A slightly shorter version of this article has also been published in the Globe and Mail Careers.
It is late afternoon and a busy executive, whom we will call Sue, is trying to finish up a project before she leaves to get her daughter from daycare. Simultaneously she is also dealing with several other priorities on her plate. Already running late, she receives an urgent email from her boss advising of a change in direction for a proposal due the next day. Feeling stressed, Sue feels her anxiety escalate even further. Just when she needs it most, her normally sharp ‘thinking brain’ seems to freeze up. She feels overwhelmed, frustrated and stuck not knowing how to handle the demands piling up.
Bye Bye Thinking Capacity – Hello Brain Freeze?
Sound familiar? Many people can likely relate to this scenario. It’s normal to feel occasional bouts of overwhelm. Most people want to do well and to feel good about their work. But when stress levels go into overdrive, judgment, prioritizing and other critical thinking skills can become compromised, further escalating stress and impacting performance – and wellbeing.
Take heart. It may not be you. It could be your brain. And with just a little neuroscience savvy and a few brain-friendly strategies you can be better equipped to handle those times of ‘crazy busy’, boost your performance and feel calmer too.
Brain Work 101: The Higher Thinking Brain vs. the Survival Brain.
Blame your stress on the amygdala – the part of the brain that ‘detects and protects’. Formed earliest in our evolution and part of the limbic system, the amygdala is akin to being a ‘survival brain’ with a super sharp ability to scan for and react to any perception of danger. Reacting instantaneously to any hint of threat, it gets us ready for fight or flight. Eliciting what’s known as the “stress response” with the release of adrenaline and cortisol to get our heart pumping and muscles primed for….well that depends on what happens next.
Is that a lion or a crazy deadline? The amygdala doesn’t know or care. Its job is not to discern whether the threat is real or perceived; its job is simply to protect. When we experience an emotional response related to our work or life (‘oh no, not another crazy deadline or yet another change!), it fires the alarm just as it would if there was a real physical threat.
Unfortunately since survival always trumps reflection this happens at the expense of another essential part of our brain: the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which handles higher thinking skills like critical thinking, discernment, judgment and other cognitive skills. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) works best when under moderate stress and gets suppressed when the amygdala is all fired up. Paradoxically, we need the skills of the prefrontal cortex to deal effectively with the stressful ‘stuff’ of work and life.
Bring back the calm
To get a grip in a stressful moment, we need strategies that put the perceived threat back into its respectful cage and deliberately bring our higher thinking abilities (via the PFC) back online. Here are six brain-friendly strategies to help you “tame your brain” and give your higher thinking brain a better chance at doing its work.
Six Strategies to Tame Your Brain and Give Your Higher Thinking Brain a Better Chance
When in the midst of a stressful moment, take a moment to simply pause. While it may feel counter-intuitive when rushed with time-sensitive workloads, a short pause provides a time buffer that can weaken the impulse and mitigate falling into the stress response. Counting to 10 or 20, breathing deeply or taking a short break can provide that reprieve amidst a sense of urgency and chaos. More importantly, this intentional break can give you that small but critical opening for more productive thinking and putting things in better perspective.
2) Notice and Name it.
In his book “Your Brain at Work, David Rock, President of the Neuroleadership Institute, shares a powerful yet simple strategy for bringing your higher thinking skills (via the prefrontal cortex) back on line. Simply observe and then name your emotional reaction. For instance, you might say to yourself, “I’m feeling very stressed” or “I’m frazzled”. It’s important to notice then label the experience without feeding into the emotion. While this awareness won’t likely give you full relief this simple cognitive act engages the PFC which can diffuse the strength of the ‘amygdala attack’ — making room for a more reflective approach. Additionally, engaging the prefrontal cortex can elicit the hormone know as Gaba (gamma-amino butyric acid ) which provides a calming effect when there is too much adrenaline in the body.
Our left hemisphere brains love it when we make plans and get organized. Organizing is a powerful antidote to overwhelm and can provide a calming effect when we feel chaos and fear. Write out a to-do list; revisit your priorities; create an action plan; clean up the clutter on your desk or in a file. Do anything that gives you (and your brain) a greater sense of order amidst all the pressure of a demanding workload.
Our brains crave focus. But all too often we work against this by trying to multi-task. Our brains, in fact, are not built for multi-tasking attention. Instead, the brain simply toggles from one thinking task to another. This constant switching is a major energy drain and a first class ticket to frazzle. This unfocused waste of attention also compromises productivity, creativity and efficiency. Instead, work on scheduling more focus time in your day; chunk down your priorities and focus on one task at a time. Pay attention to your habits and notice where you can reign in the multitasking beast.
While our left hemisphere of our brain craves order, the right hemisphere can help us access calm with strategies like visualizing, looking at the big picture, and reflecting on meaningful symbols and metaphors. Try to visualize success in handling a challenge you are facing; create an image in your mind that inspires calm; identify and tune into a metaphor that symbolizes strength. The possibilities are endless. The key is to integrate your whole brain and that includes both left and right hemisphere brain strengths.
Interacting with people you like can boost levels of the Oxytocin hormone which can have a calming effect when stressed. Avoid the urge to hide or go it alone. Instead seek out others whom you trust and can count on for support.
So – how do you manage work overload?
Here’s to your personal and professional wellbeing.