10 rules for keeping my brain at the just right amount of stress and stimulation

At BEabove Leadership, we have learned that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) needs just the right amount of stress/stimulation to function optimally. Too little excitement, challenge,balance-2-reloaded-1564717-1279x1918 purpose, etc., and the chemical balance skews, too much stress, pressure, or demands, and the same result. (For more on the mechanics of this phenomenon, see here.)

For me, this understanding had a huge impact on my life, and I have begun to see that managing my PFC needs to be part of a basic human maintenance plan, just like keeping gas and oil in my car and not overheating the engine. This isn’t particularly easy for anyone in today’s world, and I personally struggle with a demanding international travel schedule and the challenges of co-owning an-ever developing business. But I realized one day recently that I have some rules which seem to work for me that I thought might be helpful to share.

I want to note that everyone’s balance curve is different though—what might be stressful to me could be stimulating for you, and vice versa. Ultimately, we each have to figure out our own “just right.”

Ann’s stress decrease rules:

  1. No work on the airplane. I find travel stimulating enough, thank you. It’s a lot of sensory information coming at me, and add to that any uncertainty inherent to a new location, especially a new country, and I am full, if not overloaded. So my personal rule is that I don’t generally work when I travel. I read, cocoon myself in headphones, nap. I have told my inner entrepreneur gremlin that my travel days are work, thank you very much, and I don’t really want to do more that just be. I don’t want to log onto email and make decisions in addition to the ones I have to make to just get to my destination.
  2. I get a day off. The day after training and travel is ALWAYS an off day. This is re-entry for me, and it is a hard line to keep, but I have gotten better and better at it. It’s hard because I travel a lot and have clients and meetings always looking for a place to slot in. But I have begun to see that time has a way of flowing into whatever boundaries I make, and the more I honor myself and my needs, the more I have to give.
  3. Whenever possible, nothing work-related with humans before 9 am or after 4 pm. I’m just not good early in the am, and by 4 pm or so, I’m usually feeling done talking to people. Now that I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is two hours behind the East Coast, this can also be a challenging line to hold. I do make an exception for one beloved client in China and also to teach an occasional evening teleclass (also to make things work time-wise for our students in China). But again, the more I honor my own needs, the more I am finding that somehow it works out despite the occasional urgency of others.
  4. Stay home in the evening after an intense day. I rarely go out in the evening when I am training. This is a hard-learned lesson, because I have both introverted and extraverted tendencies, and my inner extravert always thinks that doing something in the evening after a training day Will Be Just Fine. But too often, I’ve regretted the extra stimulation, even if it is fun at the time, so I have learned to keep a low profile when I’m in the middle of multiple day training session. There are exceptions to this (nothing is black and white), for example, see rule #10 below.
  5. Stop, Drop and Roll. I give myself permission to recalibrate. If I get home from traveling (or have simply been juggling a lot of balls) and start feeling like wow, there is a lot to do (there is ALWAYS a lot to do when you own your own business) but I can’t really focus effectively, I know my job is to simply stop, drop and roll. Stop the thoughts that I should be productive, Drop my complicated plans and pressures, and Roll with what I want in each moment, even if that is staring numbly at the TV for an evening while I pet the cat. I often ask myself, will the thing I have planned or feel I need to do right now add to the stress in my life? And if so, what is my current capacity for that?
  6. Manage my health. I pay very close attention to food, sleep, and exercise. I bring healthy food with me when I travel and stay in places where I can cook rather than eat out. I also bring my lunch to the training room so that break time is less frantic and I can recalibrate a bit during the day. I also know that getting a good night’s sleep is critical to managing stress and stimulation during the day, so we generally start our trainings at 9:30 a.m, stay as close to the venue as possible, and go to bed early. Exercise is the one that often escapes me, even though I know it is one of the best ways to manage stress, but I try to get myself out in the evening for a bit of a walk, even if I don’t make it to an optimal 10,000 steps for the day.

