Remember your last argument? Neither of you remember how it started or what it was about and before you know it it’s off to the races.
Twenty minutes later a great comeback pops into your head … Aha! “Damn, I wish would have said that instead. Why couldn’t I think at the time?”
Because of Lizard Brain and our brain’s hard wiring, did you know we cannot manage our emotions?
The good news is we can learn to manage our behavior and respond instead of react to our emotions. The bad news is it is harder than we think. The good news is “practice makes permanent.”
A complaining customer, a whiny child, an out of control teen or a grumpy boss, at some point we all lose our cool. People push our buttons and we feel irritated, frustrated, overwhelmed and sometimes we just explode. Or, we hold it in, tell ourselves it’s no big deal, it doesn’t matter what I do, it won’t make a difference what I say, so I’ll say nothing and pretend it’s okay and march on (a recipe for stress-related disease).
Either way, we feel regret, shame, and humiliation at how we’ve just lost our temper again. Here come the “should’ve-s”: I should’ve known better, stayed calm, counted to ten, remembered what happened last time I lost my temper. Lizard Brain makes it impossible to act on the should’ve-s, and here’s why.
What is Lizard Brain?
The part of the brain responsible for survival, our amygdala, an almond-shaped area at the base of our brain way down deep and part of our limbic system, otherwise known as “fight or flight central” still exists, even though we are no longer running from saber toothed tigers. Otherwise knows as “reptilian brain” or “Lizard Brain.”
The good news is our brain has evolved since we were cave dwellers. Today, humans have complex language, use tools to make and fix things, and send people into outer space, due to the evolution of the Pre-Frontal Cortex. But before the “thinking” part of the brain evolved, our reactions were dictated by Lizard Brain.
Despite the existence of the Pre-Frontal Cortex and our ability to reason, in response to stress (even perceived stress), our limbic system goes into high gear and our fight, flight or freeze response gets activated. This is an automatic, instinctive reaction and there’s no thinking or deciding involved.
Triggers might be his/her yelling or icy stare and can often include what I call Universal Lizard Brain Words such as (hands on hips, finger wagging eye rolling optional): Why did you …? You always or You never …! You should… No!
Our limbic system has been triggered and Lizard Brain is now in charge. We feel emotionally hijacked and now our “thinking brain” is rendered helpless. These triggers can bring up strong emotions (i.e., pain) from the past right into the present moment, as if it’s happening all over again. The Lizard’s primary responsibility is to protect us from perceived harm. The Lizard has now jumped into the driver’s seat and we are in the back, a passenger hanging on for dear life, yet the road is oddly, comfortably “familiar.”
How come Lizard Brain happens repeatedly to highly intelligent people? Because it’s not about IQ or an inability to learn from past mistakes. It’s just the default wiring of our very human brain.
The Lizard Brain(LB) switches off the Thinking Brain, or the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), where reasoning, understanding happens and which explains why your aha! moment after an argument comes later in time, probably after a few deep, belly breaths when the reactive
Lizard Brain is no longer driving the bus and your Pre-Frontal Cortex gets the oxygen it needs to regain control. It’s a myth that if we understand “why” we react then we will automatically be able to respond calmly next time our buttons get triggered. The rational PFC can’t always prevent the LB from engaging, it’s out powered and just not that evolved. It is impossible to “not feel” a feeling. Not a weakness, just wiring. So, stop trying.
What’s the Good News?
The good news comes from recent scientific discoveries that our brains aren’t hard and set like concrete at age three, which is what neuroscientists (brain researchers) believed until very recently. Neuroplasticity is the good news. Our brains can and do make new connections and build new neural pathways by the millions every day, most of which we are not even aware of …. Scary.
How? By changing your habits and creating new neural pathways, the process is actually quite simple. Becareful not to confuse the two – I said simple, but not easy. Change is hard, but not impossible.
Pick one person or situation that triggers your Lizard (the holidays are coming up, it won’t be hard family gives us ample opportunity to practice).
