We’ve all been there. The looming deadline. The high stakes work. The pressure mounting. The finish line and our chances of getting there are touch and go. But we rise up to the challenge, not only hitting the mark but smashing it out of the park.
As we breathe a sigh of relief we say to ourselves, ‘Never again’.
But soon we find ourselves back there again.
Well in a word, stress. Or more to the point, our complicated relationship with stress. We NEED stress...the good kind that is. It drives up productivity allowing us to achieve beyond perceived limits. The challenge these days is that the story of stress in modern society often only highlights the bad. Anxiety, burnout, poor motivation, are all horrible negative elements that occur when we become over stressed.
So to discover which stress is good and which isn’t, we need to journey back in time and dig into the history of stress. This history lesson will provide a really useful framework for developing individuals and organisations that thrive under pressure.
The birth of stress
Stress as a term has only been around since the early 20th Century and was coined by the “Father of Stress”, Slovakian Scientist Hans Selye when he was testing a hypothesis on ovarian hormones using rats as the test subject. Selye discovered that no matter what substance he substituted for the ovarian hormone, the same reactions happened in the rats. It wasn’t the substance that was instigating the reaction. It was the situation. The situation set off a chain of reactions and those reactions were the same no matter what substance was used. Eventually the rats would die from the sustained stress of the situation.
Two sides to every story
Selye defined stress “as an organisms unspecific reaction to any kind of external demand.” He also defined stress as both positive and negative. Positive stress was named ‘eustress’, based on the Greek word ‘Eu’ meaning good and negative stress was labelled ‘distress’, inspired by the Latin word ‘Dis’, meaning bad. Distress can lead to anxiety if the stress is too high but on the flip side, can also lead to boredom if the stress is not enough.
Yep, you read it right. Low stress is also a negative stress.
The current narrative on stress highlights the negative. When we think of the word stress, we instantly are drawn to our own negative experiences. Stress is bad. That’s what we know, that’s what we believe. But unfortunately it is only half the narrative. To help guide us, we will use a powerful framework to understand the thinking that occurs when we are placed under stress. It is within this framework that we can start to negotiate the necessary mindset, skill sets and coping strategies to turn the tide on stress.
Situation and Self
Inspired by Dr. Selye’s work, Dr. Richard Lazarus and Dr. Susan Folkman developed the Transactional Model of Stress. In this framework, stress ‘is the result of a transactional process between a person and the environment’ (Peifer, 2012). When an external demand (challenge/pressure) is placed on an individual, a certain process is followed. The first assessment we make is whether or not the situation is a threat. If a threat is perceived, we make a second appraisal. Do I have the strategies to cope with this situation? It is this key decision that shapes the stress path we choose. If we believe we don’t have the ability to cope, the stress is perceived as negative stress or distress. If we believe we have the ability to cope, we perceive the stress as eustress and this creates the opportunity for optimal performance.
The demands of the situation meet our skill level and we rise to the challenge.
The work flows out of us effortlessly.
We connect disparate ideas.
We lose all sense of time and feel deeply connected to the work
We are uber productive.
We enter an optimal state of consciousness that psychology calls ‘flow’.
Flow - the antidote to stress
Coined by Hungarian Psychologist, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an “altered state of consciousness in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” It is an optimal state of experience and performance. In flow, people feel great and their performance is elevated. It boosts both morale and productivity.
So how much more productive can you be in flow? How about up to five times?
In a ten year study by McKinsey and Company, 5000 high performing executives operating at their peak reported being up to five times more productive when in Flow. This number varied from person to person but on average executives felt that their output dramatically increased when in a flow state. The challenge however, was that these executives also self reported only being in Flow about 10% of the time. As well as driving up our performance, Flow is one of the only times where five of our most potent neurochemicals are released in our brain at the same time. These neurochemicals enable us to connect disparate ideas, focus intensely, feel really good and connect deeper with other humans. As the Flow Genome Project, a world leading authority on Flow Science, state in their definition of Flow, “we feel our best and perform our best.”
