by Michael E. Frisina, PhD, co-author of “Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence“
Do you typically come home from work feeling exhausted, depleted, and demoralized? Have you ever wondered why? After all, it’s unlikely that anything went terribly wrong. When you look back over the day, you might recall a few minor headaches, some rapid-fire problem-solving, and a handful of decisions made on the fly — in other words, just the wear and tear of daily business. So why do you regularly feel you’ve spent the past eight hours outrunning a saber-toothed tiger?
Your bone-deep work weariness is an indicator you’re spending a good portion of the day in your (more primitive) lower brain.
It’s rarely the big stressors that get to us; it’s the cumulative effect of all the microstressors we face. It’s the tense conversation with a client, the growing to-do list, that new goal you fear you won’t meet, the boss’s sarcastic comment.
Over and over, these small events trigger the part of the brain whose job is to stay hyperalert to threats and keep us safe. We’re in fight/flight/freeze mode five, ten, twenty times a day. That’s going to take a toll. It’s like death by a thousand paper cuts.
So what can you do about it? It’s not like toxic bosses, clueless coworkers, and demanding clients are going to change — and you can’t quit your job. The key is two-fold: 1) learn to quickly shift out of your lower brain when you’re triggered, and 2) proactively take steps to stay in upper brain mode (a positive, engaged, and empowered state of mind) most of the time.
Here are a few examples of both:
Four Tricks to Try When a Microstressor Hits…
1. Do a “trigger check.”
Learn how it feels when your lower brain is triggered. Self-awareness is key. You’ll start to feel anxious, edgy, defensive, and just want to get away from the situation. Realizing you are there and naming it is the first step to getting control of the situation. It’s when we don’t realize we’ve been triggered that we let things escalate or spiral.
2. Pause before you lash out.
It’s usually a good idea to pause when we know we’ve been triggered. Just taking a moment to breathe, calm down, and regroup can prevent us from reacting in a way that shuts down dialogue or even damages relationships.
3. Take a walk in the other person’s shoes.
Try to understand the person who is stressing you out. What is driving their behavior? What pressures do they face? How might they be perceiving you? There’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln that goes, ‘I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better’. It is so true. The more we know most people, the more we come to like them, and the more open we are to working with them.
4. Start asking questions.
Being inquisitive is powerful. First of all, it leads to learning, and learning is always a good thing. Too often we go into situations thinking we already know the answer. But this kind of self-righteousness makes us rigid, which sets us up for conflict and failure. We should really approach conversations with a What can I learn from you? attitude.
But also, asking questions opens minds, hearts, and doors. It shows people you care about them. They are far more likely to settle down, open up, and be more willing to cooperate and collaborate with you.
… And Four Upper Brain Boosters to Practice Daily
1. Start each day by listing three things you’re grateful for.
When we are fixated on What’s going to happen to me? we tend to get overwhelmed. When we’re in a state of gratitude, it gets the focus off ourselves, our fears, and what might go wrong.
2. Ask for clarity.
Vagueness and open-endedness spark anxiety. If you don’t understand the project, pin the boss down and ask. If you aren’t given a deadline, ask. If you’re not sure what comes first on a huge to-do list, ask. Knowing exactly what’s expected of you defuses worrying, wondering, and ruminating and sets you up to make progress on what matters.
3. Reframe a stressful project with these two questions.
Ask yourself, What is it about this project that feels hard or stressful? Then ask, Is what I’m thinking about in my control or out of my control? This shifts you away from confusing, fear-provoking “what-if” thinking and into productive, energized thinking. It frees you to focus on what you can control, not what you can’t.
4. Zero in on what’s going well.
At the start of a stressful project, re-read a positive email from a client or replay a recent win in your mind. Better yet, talk these things up in workplace conversations or during a meeting. The more we focus on what’s going well, the more likely we are to stay in upper brain.
One more point to remember: When you’re in lower brain, it doesn’t impact only you. It takes a toll on those around you as well.
The problem is, we get used to living in our lower brain, and it gets to be a habit. We start viewing the world from there, and it hurts everything: our relationships, our ability to spot opportunities, our capacity for joy.
The good news is, we have more control over our state of mind than we realize. The more we learn to stay in our upper brain, the more productive we’ll be, the more we can lift up others, and the more we can swing outcomes in our favor. Even more important, how we experience life will change for the better.
Michael E. Frisina, PhD, has authored more than 50 papers and published articles on leadership and organizational effectiveness. He is a contributing author to the Borden Institute’s highly acclaimed textbook series on military medicine. He is a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center in New York, a visiting fellow in medical humanities at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and a John C. Maxwell Top 100 Transformational Leader.