Excerpt from Cracking The Personality Code book
[dropcaps type=”circle” color=”” background=””]O[/dropcaps]ur friends and colleagues, Suzanne and Dwight Frindt shared the following ideas in our book, Cracking The Personality Code. The Frindts are the founders of 2130 Partners, a leadership development and education firm that facilitates focused vision, inspired teams, and sustained commitment for its clients.
Understanding the Role of Your Body
Studies have shown that to learn a new physical skill takes 300 repetitions for muscle-memory to be developed and 3,000 repetitions for the skill to be “embodied.” In a similar way, the Frindts believe that for intellectual learning to take root, it must be practiced repeatedly. In addition, there are key physical components that impact intellectual learning, especially when someone is faced with stress.
Without awareness of these physical components, it’s almost impossible to learn to address distress differently. The Frindts are finding that the physical aspects of being in an emotionally distressed state are as important as the feelings themselves. These two elements are inextricably linked. Ignoring or overlooking the physical manifestations of emotion limits our ability to manage emotional distress.
Research into brain physiology is now giving us valuable understanding of the physiological dimension of our emotional reactions. This fundamental information is extremely useful for business leaders. For example, let’s look at a physical process sometimes referred to as “limbic hijacking.”
The limbic system is the part of the brain associated with emotion and memory. Within the limbic system are the amygdalae, two almond-shaped clusters of neurons whose primary responsibilities include scanning for danger and warning us of impending threats. A limbic hijacking occurs when the amygdalae are triggered, producing physical sensations of distress. Some common signals of the amygdalae’s work include sweaty palms, tense shoulders, dry mouth, and “butterflies in the stomach.” As the intensity of distress rises, the strength of the physical signals increases—and our rational, cognitive powers diminish.
A Biological Early Warning System
In their role as instinctual guardians, the amygdalae are part of our biological early warning system. They help ensure our physical survival by triggering four simple reactions: fight, flight, freeze, or appease. They respond instinctively, with lightning speed—much faster than the thinking portions of our brain.
For our early ancestors, who were dealing with a natural world that presented many real, life-threatening dangers, this function was essential to survival. But in today’s corporate workplace, amygdalae reactions can often hinder instead of help.
Here’s why. The amygdalae react instinctively, nearly instantaneously. Unfortunately, they can’t differentiate between a real or imagined threat. They also can’t distinguish between a physical threat and one generated by words or our own thoughts. And when the amygdalae send their warnings, they set powerful forces in motion throughout the body. Adrenaline and cortisol are released, raising heart rate and blood pressure. Blood drains from “less important” areas (such as our thinking brain) and goes to those areas needed for physical defense. We become a reactionary machine: on guard, on edge.
“Not the best state for thoughtful discourse, creative problem-solving or associative collaboration,” notes Dwight Frindt.
That’s just the beginning. There are also the after-effects. If we were running from a bear in the woods like our ancestors, that extreme physical effort would consume much of the excess adrenaline and cortisol released by the amygdalae’s warnings of danger. Because of that, soon after the danger had passed, our heart rate and blood pressure would drop, and we would return to a more relaxed, thoughtful state.
In the office, this doesn’t happen. On a typical working day the amygdalae may perceive many “threatening” situations. And even though these “dangers” take the form of spoken words or private thoughts rather than outside physical threats to our survival, they still trigger the same biological reactions. We get hyped up in self-defense mode with nowhere to run off the floods of adrenaline and cortisol.
Without a release, our heart rate and blood pressure stay high, other physical sensations continue, and we experience protracted stress. At a minimum, we’re frustrated, distracted, and unproductive; we’re certainly unable to be our most creative. In high-stress environments where perceived threats occur even more frequently, people may end up missing work altogether due to physical illness or needing a “mental health day.” Under these conditions, the risk of burnout is high.
The amygdalae and limbic system, along with the brain stem, form what is commonly called the “old brain.” In fact, the brain stem is sometimes referred to as the “reptilian brain” because it can be found in all vertebrates, including reptiles and mammals. It has to do with our most basic functions: breathing, sleeping, blood circulation, muscle contraction, reproduction and self-preservation. Coupled with the limbic system’s early warning system of danger, the reptilian brain provides a powerful image and an important clue in how behavior manifests during distress.
“Picture the angry team leader raging in a team meeting,” says Dwight Frindt. “It doesn’t take a great leap from there to imagine everyone around the table instantly transformed into iguanas, geckos, and gila monsters, each caught in their own reaction and defensive/offensive posturing. It is hard to imagine that many executives actually intend to have their companies managed by a group of reptiles. Yet this kind of behavior is regularly triggered and allowed to persist.”
Given the primitive, instinctual physical reactions associated with being upset, it’s no wonder that all those advanced conceptual-learning approaches are not very helpful in reducing the effects of emotional distress. The information we learn in those training workshops are accessed and processed in the cerebral cortex, the “new,” rational part of the brain. But as we’ve seen, when we get upset we begin functioning from an entirely different place, a different part of the brain.
So how do we bridge the gap between the thinking and feeling brain? How do we make use of both our higher reasoning and our emotional passion that fires so much of our inspiration and creativity? How do we do so in a way that minimizes reactivity and distress while increasing productivity and shared pride of ownership?
Leaders can use the answers to get more of their own thoughtful time back and enhance their ability to focus on critical business issues. Team members can use the answers to raise their individual and collective productivity in ways that enhance their lives rather than increasing their stress. In both cases, people are able to move from an experience of trying to survive to one of thriving.