Begin by simply noticing opportunities to recognize Lizard Brain as it creeps up on you or identify situations where Lizard Brain gets triggered.
Next, we’re going to create a new habit or neural pathway.
1. Notice the pattern – Simply become an observer of the pattern, as if you are watching from the sidelines. What has to happen to trigger your own, your partner’s or your bosses Lizard Brain? Describe the pattern sequence to yourself or someone else. Do you react to “Lizard Brain Words?” If so, which ones? Do you use them with others? Notice what happens when you replace a judgmental Why did you …? question with a sincere question, for instance How do you see it? When asked with genuine curiosity, words such as What or How land differently than Why and allow you to create more productive pathways in your brain (and his/her brain).
2. Acknowledge the emotion – Use your powers of observation without judgment (ban the should’ve-s). Notice the opportunity to acknowledge the emotion without feeling you “should” change it, stop it, or judge it as “bad” or “wrong.” Instead, see what happens when you respond with an emotion such as curiosity and words such as “Mmm, interesting …” (with your eyebrows up, please!). See if you can get a little distance and prevent an emotional hijack by observing the conversation, as if you were a bystander.
3. Rename the feeling – Label or rename the feeling (not the person, not their motivation, not their intention) as “sad, scared, hurt” instead of ANGRY. Anger is actually not a primary or real emotion, it is a secondary emotion, just a “safer” feeling and often hides primary emotions such as Sad, Scared or Hurt. When we believe someone is angry, our LB gets activated and we can feel defensive. When we can re-label anger as “Sad, Scared or Hurt” or a combination of those feelings, the part of our brain responsible for empathy is engaged, the Lizard can get out of the driver’s seat and our thinking brain can work again.
Practice makes perfect and new neural pathways. Changing our behavior or learning to do something new takes awareness, intention, action and practice. Just like when you learned to ski, ride or play the guitar. There’s no way around it.
By understanding a few simple facts about how our brain works and making small adjustments to the words we use and practice.
Hint: Just the act of imagining yourself taking these steps will create new neural pathways because our brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s imagined and what’s real), you can create new habits and stay cool under pressure, lower your blood pressure and, as crazy as it sounds, begin to see conflict as an opportunity for practice (and have a little fun, too).
Christina Haxton, MA LMFT is the Chief Potential Officer & Founder of Sustainable Leadership. An executive coach, business consultant and speaker, Christina assists busy business owners, high potential managers, executives and CEOs to achieve successful work/life balance and peace of mind to become exceptional leaders who are built to last. For more information about leadership training or presentations for your team, meeting or conference, contact Christina at email@example.com or (970) 387-8935.
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Stress just comes with your job and the good news is that stress isn’t necessarily “bad.” Here’s what you need to know about how chronic stress effects your brain and your ability to fullfill your responsibilities.
As a supervisor, manager or CXO, you are paid to think and make the right decisions quickly. You are also responsible for managing and motivating others, which isn’t always easy (or fun!). And you still have to deliver on time and on budget.
Next to your heart, your brain will be your most valuable asset or your biggest liability. Given all of the constant pressure from every direction, how are you supposed to get it all done, do your best work, answer to your boss(es) and be a good boss yourself, too? Stressful, right?
If you are paid to think, your greatest asset might just become an endangered species. And if you don’t learn to adapt quickly, you and your career might just become extinct, too. the Manchester study found almost 50% of newly hired or recently promoted executives get fired or quit within the first 18 months in their new position. Wonder why?
As an executive coach and leadership development consultant (and a licensed therapist), I have seen more people’s lives come crashing down around them as a result of unrecognized or unresolved stress that leads to overwhelm that leads to burn out, then often bouts with anxiety or depression. They get the wake up call from their doctor “If you don’t slow down you’ll have a heart attack.” Or the wake up call from the board “You’re under-performing” or worse “you’re fired.” Or the spouse“I want a divorce” because they are burning the candle at both ends and their relationships have been suffering for far too long.