Making friends with stress
Stress is required for Flow to show up. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi listed nine dimensions of Flow and one key Flow dimension is called the Challenge/Skills ratio. This refers directly to stress. Stress is the demands or challenge of a situation. We need to increase/decrease the demands of task to a point that is suitable for our skill level. If the demands are too high, our anxiety rises. If the demands are too low, it promotes boredom. Finding the Goldilocks spot, where it is just right, helps drive our attention into the now. Cortisol, aka the stress chemical, is released and this helps us focus with more intensity. Cortisol enhances selective attention in the brain which filters out superfluous information and tightens focus on the task at hand. We become better at blocking out information that doesn’t enable us to achieve our goal and we become deeply immersed in the task at hand. In an age of distraction, this capacity to deeply focus on demanding work is a modern day superpower and it enables us to reach a peak state of performance. It enables us to be more productive and to feel our best.
Strategies for building a better stress relationship
Contributor: Steve Brophy
Contributor: Georgia Ellis
Back in 2013 after leaving my Senior Manager Role behind and stepping into a new version of myself as a Business Owner, I took a trip to Iceland. The icy and snowy landscape was not only epic, but it also provided a timely reminder of the cortical landscape of our brains. Kinda a weird connection to make, but stay with me...
As I took in the landscape I couldn't help but see a resemblance to a Human brain and the way our continual thinking carves out new and unique neural pathways, it occurred to me that as en employee I had been thinking a certain way, which had led me to have a rather successful career... but that thinking, and those neural pathways, were not going to serve me as a business owner.
Fast forward to 2019, and with a deeper understanding of neurobiology and the interconnection of our thoughts, emotions and movement. I now appreciate the power of post conventional and complex thinking and the importance or rewiring our brain to steer us in a new direction... partly because of the science, and partly because it's exactly what I did to grow my business. I worked on my mindset first.
In the book "The Biology of Belief" by Dr. Bruce Lipton, he explains how our thoughts and beliefs impact our biology. Did you know if you continuously think thoughts with a negative bias about life or the future, that is tell yourself woeful stories or make negative judgements of a situation or person, that you create a neural pathway in your Brain that hooks you up to seeing only the negative? Just like crevices in the snow that have been carved out by a sled taking the same path over time, those continual thoughts create a deep seeded negative bias.
When you begin to understand neurobiology and neuroscience and even epigentics, you quickly discover that we can retrain our brains to “steer our sled” on to a new path with a positive outlook, then that pathway will show a physical change in our brains. Neuroplasticity means that our brains are continually firing and wiring new pathways, the more we think a thought, the stronger the connection or pathway, the less we think a thought, the weaker the pathway and eventually it prunes away. Each one of our thoughts and subsequent behaviors are responsible for this change in our brains. It's an empowering idea that we can literally begin to prepare ourselves for these extraordinary, complex and uncertain times with the nature of our thoughts.
Not only does a switch in thinking help prepare us for the future, it has other profound effects on us physically and can even help reverse anxiety and depression. Research has shown that regular positive pole thinking can lead to:
Unfortunately negative pole thinking produces the opposite results. Take the point above about being more attractive to other people, I most certainly are turned off by negative people.
The best thing about being in control of our thoughts is that we have a new opportunity each moment to enhance our emotional experience. I discovered many years ago that we always have a choice as to how we respond to situations, events and people. Armed with the knowledge that a positive attitude to life is worth nurturing, and that we can steer ourselves onto a different pathway on our habitual cortical landscape, then we can begin to work on strategies to make this happen for ourselves. Some strategies that I have found helpful for steering my thinking into a better future are:
The more I adopted these practices the easier it was to have a positive mindset. My cortical landscape was changing, and i began to naturally steer myself in a positive direction. Changing the way I thought about things, changed the emotional attachment i had with people and situations. I moved from being the victim to the external world to being the master of my inner world, which strangely, changed the way I saw the external events that used to trigger mental anguish. People who know me somehow think I have always had a positive outlook, the truth is I haven't, I had to teach myself and I am still a work in progress, with the know-how and tools to steer my thinking back on track towards an extraordinary future.
Back in 2011, Bradley Cooper starred in the box office hit movie “Limitless”. The plot follows Edward Morra (Cooper), a struggling writer, who is introduced to a nootropic drug, which gives him the ability to fully utilize his brain and produce optimal performance.
Have you had days where you wished you could fully utilize your cognitive abilities just like Coopers character?