The Frindts propose that leaders start by working on themselves. The truth is organizations look to their executives to set the tone. If those executives are highly reactive, in all likelihood their organizations will be, too. On the other hand, if leaders learn to identify and clear their own emotional distress first, they’ll be more productive, they’ll trigger less stress within their teams, and they’ll be much better equipped to support team members in navigating their own emotional reactions.
Dwight and Suzanne Frindt have seen it time and again. As leaders begin to experience the benefits of their increased ability to “de-stress” emotionally, it becomes an obvious investment to train others. Just as mounting stress can create its own snowball effect in a team, team members can begin to build a new kind momentum of converting distress to eustress (healthy, productive stress—as in the excitement of pursuing a challenging goal). The more individuals there are who can identify and clear their own emotional distress, the easier it becomes for other colleagues to join them in maintaining a balance of thoughtful productivity and emotional engagement. It’s a process that, when fully committed to, can transform a culture.
While lasting change takes time and continuous practice, there are a few simple, critically important steps that can begin to immediately repair the damage of emotional distress. These diagnostic and intervention steps are both conceptual and physical. They give your intellect the information and your body the tools to change both experience and behavior.
5-Step Recipe for Identifying and Clearing Distress
- Learn to observe and identify body sensations that signal a “limbic hijacking” is taking place. It sounds obvious, but many people have no awareness of their physical state when they’re upset. Yet this information is critical to implementing lasting change. So practice. With a bit of self-observation, most of us can say (for example), “I feel pressure in my chest,” “I feel blood rushing to my neck,” “I stiffen up,” “I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach.” It’s essential to develop the skill of recognizing your physical symptoms. It’s so important, in fact, that this physical in-formation comes before anything else in the intervention process. Practice this step until you have a clear understanding of your reactions.
- Exhale and slow down your breathing. After you’ve learned to identify that you’re in a “hijacked” state, you can incorporate the practice of altering your breathing. The quickest and most effective method to immediately calm the “fight or flight” response is to take long, slow, deep breaths. When stressed, it’s common to hold your breath or to take very shallow breaths as part of your defensive response. Exhaling fully and slowing down your breathing is simple. It’s also quite possibly the most important and powerful antidote to emotional distress.
- Identify your amygdalae-triggered reaction. Learn to observe your automatic defense. Are you doing fight (assertiveness/attack), flight (mentally checking out or even physically leaving the room), freeze (deer-in-the-headlights, unable to think of what to do next), or appease (“sucking up,” e.g., “Oh, yes, I know exactly what you mean,” or “I’m with you on that.”)? Depending on the circumstances, you’re likely to have one reaction that triggers as your default defensive position. As you realize what your reaction is, you’ll also start to see its limits and its impact on others. This awareness actually builds the capacity to choose different behavior that gets you more of what you intend.
- Stop trying to drive your agenda. When under emotional distress, you’re more likely to make statements that you’ll later wish you could eat (and may have to). One of the most productive steps you can take in a moment of upset is to stop talking, breathe, and observe. Allow your-self some time. Is there really a reason to rush? If you can learn to step back and observe your own distress, or simply stay calm in the face of another’s distress, there’s an opportunity for a positive outcome.
- Ask yourself a “brain-switching” question. The amygdalae can only respond to a perceived threat, such as “Is that a bear, and is it going to eat me?” Unfortunately, since they cannot tell the difference between a physical threat and a threat in language, they go off frequently in the office or home where there hasn’t been a bear sighting in years. You can reactivate your thinking capacities by coming up with a reminder question. Use this question consistently (almost like a mantra) to activate the cerebral cortex of the brain. For example, ask yourself something that brings you back to a big-picture perspective: “What is the purpose of this meeting?” “What are we committed to here?” The relative sophistication of such a question will refocus your thinking and energy and will allow your system to relax.
One Last Thought
Next comes practice, practice, and more practice. You (and everyone else) have had decades of practice with your specific defensive reactions to distress. These reactions can be triggered by so many kinds of comments, tones of voice, and even facial expressions that you’ll have to work hard to refine your “brain switching.” In the beginning, it may not be possible to catch yourself before you’re already in the throes of a defensive, stressful conversation. However, with practice it’s possible to read the symptoms of defensiveness in your body and to mitigate the oncoming emotional reactions. If you commit yourself, it will become a lifelong discipline, and it will be well worth it.
Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2014 This information contained in this article is not meant to be a substitute for professional counseling.
Suzanne Frindt is a co-founder and principal of 2130 Partners, an executive leadership development and education firm that launched in 1990. She is also a recognized speaker on the topics of Vision-Focused Leadership™ and Productive Interactions™, speaking to organizations around the world. She is also a Group Chair for Vistage International, Inc. an organization of CEOs and key executives dedicated to increasing the effectiveness and enhancing the lives of more than 12,000 members. Each month she facilitates groups in Orange County, California, and Seattle, Washington, while also regularly contributing entrepreneurial creativity and management experience to several companies through service on their advisory boards.
Dwight Frindt is also a co-founder and principal of 2130 Partners. Since 1994, Dwight has been a Group Chair for Vistage International facilitating groups of CEOs and senior executives. He has received many performance awards for his work at Vistage and in 2009 Dwight became a Best Practice Chair and began mentoring the Chairs in the South Orange County area. Since then he has added two additional Best Practice Chair regions; the Puget Sound and the Greater Pacific Northwest. In 2011 Dwight received the Best Practice Chair of the Year Award – Western Division. Combining his work with 2130 Partners and Vistage, Dwight has facilitated more than 1,000 days of workshops and meetings, and has logged well over 13,000 hours of executive leadership coaching.
In addition to working in the for-profit world, Dwight and Suzanne are very committed to working with non-profits and have been investors and activists with The Hunger Project for many years. To reach them please visit www.2130partners.com.
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