What If You’re Doing Stress All Wrong?

September 26, 2016

You’ve heard the recommendations about managing stress for years. They say too much stress can be bad for you. You’ve even heard it can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. You hear someone say “Stress can kill you” and you nod your head because you’ve heard that’s true.

But you’re not sure you believe it, not completely. The way you see it, stress is what motivates the high achiever. Stress is part of the challenge you take on to get the big prize. A necessary evil.

Maybe you try some suggestions about reducing your stress. You:

  • Plan some time to decompress every so often after work, to kick back and relax for a while. But who’s got time for that? Slow down and you’ll fall behind! Besides, isn’t dinner and drinks with friends – okay, a business dinner – enough relaxation?
  • Plan to take a break for a few minutes in your day and get some physical activity, deep breathing, time with nature, or whatever. But who can really get deep breaths and relax when the proposal has to be done by close of business? And how can you enjoy taking a walk in a park to appreciate nature when you have 5 calls to return?
  • Try a brand-new time management system to schedule everything, I mean everything, not just the important stuff, because that way you can keep it all contained. But what urgent situation schedules itself on your calendar before erupting? How many people are going to check your Google calendar before calling you about a big problem?

So you keep doing what you’ve been doing, hoping that watching sports on the weekend is kind of like de-stressing (pretty risky if you’re a Cowboys fan) or getting together for drinks will help you relax. Sadly, while excitement is fun, it doesn’t help with stress. And alcohol is just a chemical pause for stress, not a solution.

Fortunately, there are a couple of important new pieces to the stress puzzle that can completely change how you prepare for and respond to stress. Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, summarized them in her 2013 TED Talk.

McGonigal for years warned people of the research-proven health risks of too much stress. And they can be pretty bad. Heart disease, risk of heart attack, risk of stroke, plus other chronic illnesses. What the new research showed, and what made McGonigal feel guilty, is that those health risks only exist for people who believe stress will harm them.

People who don’t believe stress is physically harmful don’t have increased health risks from stress. Your mindset, how you understand things and what you expect, makes all the difference in the world.

Some of the people in a study were prompted with a new belief about stress. They were told:

  • Your faster heart rate is preparing you for action.
  • Your faster breathing gets oxygen to your brain.
  • You are getting ready for what’s coming your way.

People who were taught this belief were less stressed out, less anxious, and more confident during the study and showed no negative health impact from stress down the road. Their physical response to stress changed. A typical stress response is that your heart rate goes up and your vessels constrict. For these people, heart rate increased but vessels stayed open. It was the same physical response as people who experience joy or courage.

It gets better. There’s a hormone in your body called oxytocin. It has a big role in bonding, establishing emotional connections. Turns out it also plays an important role in stress. Oxytocin protects your cardiovascular system from stress. It’s anti-inflammatory, helping blood vessels stay relaxed.

Your heart has receptors for oxytocin. When you reach out you release oxytocin. It strengthens your heart. It helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. Your stress response becomes healthier and you recover from stress more quickly.

That means our stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection. Oxytocin motivates you to seek support and to connect, and when you do additional oxytocin protects you from stress.

The harmful effects of stress on health are not inevitable. When you choose to view the stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. When you choose to connect with others under stress, you create resilience.

Intrigued? Click here to see the TED Talk.

This post appeared in the Grapevine Chamber of Commerce Blog as part of the Experts Series.

I’m Looking for a Word

January 18, 2016

I’m looking for a word.

I’ve been looking for it for quite a while. So long, in fact, that I worry it may not exist. But I’m not giving up yet.

The word describes the collection of qualities that make a person excellent at handling responsibilities, especially multiple competing responsibilities, and able to deal with unexpected challenges with grace and agility. It encompasses all the characteristics you would want in a person you put in charge of something important. It defines what you want to develop in yourself when you seek to become more resilient, more flexible, more capable, and more confident as you pursue important goals.

I can come up with lots of words that describe important components of this whole concept. But I can’t come up with one that describes the concept. It includes all the important qualities of a leader apart from the ability to inspire, guide, and manage other people. Everything that’s important for leadership apart from the ability to lead others.

In a leadership course, when we discussed what leadership means, one of the first responses was, “In order to be a leader you have to have followers.” My question was what do we then call people who are in charge, carrying all the responsibility, following a compelling vision, and creating something important, but who have no followers?

The solo entrepreneur is a great example. She or he is responsible for doing the work, serving the client or creating the product, and for managing the details of the business. They have multiple roles to fill, and while they might contract with someone to do one or more roles, such as a part-time virtual assistant or a marketing consultant, those people are not followers. They are other businesses or self-employed people providing a service. If “leader” implies “follower,” then leader is not the correct term for the solo entrepreneur’s role in their own business.

