How about – literally – taking some distance?

How about – literally – taking some distance?

Changing environments is sometimes all we need to allow some distance from a tense situation, or when the pressure becomes too high. Creating space between oneself and a situation (or a person) often helps us rejuvenate and calm down.

So here is a resilience practice we invite you to cultivate this week:
When I feel the pressure rising, I will go to another room.

Bounce Forward Fast

Bounce Forward Fast

Originally published on www.resiliencei.com and reproduced with permission.
 by 

Lockdown for the third time. Calls cancel work booked. Rain pelts down. Businesses are pummelled. We lifted ourselves up, reinvented work and again, we face adversity.

No-one has escaped. Many have worked from home for months, some through long, dark winters. Millions of jobs have disappeared. Families are bereaved and separated. Governments wallow in debt. Climate threats continue to build.

This is our history. Cycles of collapse and growth beset humanity. Often the four horsemen of disease, famine, mass migration and state failure are triggered by climate shifts.

Time and again, we, humanity find a way to makes sense of chaos and despair. We bounce. We innovate, adjust and find new solutions. We reconnect, demonstrate altruism and find our way back to flow.

Acknowledging fully the suffering and insecurity many of us face right now, there are lessons and deliberate actions available to help us bounce.

Lesson 1: Make sense of the downward suck

Resilience fails fast or slow. When the mind is overloaded, we lose focus and then disengage. Creative thinking fades, and the old reptilian emotions activate. Fear, the primitive flight reaction, activates first. We want to run away – go to bed, switch to a screen, drink, eat and procrastinate. If we do not accept and counter this normal reaction, anxiety is the price we pay.

When anger, the fight reaction, triggers, we seek to blame – government, epidemiologists, employers or family members. Filled with the poisonous chemicals of anger, we lash out. Unresolved, this leads to hostility and conduct disorder.

Finally, sadness, the freeze reaction, activates. We withdraw into isolation and ruminate on all that has gone wrong. Again, though normal, we must counter it before we sink into despair and depression.

Lesson 2: Bounce forward fast

Bounce back is delusional. It is a fixed mindset. You cannot go back and reverse change. When we confront adversity we learn, adapt and apply new skills. Adversity can overwhelm but mostly we grow and bounce forward to an improved state of function. Acknowledge the suck, focus on how adversity can motivate for a fresh perspective, learning and constructive action.

Focus on the small things – a powernap, a stretch, a walk, reach out to a friend or colleague, or appreciate the rejuvenation brought by rain. Action is required. Small steps lead to bigger steps. Build your momentum. Tackle bigger challenges.

How resilience fails and the steps to bounce forward fast

Lesson 3: Adversity makes you stronger

Despite our brilliance and resources, we simply fail to recognise and action preventive measures – health, saving, moderation, climate or state abuse. We are the archetypal boiled frog. 

We can learn by confronting the consequence of adversity. When we get a shock and feel pain, we pay attention and are motivated to act. This is how nature has always learned to adapt and prevail. Being too safe and over-protected leads to complacency and fragility. The body becomes weak, destructive emotions prevail, and thinking becomes sloppy.

There are times that we must protect the vulnerable. We can learn to reframe adversity as a challenge to pay attention, be curious, learn and try again. Engaging adversity with wisdom and courage, allows us to strengthen and upskill the muscles of the body, the emotions and the mind. Growth follows.

Lesson 4: Take care of yourself

Basic self-care is most essential when things are difficult. This is the time to be a little ruthless as coach. Make sure you sleep enough, at regular times and with quality. Do some exercise – even a few stretches, push-ups or a brisk walk. Even a minute can make a difference. Maintain good posture.

Slow your breathing. Focus on breathing slowly through the nose. Aim for six breaths per minute. Four seconds in and six out or five in and five out are well-established options. For the more adventurous, ideally with supervision, you can try the breathing and cold exposure disciplines of Wim Hoff.

Lesson 5: Name, tame and reframe emotions

We are slowly learning to master the world of emotion. For most they ‘do not exist’. They are unconscious experiences that take control of our lives. If they are positive, that is fine. But if your emotions are negative, flight (fear), fight (anger) and freeze (sadness), they are wrecking your life and your relationships.

If you don’t feel good, you are in a negative emotional state. Name it. Pause and ask the question: ‘what am I feeling?’ The moment you accurately name the emotion (fear, anger, sadness), the unconscious and ‘reptilian reaction’ becomes conscious. The pre-frontal cortex activates. Accept it, feel it and engage it.

Once you are aware, you are in charge. Now, tame it. Slow your breathing, relax your face, step back, stretch and let the negative emotional reaction settle.