The speed with which we get information, process information and take need to action today is light years faster than even 10 or 15 years ago. Because of the globalization of business, fierce and fast competitors, the digital age and social media, the expectation is business gets done 24/7 365. There is no down time. Our human, fragile brain is powered by rechargeable batteries, not 220v. We can no longer keep up the pace, much less effectively or efficiently process the 40 million pieces of information that’s being hurled at us every waking hour.
Many people believe that stress in our “crazy busy” lives is a “given” and we should be able to “just deal with it.” Recent discoveries in brain science tell us we aren’t doing such a great job. Not only is stress increasingly affecting our physical health and our mental health, stress negatively impacts our ability to think, to make decisions and to communicate. Very critical skills for business owners, managers and leaders at all levels.
When I am speaking to audiences I ask, “What’s your biggest problem at work today?” and the answer is often “I have too much to do, not enough time to do it and not enough resources to do it right.” Yes, that’s a problem, but is not the problem. Because we can’t create more hours in the day, the solution that has now become the problem is to work harder and longer. And now “overwhelm” is a state we visit frequently. Our tolerance for stress is increasing and it’s comfortably familiar … the “new normal.”
And it’s getting worse. Many of us are now addicted to the powerful brain chemicals produced by chronic stress. We can’t get things done and need higher and higher levels of these chemicals to motivate us. Our immune systems are on overload resulting in disease. My personal observation is we feel more disconnected, from ourselves and from each other. As a result we are experiencing more interpersonal conflict and dis-ease at home and at work than ever before. Bad news.
Stress leads to chronic overwhelm and ultimately to burnout. If you ignore the early warning signs, chronic stress will quickly derail you, your career and your personal relationships. If you only strive to “manage stress” (which is no longer possible or feasible) you will slip down the corporate ladder faster than you can blink an eye.
Denial will not serve you when it comes to learning how to transform your relationship with stress. The bad news? Most people will nod in agreement, yet continue with their same habits and take no action.
If you are paid to think, you must treat your brain and your energy as precious commodities that need daily TLC to function most effectively and with ease.
Do you know the early warning signs of burnout?
If you are a business owner, senior manager, director or CXO interested in identifying the early warning signs (7 will surprise you) click here to take a brief stress survey to avoid burnout. The first 5 people each month who complete the survey will receive a personal review (not just a computer-generated score) and 45 minute complimentary and confidential Strategy Session by a licensed professional (yours truly) to see where and how you can take steps now to transform stress into peace of mind.
The good news? Transforming stress is easier than you think and absolutely possible! My coaching clients tell me that when they learn and apply practical tools to manage their energy and attention instead of trying to manage their time, the results are almost immediate. Now instead of feeling chronically stressed out and overwhelmed, they feel confident they can make a difference AND feel happy, satisfied and productive at the end of each day. The result is they become Sustainable Managers & Leaders. Click here now to take the survey.
When you, focus instead on responding rather than reacting to stress you will be able to transform “bad stress” into an opportunity to be a much more effective business owner, manager or CXO. You, too can become a Sustainable Leader: A person who is in a position of authentic influence that creates value and who is built to last from the inside out and for the long haul.
What do Sustainable Leaders are do differently? Hint: They learn and practice skills to actively focus on both how much they DO and DON’T DO to successfully conserve brain power, transform stress and become very efficient with their energy.
P.S. Stay tuned for the next post: The 7 Habits of Highly Sustainable Leaders, then pick one of the 7 tips to practice each day for two weeks. Notice what happens to your mind and your mood. You can learn new habits to transform stress, be more productive and have peace of mind at the end of the day knowing you’ve done your best work and helped your team do their best work, too. Don’t want to wait? Get started now: Click here now to take the survey.
Christina Haxton, MA LMFT – Speaker, Author & Executive Coach, CEO & Founder of Sustainable Leadership, Inc. For leadership speaking, leadership coaching or leadership training inquiries, contact Christina at firstname.lastname@example.org