Ann’s stimulation increase rules:

  1. Do what’s fun, joyful, meaningful and related to my life purpose. I try my best to continually evaluate my joy and resonance when I get a new opportunity, asking, will this be fun? Will it be interesting? Will it grow me? Or is it just a money-making or strategic thing (and sometimes I do take those—I still have a kid in college), but my preference is that sweet intersection where the project is rewarding on all levels, including financially.
  2. Keep it interesting and novel. More and more, I try not to do things that aren’t interesting. This gets harder the more experienced I become in my craft of teaching and speaking, because what once was challenging can become life as usual. Luckily my beloved business partner gets bored easily as well, and is always up for trying out a new program, webinar, or radio show. And the more we don’t know about a subject, the more interested we are in finding out – and then sharing with others.
  3. Challenge myself to do things I am not good at. This is very much related to rule #8, in that these are often new things. For example, I am studying painting and often I kind of suck. I took a class recently where we were painting on large panels and I challenged myself to keep destroying what I had made unless I truly loved it. My piece got worse and worse and worse. By the end, it was simply horrible. My teacher I think felt bad that I didn’t have something to take home that I liked. But I loved the whole mess of it. The frustration, the failure, watching something not work and staying with it, and feeling that my vision far exceeded my capacity. It was a wonderful irritating blast.
  4. Stay connected to the humans I love. Sometimes this means breaking rule #4 (stay home in the evening after training) when I am traveling and there is an opportunity to see an old friend, but this is about balance and managing both stress and resonance. I try to pay close attention to whether going out will be life-giving or draining, and spend time with those people who add to my joy and delight while limiting exposure to those who drain and sap my energy.

So these are my rules, and they seem to work pretty well. I’d love to hear yours in the comments below!

Valugration

applorangeNo, it’s not a real word. Ursula and I made it up last fall when we were sitting in a restaurant in Washington, DC. I said to her, “I feel like I have values that are in conflict with each other. I want them both, but in the case of some values, it’s just too darn challenging to hold them at the same time.”

My example was my value of HUMILITY and my value of BIGNESS. I both want to be part of everything — not special — and take my rightful BIG place in the world. My brain was telling me, “Well that’s nice, but you have to pick one. They negate each other.”

Damn.

I hate that.

As we relaxed and ate our salads, we talked about why this happens, and it occurred to us that it wasn’t the values that were in conflict, per se, it was the two hemispheres of the brain. In the case of my value of humility, my right hemisphere wanted connection and oneness, not to be distinct and different from everyone else (for more on this aspect of the right hemisphere, see Jill Bolte-Taylor’s powerful TED talk). My left hemisphere, on the other hand, wanted the separateness and distinction of bigness. And they both wanted what they wanted.

As we talked more about this, we started to see that when values are difficult to reconcile, typically there is a perceived conflict between the two hemispheres of the brain. We want structure (left) and freedom (right). We want to relax and we want to be productive. We want to play and we want to accomplish things. It’s enough to drive a person mad.

Suddenly, the words of an old Huey Lewis and the News song came to me. He sang, “I want a new drug,” and I thought “Well, I want  new word! I don’t want to choose.” I wanted a word that would capture both hemispheres, one that would help me integrate these desires, these seemingly opposing forces in my life. And thus, the game of Valugration was born. It stands for Values+Integration. And the rules are simple. You take your opposing values and combine them into a brand-new word that can hold both. In this instance, mine was HUMILiGNESS. Humility+Bigness.

Finding the right word take a little finesse. Here are a few pointers from our experience doing this in our classes and presentations:

  • Be sure you are integrating a right hemisphere value and a left hemisphere value. The hemispheres are not typically in conflict within themselves.
  • The new word needs to inspire you and not have a connotation that takes you away from the experience.
  • Because the right hemisphere holds the whole, while the left is focused on parts, we find that the brain tends to like the right hemisphere word to come first, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
  • It is best if it really is a brand new word, one that you don’t already know. This will make you think about it newly, see it with fresh eyes, and approach living into it with curiosity.
  • Write it down so you don’t forget it.

That’s it — pretty simple, actually. Oh, but I almost forgot the second part of the game. The second part is to try it on and ultimately live your new word. You play that part of the game the rest of your life.

To play VALUGRATION with your BEabove Leadership Valugration experts, come and visit us in the exhibitor area of the Midwest ICF conference June 20-22 in Minneapolis. 