Now you are ready to reframe it. Fear is countered with equanimity and curiosity. Anger is countered with respect and kindness. Sadness in countered with appreciation, gratitude and humour.

Yes, it sounds tricky. Twenty years of neurobiology and positive psychology shows that it works and triggers the broaden and build of growth and connection.

Lesson 6: Stop thinking

Much of your thinking in wrecking your life. A flight reaction in the body and the emotion of fear accelerates worry loops about an imagined future. The fight reaction with anger, accelerates rumination on the sins and failings of someone else. The freeze reaction with sadness, accelerates rumination on your own sins and failings.

Name it, tame it and reframe it. Notice and acknowledge when you worry or ruminate. Exhale and come back to the present unfolding situation (tame). Focus 100% on a constructive action in the present.

Lesson 7: Smile, laugh and do something you love

Yes, these are difficult times. Many are suffering. Yet life lusts for itself. Adversity activates bounce and growth. We learn, we reconnect, and we build better futures. Evolution is on our side. Our genes are resilient. We have the skills. We can watch the experts. Good studies prove the lessons above. They work.

Programme EVE & Octave Podcast #28. Cultivating Your Resilience with Alexia Michiels

Programme EVE & Octave Podcast #28. Cultivating Your Resilience with Alexia Michiels

Originally published on Programme Octave website and their SoundCloud page on October 28th 2020.

Whether it is at work, at home, or elsewhere, life often throws curveballs at us. How can we prepare to face these unexpected challenges?

A professional coach, author and the co-founder of Resilience Institute Europe, Alexia invites us to develop our resilience. In physics, resilience describes the resistance of materials to impact. The term was taken up in therapy, and then in coaching, to refer to the ability to withstand upheavals.

Far from being a simple wellness practice, resilience takes a preventive and holistic approach. It offers tools to develop a solid foundation that integrates body, heart, mind and spirit. In building this foundation, we are better prepared to deal with the difficulties that may arise. We also strengthen the ability to have a positive impact on the lives of others.

Listen now to our conversation with Alexia and discover her insights to cultivate your own resilience.

Listen to the Podcast – 9min

How to Overcome Anxiety

How to Overcome Anxiety

Originally published on www.resiliencei.com and reproduced with permission.
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5 Steps to be Playful in your Life

He dare not come into company for fear he should be misused, disgraced, overshoot himself in gestures or speeches, or be sick; he thinks every man observeth him.

 Robert Burton, 1621, quotes Hippocrates describing a patient.

If you are feeling a little uncertain, uneasy, anxious or worried, you are in good company. We will remember 2020 for fires, Covid-19, floods, hurricanes, moral outrage, and massive job losses. There is little to indicate that we are ‘going back to normal.’

We hear from our clients, colleagues and reputable media that anxiety is the most troubling concern right now. Anxiety is both unpleasant and debilitating. It can range from a very appropriate and necessary recognition of risk to being immobilised in a state of panic.

Depending upon the situation, anxiety can be a life-saving super-power or alternatively, a psychiatric diagnosis of mental illness.

A clear understanding of how anxiety works and practical steps to counter it will guide you back to calm and curious playfulness.

The five steps are:

  1. Name it
  2. Tame it
  3. Breath control
  4. Reframe it
  5. Press PLAY

Understanding Anxiety

A Psychiatric Perspective

Large population surveys show that up to 33.7% of people are affected by an anxiety disorder. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) claims that 18.1% of adults are affected and 25.1% of young people (13 – 18).

An “anxiety disorder” in the DSM-5 is diagnosed by excessive anxiety and worry (difficult to control) occurring most days for six months about a number of events or activities. Symptoms include restlessness (on edge), fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance.

Psychiatrists apply a wide range of descriptions including anxiety disorderpanic disorderagoraphobiageneralized anxiety disordersocial anxiety disorderspecific phobiaand separation anxiety disorder.

Treatment is counselling, CBT or anxiety medications. The pharmaceutical market is worth about $7 billion (excluding antidepressants ($18 billion) often prescribed for anxiety).

You cannot die from an anxiety disorder or even a panic attack. However, prolonged anxiety has been shown into increase risk of cardiovascular disease and can make inflammatory disorders such as asthma and rashes worse.

A Biological Perspective

Anxiety is linked to the primary emotion of fear. Fear exists from reptiles through to humans. Fear has been retained in evolution because it increases the chance of living long enough to reproduce. In a dangerous world of predators and deprivation, fear saves lives. It is so important, that the flight reaction is a powerful, automatic reaction to threat.

The flight reaction activates before you can think about it. When the senses detect a threat, the amygdala and hypothalamus fire up the sympathetic nervous system. You are flooded with adrenaline. Blood leaves your brain, skin and gut to power up the leg and butt muscles so that you can run.

