What toll does it take, over time, if you get too little sleep; skip breakfast or settle for something unhealthy; struggle with a relentlessly challenging commute; attend meeting after meeting with no breaks in between; pump yourself up through the day with multiple cups of coffee or sugary snacks; deal with hundreds of emails that accumulate in your inbox; remain at your desk for lunch if you eat lunch at all; push through fatigue in the afternoon; head home at night feeling exhausted, but continue to check email through the evening; work on the weekends; and limit your vacations to no more than a week or two, if you vacation at all?Consider the story of the boiling frog. It may or may not be true, but the point it makes certainly is. Toss a frog into a pot of boiling water and it instinctively jumps out, self-protectively. Next, place the frog into a pot of cool water. Not surprisingly, it swims around, happily. Now heat the water up very gradually and what does the frog do? It acclimates to untenable circumstances — and slowly cooks. The frog doesn’t notice what’s happening to him, until it’s too late.
We’re experiencing the same phenomenon. Facing ever more demand, complexity and uncertainty, our initial response is to push ourselves harder and more relentlessly, without taking account of the costs we’re incurring.
Physiologically, we move into hyperarousal — flooding our bodies with stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. It’s an automatic response to the experience of threat, and it provides an instant source of energy.
“Allostatic load” is a term coined by the neuroscientist Bruce McEwen that refers to the physiological consequences — most especially on the brain — of chronic exposure to relentless demand. When fight-or-flight hormones circulate in our body for too long, keeping our arousal high, they become toxic — not just physically, but also emotionally and mentally.
The most immediate problem with the fight-or-flight state is that our pre-frontal cortex begins to shut down. We become reactive rather than reflective. We lose precisely what we need most in these complex times: the capacity to think analytically and imaginatively; to embrace nuance and paradox rather than choosing up sides; and to take a long-term perspective rather than making the most expedient choice.
It’s not good for us, and it’s not good for companies.
The antidote, well understood by trauma researchers, is to give people practical and specific ways to lower their physiological arousal — to get out of fight or flight. If you’re hyperaroused — and vast numbers of us are, much of the time — you must learn first how to regularly relax your body. Only then is it possible to calm your emotions, quiet your mind and make wiser choices.
In the trauma community, it’s called self-soothing. In the workplace, it’s about using simple strategies to buffer relentless demand by taking more conscious and regular care of our most basic needs.
Our most fundamental physical needs, beyond food, are to move and to rest. Sleep is the foundation of physical energy. All but a tiny percentage of us require at least 7-8 hours a night to feel fully rested and even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant cognitive toll.
We also operate best when we take renewal breaks at least every 90 minutes during the day. Breathing deeply for as little as a minute, for example, can completely clear the body of cortisol.
Movement is a second, more active way to change channels and to build physical capacity. The best way to move is to regularly challenge our current comfort zone — to push our heart rate into the aerobic and anaerobic zones at least four times a week, for at least 20 minutes at a time, and to train with weights at least twice a week.
Even if you don’t do that, it’s immensely valuable to get up and move at least several times during the day — and even better, to get outside. Above all, our goal should be to increase our oscillation over the course of the day — moving between relaxation at one end, and more active forms of energy expenditure at the other.
At the emotional level, our core need is to feel safe, secure and valued. The most reliable way to ensure that happens is to move flexibly between valuing, appreciating and taking care of others — which builds trust and appreciation — and taking care of ourselves. One without the other is insufficient. We need to regularly refuel ourselves with positive emotions just as much as we need to renew ourselves physically.
The more attentive we are to meeting these core needs, the less likely we are to feel overwhelmed and exhausted, and the more sustainably high-performing we’re capable of becoming.
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