Managing Stress

There is ample evidence that meditation has very positive effects for the individuals who have a regular practice.  Some reports indicate that one out of nine people have a personal practice of meditation.  Research indicates that people who practice meditation experience a greater ability to manage stress and we all know that stress is a normal part of every workplace.

So, let’s talk about that.  In some ways we are victims of the automatic functioning of the bodies we inhabit.  In our cave man days it served us well to have our reptilian brain (our oldest brain – the one at the top of the spine) drive immediate reactions to anything that could be a challenge to our survival.  The neural pathways between that part of our brain and our rational brain (the newest part of our brain – the cortex) were created intentionally with the purpose of shutting off the rational part of our complete brain.  Energy had to be directed into the fight, flight, freeze response and it had to be a quick decision.  Could you imagine if your rational brain was analysing every situation to determine the significance of a threat?  Or comparing this threat to the last threat?  The human race would not have survived.

In today’s fast paced world the threat of life and death danger has been replaced by dangers we imagine.  We imagine that if we don’t do a good job of presenting at a meeting our career will be harmed.  We see all of the emails in the inbox and we get stressed wondering how we will get it all done.  Or, we are trying to manage between expectations at work and family responsibility.  Our systems automatic responses are meant to help us.  Shut down the thinking part of the brain and amp the system with cortisol and adrenalin!  Helpful – right?  Wrong!  In today’s world we need the ability to use reason and it is unlikely that we will need the ability to fight off a physical attack.  Maybe the adrenalin helps us stay up late to finish a project but 4 or 5 nights in a row and that gets tired very quickly.

So, what is the solution?  First, let’s agree that stress is not going to go away.  And, that all stress isn’t bad.  Stress at some levels helps us to improve performance.  But, when stress impedes performance there is a very simple technique everyone can learn.  Stress is like taking a stupid pill and this technique is the antidote.  Organizations everywhere should be teaching this to every employee.

The technique is a simple technique of breathing.  Sound outrageously simple?  It is.  At the core of most meditation training is this simple practice.  When we practice breathing in and out in a regular rhythm – deeply from the diaphragm there is an interesting relationship with the heart.  Steady, measured breathing for as little at 1 minute causes the heart to fall into a coherent rhythm as well.  And when that happens signals are sent to the rational part of our brain – the cortex – that give the all clear to re-engage.

In today’s world where increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) are so much a part of the way things are we need everyone in a company to bring every bit of their intelligence to bear on the work.  We need to arm our people with the ability to breath, swallow and think.  Stress has been measured to create three side-effects on the brain: a reduced capacity to manage complexity; an increase in emotional reactivity; and finally a reduction in the ability to focus.

Doesn’t it just make plain sense to teach our people such a simple approach to something as pervasive and toxic as stress?

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