“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”–Robert Frost
If you’re like most people, you might not know much about your own brain. Yet your brain is who you are—the boss of your mind and body. It’s important to know what it’s up to, especially when you’re under pressure to perform. Modern imaging techniques have advanced our understanding of this amazing organ and how it functions under stress. As a result, you can actually rewire your own brain to stay cool when things fall apart.
Get To Know Your Brain: Both Of Them
Your lizard brain (the emotional, reactive part of the brain in the limbic system related to survival such as anxiety, fear and anger) is hardwired to constantly scan your inner and outer worlds for threats and to react automatically to perceived threats—even if they’re not real. Your prefrontal cortex (the rational, decision making or executive functioning part of the brain) is located in the frontal lobe of your brain. It gives you an objective, impartial perspective of career stressors. When your lizard brain senses a workplace threat or a similar situation to a memory it has already recorded, it kicks into survival mode to protect you from psychological concerns: tight deadlines, competition for a promotion, conflict with a coworker, financial pressures or job loss. Suppose your boss takes credit for an idea you worked hard on, and you fume on the inside (rightly so) or rant and rave on the outside. Your lizard brain has a built-in negativity bias, designed to overestimate fears, threats and worries and underestimate your ability to manage them in order to protect you from harm at all costs.
Blame Mother Nature
Thanks to neuroscience we know more about why it’s difficult for you to regulate those hair-trigger reactions and the little-known secret to managing them. When you perceive a threat (real or imagined), Mother Nature designed your lizard brain to throw your prefrontal cortex offline and emotionally hijack you into action–even when there’s no rational basis for it. Her elegant design is more interested in marinating you in stress juices to keep you alive than in reducing your stress to make your life easy or happy. Neuroscientists say that negative experiences grab your brain’s attention more than positive experiences three to one. You remember where you were on 9/11. But where were you the next week at the same time? Or that bad-tasting medicine your mom forced down you. Remember that? Chances are when your buttons are pushed at work, you feel the moment your lizard brain dumps a tonic of heart-pounding enzymes into your bloodstream making your heart pound. The surging adrenaline and cortisol cocktail acts like a tidal wave, hijacking your thoughts and leaving your emotions to rush to action. If not reigned in, your automatic reactions cause unnecessary stress and limit your career possibilities. So you must do your part to complete Mother Nature’s elegant design. Your job is to go beyond primitive survival reactions and refuse to bite the hook every time your job clobbers you with a curve ball. Although it’s a challenge to regulate your hair-trigger reactions, it’s possible to douse those primitive firestorms and chill under pressure.
Steps You Can Take
When you catch yourself reacting to a setback at work, you can challenge yourself to stay in your prefrontal cortex. Neuroscientists have an old saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” By enlisting your prefrontal cortex under pressure, you can rewire perceived threats when you act instead of react and enjoy a calmer, more appropriate outcome. With some dedication to changing your old stress responses, it’s possible for you to change the way your brain fires in the moment. This is known as neuroplasticity. In the same way that a cut on your hand regenerates new healing tissue, the pliability of the brain makes it possible to rewire connections of neurons to adapt more appropriately under stressful conditions. When you’re frazzled and start to sizzle, you can avoid hotheaded action and cool down your lizard brain by challenging perceived threats. As you bring your prefrontal cortex back online, it offers a dispassionate, objective perspective on the stressors. Here are some examples of how to do that:
* Partner with your prefrontal cortex if your boss steals your idea and ask questions such as, “What am I afraid of and where is that coming from?” or “What are the chances of that really happening?” or “What is the worst thing that could happen?” or “If my heart wasn’t slamming against my chest right now, what would I do?”
* Ally with your rational brain to overestimate your ability to manage unpleasant work stressors and to underestimate fears and worries about them.
* Collaborate with your prefrontal cortex to see the big picture and pinpoint the upside of a downside situation. “I had to pay more taxes this year than I’ve ever paid” becomes “I made more money this year than I’ve ever made.”
* Consult with your prefrontal cortex so your lizard brain doesn’t make negative predictions without proof. Be chancy, stick your neck out and take small risks in unfamiliar circumstances. “I don’t know anybody at the office party, so I’m not going” becomes “If I go to the office gathering, I might meet a new colleague, and it could open doors.”
* Coach your executive brain to focus on the good news wrapped around bad news. “A tornado destroyed my office building” becomes “The office building was destroyed, but everyone survived and nobody was injured.”
* Enlist your rational brain to modulate your lizard brain’s tendency to blow things out of proportion or let one negative experience rule your whole life pattern. “I didn’t get the promotion; now I’ll never reach my career goals” becomes “I didn’t get the promotion, but there are many other steps I can take to reach my career goals.”
#Chill: It’s A No-Brain-er
So next time you’re about to blast off, call on your brain’s prefrontal cortex to help you coach your lizard brain off the ledge and stay on the launch pad. Even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, it can feel like your life is full of mostly negative events that make you feel on edge, pessimistic and grim. The key is to enlist your prefrontal cortex to focus on the roses, not just the thorns so you have a balanced perspective. Once you realize things are usually not as threatening as your lizard brain registers them to be, you can take a breath, step back and hopefully relax. You don’t have to look through rose-colored glasses, but when you intentionally apply your rational brain to professional threats, you create a more chilled life inside and outside of the workplace.