Chapter Two: Deconstructing Overwhelm
This is an edited excerpt from Ease: Strategies to Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy” by Eileen Chadnick. Reprinted with permission of author. All rights reserved. Ease is available from most major online book retailers. See more at www.Easerx.com
Estimated reading time: 3-4 minutes
Overwhelm erodes our well-being—our ability to flourish personally, professionally, and organizationally. Running too long on overload can derail even the most successful among us. It is also important to recognize that overwhelm angst is an equal-opportunity player and, increasingly, a reality for all, including leaders and high performers. People who set their sights high and engage fully in work and life are prime candidates, as they take on increasing loads with equally high expectations for handling it all.
Is this mind over matter, or is something else going on? Naysayers (or perhaps even your own internal voice of judgment) might say, “This is all in your head. Get over it!” Well, in reference to this feeling being in your head, you might be right—at least partially. There certainly is a mind-brain-overwhelm connection. But can we say it’s not real if it’s in our head? I don’t think so. The feelings of overwhelm are not imagined, nor are the consequences. In fact, something very real is going on.
It is helpful to understand the experience of overwhelm from a brain and mind perspective. The last decade has seen a groundswell of research revealing a much greater understanding of how our brains operate and influence our abilities for thinking, feeling, responding to and managing stress, and so much more. Advancements in fields such as neuroscience, emotional intelligence, leadership, and positive psychology have opened up the doors to a significantly greater grasp of what the necessary conditions are for flourishing and, on the flip side, the derailers that impede us. It’s a complex world out there, and survival of the fittest now means we need robust emotional, mental, and physical fitness to successfully navigate the challenges of work and life.
The mind-brain connection is central to all of this. Let’s look at a couple key concepts related to our brains so that we can set the foundation for the ideas and strategies introduced in the toolbox.
Your Brain: The Original Model
When we consider the evolution of our brains, there’s good news and bad news. First, the good news: in the last decade or so, research has revealed that our brains have a lot more plasticity than we once thought possible. This means that our brains can adapt and create new neuropaths (connections) that can be helpful in developing new habits and ways of thinking and feeling. This is fantastic news for anyone wanting to learn new ways to cope with challenging work and life demands and to feel more positive about his or her life. It’s because of this plasticity and the ability to change the brain (with new habits) that many of the tools you’ll read about in the toolbox have proven their worth. The unfortunate news is that despite the brain’s ability to adapt, we are still working with the original-model brain that our ancestors had, which served well in the days of hunting-and-gathering society.
This means you are working with a brain operating system 1.0. Unlike your last computer purchase, our brain’s essential operating systems have not changed since the beginning of time. In the days when we had to hunt for food, we had to contend with constant life-threatening risks, such as lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). Our brains were—and still are—wired to scan for and protect us against those threats. The amygdala, part of the brain in the limbic system, is primed to detect any hint of danger and protect us by instantaneously preparing us for fight or flight. This is our fast brain, and the reaction it incurs is known as the stress response. Our amygdala reacts immediately and catalyzes critical biological reactions, such as the release of cortisol and adrenaline, to enable us to run, fight, and survive. The operative word here is react.
In contrast, in our modern-day and knowledge-based economy, most people spend their work days thinking and relating with people, ideas, and information. These tasks are different from hunting. Threats of the day (toxic bosses, unreasonable workloads, busy lives at home) don’t compare with sabre-toothed lions. But our brains don’t know or care about that—that is, unless we get our higher-thinking brain wired up.
Meet your higher-thinking brain. In simplistic terms, the prefrontal cortex drives much of our higher-thinking brain functions. This is the part of the brain that helps us with tasks such as problem solving, analyzing, prioritizing, distinguishing, and reflecting. Unfortunately, this part of our brain works best when there are no threats—or, rather, no perceived threats. When we perceive risk, we send an alert signal to the fast brain (amygdala), which quickly shifts gears and gets priority over anything else. When the amygdala is fired up, it tends to suppress the prefrontal cortex (higher-thinking brain). An interesting metaphor is to picture yourself trying to think about something that requires concentration while a fire alarm is blasting.
Survival always trumps thoughtful reflection.
|Is That a Tiger or a Deadline and Demanding Boss?