To learn practical, hands-on neuroscience for coaches, come experience our advanced coaching series! Places are still available in our August 7-11 retreat in Northern California

Shifting the Brain’s Negativity Bias

As they say in Tibet, if you can take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves. We can turn good moments into a great brain.
~Rick Hanson

I recently had the delightful experience of listening to author and psychologist Rick Hanson (The Buddha’s Brain) on the NICABM brain science webinar. He spoke at length about the so-called “negativity bias” of the brain and what we can do to help our brains overcome it so we can be happier, less stressed, and more effective. His wisdom elegantly maps on to what we are trained to do as professional coaches. In fact, it is one area where it seems to me we are particularly well-equipped to help our clients make lasting, positive changes in their brains.

big_sabertoothWhat is a “Negativity Bias?” 

To put it quite simply, the brain is designed to remember negative things more easily than positive ones. Dr. Hanson puts it like this: for negative events, the brain is Velcro, for positive ones, Teflon. Our amygdala uses about two-thirds of its neurons scanning for threats (see The Whoosh for more on our friend the amygdala), and the memory of something hurtful or scary goes into our long-term memories with ease. This makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary biology perspective — that growling noise that preceded a saber-toothed tiger attack? Stuck into my cavewoman brain permanently. A bias towards negativity helps us stay alive and avoid threats.

In our ancestral days, this alertness wasn’t as much of a problem as it is today. We were designed for short bursts of “fight or flight” where we burn resources faster than we can refuel, and then long stretches relaxing and recovering from the stressful event. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we encounter far too many perceived threats (most of our fight or flight reactions in day to day life are unecessary) and have far too little recovery time. Thus, training our brain to be less attuned to the negative and more focused on the positive is a way to live a healthier, less stressful life.

Encoding Our Brains for Positivity

In order for a positive experience to make it into our long-term memory, we must hold it in our field of attention for at least 10-20 seconds. Otherwise, the experience simply slips away. Hanson says that when we do hold positive experiences in awareness for this period of time, we not only encode these experiences into long-term memory, we tune and sensitize our amygdala to focus less on the negative and more on the positive. And because the brain sees what it expects to see, what it is “primed for” (think of buying a new car — all of a sudden there are red Toyotas everywhere!), being more attuned to the positive means we actually see and experience more positive things in our lives.

The Impact of Coaching

According to Hanson, the process of encoding our brains for positivity, what he calls “taking in the good” (that 10-20 second focus on positive experiences), has three key steps or aspects:

1. NOTICE or CREATE a positive experience.
2. STAY WITH the experience, be with it.
3. ABSORB the positive experience. 

In coaching, we routinely help our clients do some or all of this. First, we often call to attention the good things that are happening in their lives. We ask them questions like “What are you proud of?” “What are you celebrating today?” and “What was good about that?” We help them find something worth honoring even in a difficult situation or one they are deeming a failure. And we help them create positive experiences for themselves. We encourage them to do things in alignment with their values, to reconnect with their joy, and to stop doing those things that are unrewarding or unduly stressful.

We also know how to put on the pause button when our clients are inclined to brush past something positive on their way to talking about a problem or issue. We say “Hold on a minute! We need to spend some time on that accomplishment before we go to looking at what’s wrong.” We ask them how it feels, really, to get the promotion or finish the project. We slow them down so they can actually relish their lives and “absorb” the experience.

Hanson also mentioned one other step or aspect:

4. Pair positive and negative experiences

Pairing is when you have the client hold both positive and negative aspects of a situation in mind at the same time, or go back and forth quickly. This, he says, helps the positive infuse into the negative neural networks and thus create very powerful changes. I think as coaches we do this when we are helping our clients look at things from multiple perspectives (at CTI we call this Balance Coaching) or go deep into an experience (what we call Process Coaching). Process coaching often starts with some difficult situation the client is having trouble facing, and instead of trying to fix it or find a solution, the coach will take them “into” it by using body geography, metaphor, and other tools to keep the client present and aware of the emotions, sensations and wisdom therein. Usually, after some time spent being present to the negative aspects (being present is distinct from being overwhelmed or lost in the experience), the client will find and begin to explore positive aspects as well, in the process infusing them into the negative neural networks. At CTI, we have seen for many years that Process Coaching is extraordinarily effective at shifting places where the client is very stuck or challenged. (NOTE: Process coaching is also very useful for steps two and three above in terms of Staying With and Absorbing positive experiences.)

