Understanding your brain to change your perspective and relieve stress


I know you have wonderful intentions. I know you wanted to come back from the holidays invigorated and ready for a new year, full of new thoughts, new ideas and hope for a productive collaboration with your team and colleagues. This is the best way to approach a new year: show optimism, gratitude and encouragement for yourself and for others.

But the reality is, you might not know how to bring something like this. You are more likely to be ruled by your habitual thought patterns, moods and emotions, fears and concerns. Many of us live under stress. Covid-19 continues to torment us, we continue to navigate difficult issues of social and racial justice, our political process can be infuriating, many of us remain reluctant home teachers, we listen to the news and see the impact current climate change, and the list goes on.

How do you move all of that around to create a brighter result? Leadership, after all, is the act of creation. To make something out of nothing. To move towards a future that has not yet arrived.

What the best leaders can teach us

The best leaders I’ve worked with as an executive coach are unfazed. As David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work,” says, “They can observe their own thinking and thereby change the way they think. These people have better cognitive control and can therefore access a calmer mind on demand.

From my own observations, this means they can keep their feet on the ground while opening their hearts and minds to the future. They recover quickly from personal and professional difficulties. They certainly don’t let their mood rule the day. They are more curious than some. And while they personally care a lot, they don’t seem to take difficult comments or events personally.

In many ways, I learned more from these clients than they expected. I have seen them receive heartbreaking news, a fundamental change in strategy that has impacted their entire team, the betrayal of a colleague, the resignation of a key member of the team or the closure of a range of beloved products. And I’ve seen them bounce back in remarkable time. The truth is, I wanted to learn how to do what they were doing.

How your brain affects the way you lead

To better understand my stellar CEO clients and what kind of magic they used to stay so stable in the face of overwhelming events, I turned to the field of neuro-leadership and the pioneering work of Rock, who explains: “Understanding your brain increases your work efficiency. This happens because with the knowledge of your brain, you make different decisions from moment to moment.

Let’s take a minute to talk about your brain. Well, three of them, actually.

The reptilian brain is the oldest part of your brain and is located right at the brainstem, at the top of your spine, at the base of your skull. He has three simple answers: fight, flee or freeze. He is very responsive to the environment and what appears to be a threat. But it also blocks your ability to plan and create.

When you live in fear and stress, you live in survival. And when you are in survival, you operate with the reptilian brain. What does it mean to you as a leader, partner, parent or citizen if you lead with this old brain? You will most likely react to your surroundings in a rather primitive way. You will focus on reducing threats (real or perceived) to you and your team.

The limbic brain, also called the emotional or sensory brain, connects emotions to experiences. It also creates long term memories. You remember events, in large part, because of the emotions you felt during them.

The limbic brain manufactures and releases chemicals in the form of peptides. This chemical cocktail has a specific signature that reflects the emotions you are experiencing in the moment. Emotions signal the body to chemically register the event.

the Neocortex is the newest and most evolved part of your brain. The human brain reached its current level of evolutionary complexity 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. At that time, our ancestors experienced a 20% increase in mass in the thinking and reasoning areas of the human brain. You have a bigger brain. Please.

Dr. Joe Dispenza, author of “Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind,” writes, “The seat of our consciousness, the neocortex is home to our free will, our thinking, and our ability to learn, reason, and rationalize.”

With the neocortex comes all kinds of goodies. We can calm down. We can tell friend from foe. We can catch up and change. We can learn and integrate new ideas. We can talk ourselves out of irrational responses.

Sounds good, right? So let’s see what you can do to start this new year using your neocortex.

Kick your rational brain

Here are two things you can use immediately to regain your composure, no matter what is going on around you (or within you):

1. Label the emotions. I often say “name it to tame it”. It can take you out of emotion and engage the neocortex, the rational, thinking part of the brain.

Labeling, whether verbally or in writing, can calm your body and mind, and from this calmer state you will be able to see more opportunities, solutions, and paths forward. In his book “Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation,” Daniel Siegel explains, “Journal writing activates our mind’s storytelling function. Studies have suggested that simply writing down our life story a difficult experience can reduce physiological reactivity and increase our sense of well-being.

Take charge of labeling or naming your emotions throughout the day, telling yourself the truth as you experience it: “bored”, “frustrated”, “disappointed”. It can help you get out of a negative emotional state.

2. Challenge your point of view: The best CEOs I’ve coached can look at circumstances through a variety of lenses. In other words, they can easily change their perspective. This way they keep an open mind and can be influenced by others who have a different perspective. They don’t embrace certainty and often enter the uncomfortable place of not knowing. They are curious and open learners.

You can challenge your perspective by simply writing down the story you told yourself about a situation. Or invent a new, more stimulating story. Or, if you are brave, you can challenge your point of view by inviting others into conversation and dialogue. Tell them how you see things and ask them to poke holes in your thinking. Invite dissent.

These two strategies or tools may seem quite simple, but I encourage you to adopt them as a practice for a day, a week, a month or even a year if you can maintain that type of focus. Make a habit of changing your thinking by labeling and changing perspective. You, your brain and your leadership will be better for it.


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