The amygdala (fast, or survival, brain) doesn’t distinguish between perceived threats and real ones that truly threaten our survival (e.g., lions, tigers, and bears). When we feel overwhelmed by a situation and feel frightened, our emotional mind tells our brain there is a threat, and the brain shifts into first gear. Our thinking brain takes a back seat to our survival brain.
Is That a Tiger or a Deadline and Demanding Boss?
Bye-Bye, Thinking Capacity—Hello, Brain Freeze!
Do smart people suddenly become dumb when stressed out? Not really. But in the moment, it might appear so because the survival part of our brain (amygdala) takes precedence, and it becomes more difficult to access the critical and reflective type of thinking skills we need to handle the situation that prompted the stress trigger.
The Story at a Glance
To put this information into context, let’s look at a story about Brad.
Brad is a VP managing a consulting department that recently grew from eight direct reports to fifteen and is soon to expand to twenty-five people. The company is on an ambitious growth agenda. Brad has been known to do great work, and while he confesses to not being the most organized person, he has always prided himself on having a great memory and ability to keep things together. His staff likes him. But lately, with the change of pace and increased workload, he is showing signs of wearing down. He seems to be hanging on okay, but he has a feeling that he has little battery life left in his mind, body, and spirit. Brad is worrying more and is anxious about the prospect of another increase in workload. He is not sleeping well. Usually a jovial guy, he’s been feeling cranky lately, and his energy and focus are a bit off. Recently, he was asked to provide input in a situation that needed a fairly timely response and a high-level recommendation. Normally, the scenario would have been a piece of cake for Brad, as he’s been known to be a sharp and quick thinker, a good strategist, and a strong problem solver. This time, his response was quite different.
Brad froze. His brain seemed to go on vacation. He couldn’t quite get his mind wrapped around the issue, and he came up empty. In a busy week, with so many balls in the air, Brad saw this request as a final straw, and he felt he just couldn’t work his way through one more thinking task.
What really happened? Brad was likely experiencing an episode of overwhelm. His emotional reaction (overwhelm) to the last demand sent the prefrontal cortex (the higher-thinking brain) on holiday and kicked in another essential part of his brain to do what it was told to do: survive.
This process happened unconsciously, of course. Brad’s reaction (“Oh bleep, not another task!”) sent a message to his brain that he was under serious threat. So his brain did exactly what it was supposed to do when under threat: it suppressed the reflective, problem-solving side of the brain, which Brad would have needed to respond to the business request, and kick-started the other part of his brain that was built to protect.
It was the wrong response for the situation but the right reaction, given Brad’s signal.
Brad’s brain went into fight-or-flight mode—at the expense of his thinking capacity. His levels of adrenaline and cortisol kicked in aggressively and started revving the stress engine. Perhaps if he had been able to mentally process the last request, he might not have felt as threatened by the request. Or if he’d taken time to pause in order to self-manage his reaction, he might have been able to moderate his sense of threat, which would have enabled him to access his resourceful, creative, sharp-thinking self. There are many strategies we could recommend to Brad to help tame that stress response, but for now, the key is to understand what happened from a mind-brain perspective.
While our brains might not know the difference between a deadline and a tiger, we can influence and manage our minds by choosing thoughts that will be more productive to the situation. Another way of putting this: we can self-manage our emotional and thinking responses so as not to automatically trigger the biological stress response. And at the same time, we can learn practical strategies to better organize and handle our loads so that we reduce the chance of triggering our mind’s negative, threat-based reactions.
|The Mind-Brain Connection
While our brains might be built to react in a particular way, we can learn to better manage our mind’s reactions, which influence the message sent to the brain. Developing habits to tame the mind is the crux of more emotionally intelligent behaviour and the foundation for many of the tools in this book.
There’s more that might help explain Brad’s experience of brain freeze. Let’s look at a concept from the world of neuroleadership1 that is useful to help understand what might be going on for Brad—and for yourself!