Coaching and Positivity

I think that in general coaches tend to have more of a positivity bias toward life — it’s what makes us so much fun to be around! It’s not that we are naive about risks or problems, it’s just that our whole profession is focused not on what’s wrong, but on what’s possible. Through the process of one to one coaching, we also gain so much evidence that people can and do create amazing things for themselves through effort and intention. And of course, as we help our clients focus on the positive for that crucial 10-20 seconds (or more), it means we are also focusing there, thus strengthening the positivity circuits in our own brains.

Isn’t coaching amazing?

The Neuroscience of Co-Active Coaching

Hello everyone! Today I just want to share a link to a new white paper where I explore neuroscience links to the Co-Active Coaching model. Co-Active Coaching and the Brain walks through the four cornerstones, three principles and five contexts (whew) of Co-Active Coaching.

Even though this paper looks specifically at the coaching model taught by the Coaches Training Institute, there is much in it that is applicable (and hopefully useful) to all coaches.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it!

Warmly,

 

Ann

 

 

 

Fulfillment Coaching

NOTE: I did my coach training through the Coaches Training Institue in 2001, and have been on the faculty since 2009, so this is, of course, the model of coaching I know best. However, I know that all good coaching schools help clients discover their values and lead more fulfilling lives, so even though I will explore what we call at CTI “Fulfillment Coaching” through a CTI lens, I know from working with many other coaches from different coaching schools that these principles have tremendous overlap. Would love to hear from all coaches how this resonates!

The client’s definition of fulfillment is always intensely personal. It may include…outward measures of success (but) eventually the coaching will progress to a deeper definition of fulfillment…. At its deepest level, fulfillment is about finding and experiencing a life of purpose. It is about reaching one’s full potential.”

~Co-Active Coaching

Fulfillment Coaching and The Brain

One of the first things new CTI coaches learn is how to identify and work with core values, in order to help clients find greater fulfillment in various areas of their life. We are taught to begin coaching relationships by spending focused time helping our client explore what is important to them, their values. At the end of an initial session, the typical client ends up with 7-10 powerful “values strings” (a group of words that fully expresses a particular value) which paint a portrait of who they are as a person.

There are a number of reasons that the process of reflecting on personal values is important to human satisfaction and development. To begin with, there is evidence that “Reflecting on personal values provides biological and psychological protection from the adverse effects of stress.” In 2005 study by scientists at UCLA, individuals were subjected to a stress challenge in a laboratory setting. Those who were also given the task of not only identifying their values but reflecting on them as well showed significantly lower cortisol levels (the body releases glucocorticoids, including cortisol, as a response to stress) in their saliva, in contrast with a control group subjected to the same stress test but not asked to reflect on their values. Thus, working deeply on personal fulfillment with a coach not only provides a way to focus one’s actions in the future, it can also be seen as a tool for dealing with any stress to come (although based on this research it might be important for coaches to train their clients to reflect on their values regularly and even in the middle of a stressful incident).

Another aspect of values work with a coach from a neuroscience perspective is that it helps the client reflect in a powerful and effective way. According to David Rock and Linda Paige, in their book Coaching with the Brain in Mind,  “the potentiation of a new brain requires a self-reflective mind.” Thus, to help a client re-wire their brain for a calmer, more emotionally intelligent outlook, it is critical the coach provide a structured and supported action-reflection process.

The importance of reflection in learning and change has been well-researched over the years. For example, over 20 years ago David Kolb presented a powerful model of the experiential learning cycle (action-reflection-learning-action based on new learning) that is widely used to this day. In 2002, James Zull brought the theory up to date by showing the biology behind it, and proving that this action-reflection cycle “cre­at­(es) con­di­tions that lead to change in a learner’s brain.” (See related post on Forward the Action, Deepen the Learning.)

Additionally, in Fulfillment training, CTI coaches learn how to use values and life purpose exploration to help their client create a compelling vision for their future, which also contributes to a reduction of stress. Robert Epstein’s recent study on stress management explored four areas of personal competence that lead to a less stressful life. He found, counter to his own prediction, that “prevention is by far the most helpful competency when it comes to managing stress.” And part of prevention as he sees it is having “a clear sense of how…life should proceed over the next few years.”

In summary, the CTI principle of Fulfillment through reflection on meaningful values and creation of a compelling life vision proves buffer against stress and provides an avenue for self-awareness and learning. These aspects are critical for leaders in today’s world, who are faced with daily stressful situations and need to be aware of their own motivations so they can transcend old patterns and lead their teams with positivity and passion.