As a previous senior leader and in my current work with leaders, I appreciate that everyone is busy. In fact, I’ve been known to say that we need a new word for “busy” as this word feels sorely insufficient to describe the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world of work we operate in.
Driven in part by pervasive technology and changing expectations of the way we work, we are taking on more, working longer hours, spending less time with family and friends, and depriving ourselves of those things we enjoy most. When we do finally leave our worksite, we don’t actually leave our work – it follows us through the invisible tether of our devices. Even when our phone notifications are turned off, we remain acutely aware of the ever-present work emails and texts invisibly hanging over our family dinners, kids’ soccer games, and bedtime stories. The result is that the majority of leaders today are in a constant state of stress.
The majority of leaders today are in a constant state of stress.
Stress is the biggest and fastest growing health concern in today’s workplace. Statistics Canada reports that 1 in 4 Canadian workers are highly stressed, with 62% of workers citing work as their number one stressor. And chronic stress has been known to trigger a wide variety of physical and mental health issues. A few years ago, when working as a senior manager, I fell victim to the chronic stress my body was experiencing and was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. At the time I thought I was managing my stress; my body and brain said differently. While struggling to manage my illness, it suddenly became clear that for me to function effectively at work, I needed to build my reservoir of resilience and learn effective coping mechanisms to support me in a healthful way.
Our brains have not evolved quickly enough
to adequately navigate our new work reality
One of the things I learned is that, while we need to be able to operate successfully in this new work world, our brains have not evolved quickly enough to adequately navigate our new work reality. To be resourceful, creative, and showing up as our best selves, we need the prefrontal cortex of our brains to be fully activated. This region of the brain is responsible for our executive reasoning and manages a variety of processes like problem solving, attention, planning, and memory.
And yet, in the midst of work swirl, our amygdala – the fear center of our brains – gets in the way of our prefrontal cortex, automatically reacting to what it perceives as threats in our environment. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very useful function when we are presented with a threat to our safety such as an oncoming vehicle or a suspicious looking person following us on a dark night. In response to these threats, our amygdala releases cortisol into our system, activating our reaction to “fight, flight, or freeze”, so we can protect ourselves.
We lose our ability to show up as our best selves.
Our amygdala serves an incredibly important function to ensure our safety and survival. However, our amygdala can’t tell the difference between an oncoming vehicle about to crash into you and 3 more urgent priorities dropping onto your plate in the midst of a meeting-crammed day, 2 report deadlines, an endless barrage of emails and phone calls on top of an already overflowing list of priorities. Its response is the same; cortisol flooding our system, automatically moving us into a reactive state. We move to doing – to taking action in the best way we can. And yet, studies have shown that in this state, we lose our ability to be fully resourceful, creative, and our best selves.
When we are at the mercy of VUCA overload,
what can we do to be effective leaders?
So, how can we overcome our amygdala hijacking us? When we are in the midst of work-swirl, how can we return to a place of being resourceful, creative, and our best selves? When we are at the mercy of VUCA overload, what can we do to be effective leaders?
There are three things I learned which helped me, and continue to help me whenever work and life starts to feel overwhelming.
Step 1: Pause
While pausing may feel counterintuitive to our instincts to move quickly and drive forward, pausing is an essential step to reining in our amygdala response. In his book, “The Pause Principle”, Kevin Cashman describes pausing as integral to leadership success. He defines pausing as “the conscious, intentional process of stepping back…to lead forward”. When we intentionally pause, we gift ourselves with space in which to fully consider and process our next steps.
In the midst of work swirl, pausing may seem difficult. Taking time to simply stop for a moment can feel virtually impossible. And yet pausing doesn’t need to take much time. Just one to three minutes of pausing can create the brain-shift we need to take us from a place of overwhelm to a state of resourcefulness.
Step 2: Breathe
When our amygdala is on high alert, and we are feeling frustrated, overworked, or overwhelmed, our breathing tends to become shallow. When this happens, taking a few slow, deep breaths counteracts our stressful emotions.
Take a deep breath. As you inhale, count to 4, filling your lungs all the way up with air. Hold your breath for the count of 4. Then release your breath slowly, fully, for a count of 8. Repeat this between 3 to 5 times. When you are finished, allow your breath to resume its normal rhythm. The simple act of mindful deep breathing helps center us, calming our amygdala response.
As you finish this short breathing activity, notice how you are feeling.
Step 3: Acknowledge
Acknowledging has two parts.
First, consciously acknowledge what you are feeling. Do this by naming your emotions. Studies have shown that naming our emotions helps to reduce their impact on us. Dr. Dan Siegel refers to this process as “name it to tame it”.
Here is what the naming process looks like this — you can say the words out loud, or in your head, whatever works best for you:
- I am feeling frustrated, stressed, angry, etc. (note here, the word “feel”. We don’t say “I am” my emotion – this defines our identify by our emotions, and makes it challenging to distance ourselves from what we’re feeling)
- I am having thoughts that this is upsetting
- Stress…stress…. Stress…. OR anger…anger….anger, etc.
As you label your emotions, you will start to feel their hold on you lessening. A distance is created between yourself and what you’re feeling, your amygdala response softens, and you activate the brain’s prefrontal cortex, allowing you to become more resourceful. From here, you can consciously and intentionally choose how to respond.
The second part of acknowledging is intentionally asking yourself, “How do I want to be right now?” Do you want to be calm? Thoughtful? Kind? Focused? What state of being would support you in showing up as your best self in this moment? Once you have determined this, acknowledge how you want to be by naming your intention. Take a moment to feel into your intention – how does it feel to show up as calm, focused, thoughtful, kind, focused, etc. What does this feel like in your body?
Focusing on how you want to feel, imagining how it feels, and setting this intention, provides an anchor that you can revisit whenever you start feeling yourself being distracted by everything coming at you. You can remind yourself of your intention, to help you show up the way you want.
These three simple steps can make a world of difference.
In my own personal experience, practicing these three simple steps has helped shift me to a place of resourcefulness, where I’m better able to continue my work and be my best self. I’ve also worked with leaders who assert that taking these steps has made a world of difference in their ability to be more resilient and better able to navigate their VUCA worlds.
So, the next time you’re feeling workload threatening to overwhelm you, I invite you to try this approach. See what difference these three steps can make for you.