The term “leadership lockdown syndrome”2 was coined by neuroscientists Jessica Payne and Stephen Thomas for a presentation made at the NeuroLeadership conference in 2011.3 According to the summary outlined in the NeuroLeadership Institute’s blog article, Payne and Thomas were researching the neural needs and resources of successful senior leaders and identified three things the brain needs to function optimally: moderate stress, good sleep, and positive affect (positive mood). In today’s high-pressure work world, meeting these three needs is not as simple as it sounds. When a leader simultaneously experiences high stress, poor sleep, and negative mood, it can be a perfect storm that greatly compromises one’s critical thinking capacity.
The three areas cited do not stand in isolation. They are interconnected. High stress hinders sleep and positive affect (mood). Poor sleep makes it difficult to manage stress and maintain a positive mood. And negative mood tends to make sleep and stress worse. So when people experience all three together, the interaction can result in overly stressful reactions, cognitive impairment, and a compromise in basic perception, judgment, and decision-making abilities.
Insufficient sleep also means we are not giving our brains time to integrate information in a meaningful way and are therefore operating at a suboptimal level, especially with regard to creativity. Sleep also plays a big role in regulating emotions, a crucial strength for any executive.
This makes a lot of sense. I know that when I am tired due to poor sleep, I can’t trust my judgment nor my mood. And when I’m stressed, the stress often gets in the way of my sleep. It’s a vicious circle!
If you recall, Brad was trying to stay on top of things and relying on his memory. But after a certain point, this wasn’t working for him. He was worrying more (experiencing more stress), not sleeping, and getting cranky. Was he experiencing leadership lockdown syndrome? Possibly. A task that normally would have been completely manageable for Brad was too difficult.
So who is vulnerable to experiencing something like this? I don’t think you have to be in a formal leadership role to experience this. I would imagine anyone who is challenged in these three areas would experience similar reactions. The essential point is to learn to moderate our stress levels; to ensure we get ample sleep (which is not so easy for many—we’ll get to that later); and to learn to develop more positivity, which contributes greatly to our higher-thinking capacity and our ability to maintain resilience even when dealing with stress and challenging demands in work and life.
Emotional and Positive Intelligence at Work
To be able to successfully navigate the complex and accelerating demands of work and life, we need skills—not just the technical skills of your work but also mental, personal, and emotional skills. These skills come from the realms of both emotional intelligence and positive intelligence (EQ and PQ). Abilities related to practicing self-awareness and self-management, handling stress, dealing with people, and coping with the uncertainty and complexity of work and life are now increasingly valued as key leadership and workforce competencies.
Likewise, the importance of mood (positivity) can’t be understated. Research continues to affirm that positively oriented people are more apt to be successful in their work and lives and in coping with the challenges and adversity that come their way. Positivity not only makes us feel better but also has been proven to improve our thinking abilities, which we need in order to handle complex work and life demands.
The good news is that you can develop skills related to emotional and positive intelligence. With the right practices, you can rewire your brain with more-productive thinking habits, creating new neural connections that will help you become more resilient, optimistic, and joyful.
We can’t control all of our circumstances, but we can control how we engage and react to them from an emotional, mental, and mindset perspective. Your toolkit (coming up next) has been designed with all this in mind. It is laden with ideas, thoughts, and tips to help you develop a more positive and emotionally intelligent approach to your work and life.
|Here are some questions that underscore the ideas you’ll find in the toolkit.
· As the loads of work (and life) become heavier, and with tougher deadlines, how can we organize our stuff and ourselves in a way that is brain-friendly and allows us to handle our loads more productively and with less stress?
· If the brain can’t distinguish between a lion and a tough workload, then how can we use our mind to appropriately bring that perceived threat back into its respectful cage and put the brakes on the stress response?
· If mood is central to coping, how do we get better control over our emotions to reap the rewards of the positivity advantage?
· If quality sleep is essential to our well-being and ability to cope and thrive, how do we get an ample dose of quality sleep if we are challenged in that area?
These are just a few of the questions we will address in the next sections. Let’s go!
About the Author: Eileen Chadnick (@Chadnick) is Author of Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of ‘Crazy Busy’. She is a certified executive and leadership coach; a communications pro (20+ years of experience) and principal of Big Cheese Coaching and Chadnick Communications in Toronto. Eileen draws from the science of positivity, leadership, neuroscience, emotional intelligence – and Conversational Intelligence®(C‐IQ®) in her work as a coach, consultant, trusted advisor, and facilitator.