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4 May 2013

Leaders can toughen themselves against stress

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

Like some of my partners, I’ve been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Antifragile.  So as I was writing this blog, which I had already been thinking about at length, I couldn’t help letting his ideas about fragility, resilience (or robustness) and that thing beyond the robust that he calls the Antifragile, sneak into the picture.  It occurred to me that, while we tend to think of stress as making us more fragile over time, neuroscientists are increasingly telling us what elite athletes and their coaches have known intuitively for some time—that stress, applied appropriately, can also make us resilient or possibly even antifragile.  But the way most of us live our lives these days, largely ignoring the mind-body machines that cart us around, mostly ensures that we’ll become ever more fragile as a species and that resilience and antifragility will elude us.

Last time I suggested that leaders might want to make a regular practice of cultivating attentive action to their mind-body machine in order increase their capacity to notice what their bodies are telling them and to take more effective action related to that noticing.   Good enough reason, it seems.  But if attending to that machine could help us reduce the debilitating effects of chronic stress, now that would be a huge bonus.  We know that when our bodies and our brains are compromised by chronic stress, our ability to make good decisions, to engage productively with others, and possibly even to a live a long and healthy life is diminished.  So why aren’t we paying more attention?  The reasons are surely complex, and simple knowledge is probably only a small part of the solution—but let’s start there anyway.

Here’s the short version of how chronic stress reduces our resilience, making us ever more fragile.  Robert Sapolsky, a professor of Biology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, explained in a March 2007 Stanford Report, that primates (and especially humans) suffer far more than any other animal from stress-related conditions, more or less because we have too much time on our hands, but our bodies still think we’re living every moment as if our lives depended on it.

“In the short term, stress hormones are “brilliantly adapted” to help you survive an unexpected threat. You mobilize energy in your thigh muscles, you increase your blood pressure and you turn off everything that’s not essential to surviving, such as digestion, growth and reproduction…you think more clearly, and certain aspects of learning and memory are enhanced. All of that is spectacularly adapted if you’re dealing with an acute physical stressor….but non-life-threatening stressors, such as constantly worrying about money or pleasing your boss, also trigger the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones, which, over time, can have devastating consequences to your health…if you turn on the stress response chronically for purely psychological reasons, you increase your risk of adult onset diabetes and high blood pressure. If you’re chronically shutting down the digestive system, there’s a bunch of gastrointestinal disorders you’re more at risk for as well.”

He goes on to say

…many of the qualities that make us human [empathy, social support, deep connection] also can induce stress, he noted. “We can be pained or empathetic about somebody in Darfur,” he said. “We can be pained by some movie character that something terrible happens to that doesn’t even exist. We could be made to feel inadequate by seeing Bill Gates on the news at night, and we’ve never even been in the same village as him or seen our goats next to his. So the realm of space and time that we can extend our emotions means that there are a whole lot more abstract things that can make us feel stressed.”

So what do we do?

John Coates talks quite a lot about what he calls “toughening,” how we humans, generally not in imminent physical danger, can increase our resilience to the physiological and emotional impact of stress.  Basically, he says we need to intentionally and regularly put ourselves under stress and then allow for just as intentional and regular recovery.  It’s the stress/recovery cycle that creates resilience, he says.  Pushing to the limit, then backing off.  Exposing ourselves to temperatures outside our narrow comfort zone (he says that our current climate controlled lives contribute to our lack of toughness).  Unpredictability leading to surprises (but not too much and not for too long).  All of these toughen us. Dr. Nick Hall, author of the book The Stress Challenge, says basically the same thing—that it’s not stress itself that’s harmful, it’s too little recovery. Stress management skills are paradoxical, to get stronger, you have to be challenged.   Putting forth mental, physical, emotional and spiritual energy requires a replenishing of that same mental, physical, emotional and spiritual energy regularly and consistently.   I believe Nassim Taleb might say that humans’ modern habit of generally avoiding physical stress and then not noticing that we’re under a low-grade but consistent form of psychological and emotional stress makes us fragile—cultivating attentive action to our mind-body machine by engaging in deliberate practices that alternately stress and calm us, might make us “tougher,” or, anti-fragile.

What stress/recovery practices are you engaging in right now to improve your resilience, make you tougher, or potentially even encourage your mind-body system to take on more anti-fragile properties?

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