and bad.  Most of us are aware of the groupthink psychological phenomenon that occurs, within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.

There is, however, an even more sinister aspect – belonging to a group makes people more likely to act contrary to their own personal moral standards. A recently reported MIT study found ‘groups’ will often engage in actions that that are outside the private moral standards of each individual in that group.

Several factors can play into this transformation including factors like greater anonymity and a diminished sense of responsibility for collective action. However, the MIT study studied a third factor that cognitive scientists believe may be involved in this group dynamic: the hypothesis that when people are in groups, they “loss touch” with their own morals and beliefs and become more likely to do things that they would normally consider as wrong.

In the study the researchers measured brain activity in a part of the brain involved in thinking about oneself. They found that this activity was reduced in some people when the subjects participated in a competition as part of a group, compared with when they competed as individuals.  Those people were more likely to ‘harm’ their competitors than people who did not exhibit the decreased brain activity.

Mina Cikara, the lead author of the study explained “This process alone does not account for intergroup conflict: Groups also promote anonymity, diminish personal responsibility, and encourage reframing harmful actions as ‘necessary for the greater good’. Still, these results suggest that, at least, in some cases, explicitly reflecting on one’s own personal moral standards may help to attenuate the influence of ‘mob mentality’.

While these results may explain some of the damaging decisions taken by corporate Boards and other groups that led to disaster in the financial sector in the recent past, the core learning from such a study should be towards guiding policy around group behaviour going forward.

“The individual makes a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups of persons holding them and apart from the individual’s own identification with the group.”    Lawrence Kohlber

 

A Life with Purpose adds Years to your Life

Recent research published in Psychological Science demonstrated that a greater purpose in life consistently predicted a lower mortality risk across the lifespan, showing the same benefit for younger, middle-aged, and older individuals. The research looked at data from over 6000 participants, focusing on their self-reported purpose in life and other psychosocial variables that gauged their positive relations with others and their experience of positive and negative emotions.

Over the 14 year follow-up period 569 participants in the study had died (9% of sample). Those that died had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors. Lead researcher Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada said ” Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose”  This confirms previous studies that suggested that finding a purpose in life extends your lifespan above and beyond other factors that are known to predict longevity.

Purpose had similar benefits for adults regardless of retirement status, a known mortality risk factor.  And the longevity benefits of purpose in life held even after other other indicators of psychological well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions. ” These finds suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,”  says Hill.

In his inspirational book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1905-1997) wrote about his experience in a concentration camp in Second World War. his experience as a concentration camp inmate taught him that our main drive or motivation in life is neither pleasure (as Freud had stated) nor power (as Adler had thought) but meaning / purpose. For Frankl, meaning or purpose can be found through:

  • Creativity or giving something to the world through self-expression,
  • Experiencing the world by interacting authentically with our environment and with others,
  • Changing our attitude when we are faced with a circumstance or situation that we cannot change.

Frankl is credited with coining the term ‘ Sunday neurosis’ to refer to the dejection that is felt at the end of the working week when a person may realise that their life lacks meaning. This vacuum can lead to all sorts of excesses and compensatory behaviour such as anxiety, avoidance, bingeing on food and/or drink, overworking & overspending.

If you haven’t yet done so, find your purpose or meaning in life. It may change through your lifetime.

Even more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” Victor Frankl 

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