Another example is an artist. Whether painting, sculpting, blowing glass, composing music, writing novels, or creating any other art, the artist is in charge of the art and carries the responsibility for producing it. The artist has the vision and guides the creative process. But the artist is not the leader of the project. Successfully creating art is not leadership. What is it?

A third example is the doctoral student who has to complete a dissertation, the comprehensive write-up of their research project, in order to complete their degree. The doctoral student is in charge of and responsible for the finished project. The doctoral student has a dissertation committee of professors who will offer some guidance and ultimately be the ones who approve the final product once all requirements have been met. The doctoral student may do their research in cooperation with other students or as part of a professor’s research team, but their dissertation is their own project. They have to work with other people in some ways, but it’s an individual project in many ways.

The doctoral student isn’t the leader of their dissertation. The doctoral student doesn’t succeed because of great leadership skills. What do we call the quality the doctoral student has to develop and leverage to be successful at self-directed, complex, demanding work?

I have identified the components – at least many of them – in an effort to discover the word. Again, they’re the things you would list as important for good leadership, apart from leading other people. They’re the things that make a person great at being in charge and likely to be successful in their undertakings.

  • Ability to handle responsibility
  • Ability to juggle multiple, competing responsibilities
  • Agility, the ability to handle various circumstances
  • Flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances
  • Initiative (self-starter)
  • Self-direction
  • Internal motivation
  • Decision-making
  • Commitment
  • Diligence
  • Persistence
  • Resourcefulness
  • Intentionality
  • Versatility
  • Capability
  • Talent
  • Skill

When we see someone stepping up to suggest a path forward in a difficult situation, recommending how a group can come together to solve a problem or organize their work or form stronger bonds, we say that person is showing leadership. When we see someone capable, resolute, determined, effective, and organized in his or her own work, able to manage a complex solo project with great results, without any followers or teammates, we don’t call that leadership.

A great leader wants people to have this capacity and will help those they lead develop it. This capacity is an important one for leaders to have, a key component of leadership, but it isn’t leadership.

What is it?

It is the ability to function autonomously, meaning not requiring a lot of direction from others, in a very effective, productive way. It is the ability to be excellent at being in charge of something without needing a leader to explain how to do it.

Is it self-leadership? Not quite. A person exhibiting self-leadership can identify areas for their personal growth to develop more of this capacity. A person needs this capacity in order to be self-led, to be able to enact what they decide is important in their life. But the capacity developed is not self-leadership.

Is it self-determination? That implies will and choice, but does not speak to the development of capability and competency. Self-determination hints at ability, because free will and choice without the power to enact the choice don’t determine an outcome. But the capacity is about handling responsibility autonomously and effectively, not about determining the course of one’s own life. It is a necessary capacity for those who want to determine the course of their own lives, but one can use this capacity in service of goals that are requests from others, so it’s not self-determination.

I help my clients develop this capacity. I continue to develop it in me. I’ll keep helping others develop it and developing it in myself whether I have the word to define it or not. But I really want to find this word!

I love words. I love language. And I enjoy sketching out word clouds and considering the details of what is and is not contained in various words and phrases.

Up to a point.

After a while it can become frustrating and tiring. Frankly, it bugs me not to have an answer.

This has been an interesting and mostly enjoyable exploration, but I won’t be sad when it comes to an end. I’m ready to find my word.

Any suggestions on where I can look?

Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose

December 3, 2015

Three more words that speak to the reason behind my business. They are capacities and qualities I evoke in my clients through our work together.

But I wonder how these specific words sound to people not regularly involved in discussions of psychology and human development. Is there a better language choice that will resonate with more people? The concepts definitely resonate, whatever people consider them to be.

This whiteboard animation of part of Dan Pink’s presentation on what motivates us to do great work takes about 10 minutes.

Personal Power

February 15, 2013

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

This is The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, widely recognized because it is used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step recovery programs as an encouraging and guiding principle.

Actually, it’s just the first part of The Serenity Prayer. Most people probably don’t even know there’s a second part. I imagine it’s because the first part easily speaks to people of many faiths, and the philosophy can even be applied by people of no faith. The second part isn’t as universally accessible because it’s specifically Christian.

The point of The Serenity Prayer is to understand personal power and use it effectively. Personal power is about your ability to direct and influence yourself, your environment, and other people (in a respectful and open way).