The thing is, few of us realize that there are people out there doing just that… and it doesn’t involve taking a “smart pill”. Ordinary people like you and I (and some extraordinary athletes) are already tapping into this altered state of consciousness.
Over the past decade, Silicon Valley executives like Eric Schmidt and Elon Musk, Special Operators like the Navy SEALs and the Green Berets, and maverick scientists like Sasha Shulgin and Amy Cuddy have turned everything we thought we knew about high performance upside down.
Imagine a life that required less grit, no more working hard to create productive habits, and dismantling the 10,000 hours theory. From studies conducted across a number of fields and headed by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, Co founders of the ‘Flow Genome Project,’ there is a surprising short cut to obtaining optimal consciousness. People across different industries are learning how to harness rare and what used to be controversial states of consciousness to solve critical challenges and outperform the competition.
Flow is the optimal state of consciousness, a state of mind in which you are able to perform at your peak, separated from time, focused solely on the task at hand.
Also known as being "in the zone", it's a state of consciousness that in the past has been difficult to reach and maintain. Most commonly it is experienced by athletes performing high-adrenaline, extraordinary feats of endurance, strength and concentration in sports like mountaineering, rock climbing, surfing, kayaking and so on. In these extreme situations, they are able to get into 'flow' or 'the zone' which enables them to survive and thrive even in the harshest and most demanding of conditions.
Until recently, flow has been inaccessible for those outside of these extreme scenarios, leaving them unable to reach this advanced state of consciousness. However separate research conducted by Dr Joe Dispenza and the Flow Genome Project Founders is showing us that we can access this state and tap into its benefits in the workplace.
“A flow state is a state of consciousness which you feel at your best and perform at your best”
By using MRI and brain scanning techniques, and analyzing what it is that athletes do to enter this state, Kotler has reached a great understanding of flow. While Dispenza has been using brain scans to better understand Gamma brainwaves, which is linked to being in flow and how the brain (when in gamma or flow) produces a super levels of awareness and consciousness along with a heightened state of wakefulness.
Now, by adopting the right habits, altering your behaviors, and adopting a growth mindset, you can access flow in your day-to-day life, unlocking enormous potential at work.
How to tell if you’re in a state of flow according to Kotler and Wheals book ‘Stealing Fire’:
1. You feel no sense of self (Selflessness)
2. Time dilates and dissipates (Timelessness)
3. The activity flows magically (Effortlessness)
4. You feel tapped into inspiration and information (Richness)
“Information richness is a feeling of a high resolution download of realization and possibility that seems to emerge from the world around you” Jason Silva
While there are a number of different methods you can use to prime yourself for an optimal state of consciousness, here are 4 of the most accessible ways to reach flow.
1. HAVING CLEAR GOALS
Understanding WHAT you are doing and WHY you are doing it is critically important. Knowing exactly what you need to achieve at the present moment allows your mind to be free from distractions and helps to unlock greater focus on your current task, and get into flow.
2. SERIOUS CONCENTRATION
Blocking yourself from the outside world – distractions like your phone, social media, gossiping, can help you move into the state of flow. Limiting the number of things your attention is divided between allows greater concentration and maximum attention directed towards what you are trying to achieve.
3. SKILLS/CHALLENGE BALANCE
There is a range between difficulty and simplicity of a task in which the capability of the brain can be unlocked. Too difficult a task leads us to disengage and try to escape the task out of a kind of primal fear. If it is too simple, then we disengage due to boredom. Only between these two, when doing a task that stretches you slightly beyond normal, is the possibility for achieving flow possible.
Meditation sharpens your mental abilities, but by learning to produce more gamma brain waves, you will use your brain in its greatest capacity. It can be as simple as putting on your headphones, listening to relaxing music. And then, when your brain and body are relaxed and blissful, focus on love and compassion. Neuroscientists believe that people can train themselves to produce more of the gamma frequency and it is believed that focusing on compassion and love is one way to do this. It makes sense when you look at elite athletes,– they love what they’re doing, and they’re immersed in what they love – so gamma is a natural state of consciousness for them!
While there are a number of different ways you can maximize your ability to enter flow, these four tips are a great place to start… and great way to tap into your limitless potential.
Contributor: Georgia Ellis, Founder of Blue Chip Minds.
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