Personal power includes your ability to exercise your executive function. That’s an aspect of your mind that allows you to take in information from the world around you, evaluate it, make decisions, and make them happen.

Personal power also includes your ability for self-regulation. This means being aware of your drives, emotions, and urges, and understanding what purpose they serve. It means using them as messages signaling to you what’s going on with your body and your mind so you can mindfully consider what they’re saying and what you’re going to do about them. It means choosing and acting with intention instead of being directed by them or even pushed around by them.

Personal power includes social intelligence. That is your ability to understand other people through your empathy so you can see life from their point of view. It is your ability to understand how their drives, emotions, and urges are influencing them. It is your ability to understand that people have different beliefs and values so you take the time to learn about a person before making inaccurate assumptions.

Personal power includes the ability to delay gratification. That means you can compare the value of a near-term gain with the value of a long-term gain and compare the cost of a near-term sacrifice with a long-term gain. Delaying gratification is saving money over time to be able to make a down payment on a house, getting the long-term gain, instead of spending the money right away for a short-term gain. It’s also giving up free time and taking on a challenging goal, like finishing a degree, which involves near-term sacrifice, for the long-term gain of more opportunities.

Personal power includes the very courage that is requested in the prayer. It involves developing your abilities and continuing to push yourself outside your comfort zone so you learn new things and become more capable. It involves learning new skills and taking on new challenges so you can experience more things, understand more things, and master more things.

Personal power means being clear about your strengths and talents and developing them, because you understand the things you will do best are the ones that rely on your strengths and talents. It means being clear about your values, knowing what you value and why, so you can make choices that align with them.

You develop your personal power through self-exploration, self-discovery, self-development, and self-expression. When you do that, your core self becomes your guiding compass and your internal source of energy.

That means people who have personal power are core driven.

Isn’t it beautiful how these two qualities come together? I love it!

Where Are You?

January 30, 2013

I am called to serve people who feel trapped in their lives, stuck in a rut dug by masses following someone else’s dreams instead of their own, shoving themselves into boxes (or cubicles) designed for someone else. Someone else who is very different from them, someone else who is very much “like everybody else,” someone else whose greatest aspiration is to fit in. My heart is drawn to these people. My mind is tuned to their struggles.

Like the sonar technician in the submarine listening carefully to hear clues in the echoed pings, I listen for hints in people’s conversations that they’re plodding along unfulfilled. That their talents are wasted, undeveloped, maybe even undiscovered.

Some of these people are on the fringe, not quite fitting in with the groups around them. Others are in the group, playing along, but not feeling connected. They’re just going through the motions. The lost on the fringe and lost in the crowd people are pretty similar, actually. Whether they’re by themselves or surrounded by people, because they aren’t engaged with people like them, people who really “get” them and encourage them and celebrate them, they’re pretty lonely.

They feel like they’re not getting enough air. They feel like they’re just wasting time. They feel like there is meaning and purpose to life, but they’re not connected with it.

What I understand is that the isolation, the suffocation, the lack of purpose, and the lack of engagement are all part of the same problem. They happen because people aren’t using their core strengths. They’re not developing and expressing their talents. They’re not engaged in communities of people who recognize and respond to their strengths and talents the way improvisational musicians or actors or dancers do, with intuition and ease and enjoyment.

They aren’t connected to the core of who they are, so their core self isn’t thriving. It’s withering. It’s not getting the nourishment, water, and sunlight it needs. It’s under too much pressure, left unprotected in the freezing cold or blistering heat, dried up or flooded, blocked from the light.

That’s what happens to your core self while you’re stuck in a rut or trapped in a box. It slowly atrophies, but it pitches a whopper of a fit as it does. I hear the longing of a closed off core self in wistful “what ifs” and “could have beens.” I hear it in the resigned despair of a person who can’t figure out what’s missing or what needs to change. And I hear it as the frustration building in someone who is craving escape.

But I can only feel the pleas of the core self when I can hear or read someone’s words, or hear their tone of voice, or read their nonverbal cues. My sonar is close range. I have to have some kind of interaction with a person to be able to feel their core self reaching out for help.

I’m on a mission to liberate people stuck in careers and lives that drain the joy out of them. But I’m not sure how to find them. The ones I’ve met don’t have common careers or backgrounds or life experiences, other than not really feeling alive on the inside. They’re in all kinds of work, all kinds of life stages, and all kinds of places.

I know you’re out there. I know you’re desperate to find the thing that will make a difference, the missing piece that will bring excitement and purpose and joy to your life. I’d love to help you. I know what we can do to figure this out.

But I don’t know where you are.