Just as an impala might dash off with a whiff of a lion, so you might jump away at the sight of a coiled object in your path. Thinking in humans only happens after the event. Your body, gripped by a surge of fear, may just have saved your life.

At the milder end of the anxiety range, is a sense of doubt or unease. A very mild activation of the fear response leaves you feeling uncomfortable (butterflies), tense (neck and back) and wide-eyed. The experience could be triggered by a creak of a door or even an imagined threat. Either way, it wakes you up, you pay attention and prepare for a threat.

There are two dimensions of anxiety: severity and duration as shown here. A quick surge of fear can alert you to threat and help you focus on mastering the situation (1). But we have to tame the fear in order to be calm, focused and connected to the situation. Too much fear will make us rigid and unable to respond with skill (2).

When fear persists and is experienced as chronic anxiety and persistent worry, it is of no adaptive use (3). Chronic anxiety will undermine your life and health (4). It feels awful, thinking is compromised, and you may find yourself avoiding and procrastinating in the face of challenges you need to address.D

Anxiety can be understood from physical, emotional and mental perspectives.

The body is activated by adrenaline, blood flow changes, muscle tension, breathing, and heart rate. We can experience this as a physical experience. The bodily state is felt as a feeling, or emotion, of fear. This fear can express as unease, wariness, terror or even panic. These are emotions we can learn to label accurately. They can be captured on camera and in voice.

Face of fear

Fear focuses our attention on future threats. You may notice yourself thinking: ‘this could be scary’. That is a useful thought that helps you plan and prepare. However, you may find your mind looping around the same thoughts: ‘this is terrible, what if, this is going to hurt, they will hate me.’ This is worry. It is not helpful. Your mental resources are distracted from the present moment.


The five steps from anxiety to playfulness

Name it

When you experience anxiety in the body, feel it as emotion, or notice it as worry, name the experience immediately. For example: ‘I feel my heart thumping’, ‘I feel fear’, or ‘I am worrying about x. The goal is to make an object of the experience.

If we don’t name it, we become the subject. We feel lost in a whirl of heart thumping, dread, and swirling worries. You feel like you are the flight reaction. Your reptilian brain is in control.

This step puts you in control as the observer. My body is tense. This is a feeling of fear. My mind is caught in a worry loop. You have just put your pre-frontal cortex in control. The reptilian systems immediately deactivate when you name it. Now you have access to conscious perception, judgement, creativity and can choose the best response.

Tame it

Once you name the state, feeling or thought, the experience of anxiety and fear is already reducing. There are many tactics to achieve this. Relax your face, breathe out and pause, massage your neck and shoulders, have a cold shower, sing, gargle or reach out for a hug.

Learn how to focus attention on your body or the flow of your breath. Each time the mind charges off to worry, gently bring it back to the rise and fall of your belly.

There is tremendous power in learning to do this well. I believe every student should be taught these skills early in education. It will be life changing. If you know you can reduce your anxiety with practical steps.

Breath Control

Our most popular blog is “Take a Deep Breath is Bad Advice.” Taking a deep breath, especially if it is through the mouth makes anxiety worse. Rapid, shallow and chesty breathing can combine with breath holding and sighing. These are signs of hyperventilation. You may be breathing 18 times per minute. If you hyperventilate deliberately, you will feel anxiety rise.

To start, lie flat, close your eyes, relax face, body and limbs, and exhale fully. Pause a moment and then inhale through your nose. Aim for ten second breath cycles. My preference is 4 seconds in (1, 2, 3, 4) and 6 seconds out (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Keep your chest and belly relaxed. Allow your lower ribs and belly to rise and fall as you breathe.

Two or three minutes of this slow, diaphragmatic breathing through the nose has a huge impact. If you can accumulate this sort of breathing for about 8 minutes a day your vagal tone becomes stronger and your brain becomes more focused and agile.

The next step might be to learn and practice a meditation. Try to do this every day even if for just five minutes.

Reframe it

A reframe is consciously and deliberately choosing a different state. You take your body from tense to relaxed. You nudge your feelings from fear to calm. You test the worry with thoughts of hope and opportunity. The concept comes from CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy). You can reframe body, emotion or thought.

The All Blacks use the term ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’. Ceri Evans (see below) uses the aphorism: ‘Red or blue? Decide! Do!’ Approaching a difficult play, notice the fear (red), step back, step up to focus on the goal (blue) and step into deliberate action.

By practicing these disciplines repeatedly, you can learn to reframe in a split second.

Notice that we are not advocating that you deny feeling. The information is an important message. Use it to quickly reframe your body, emotion and mind into a state that can solve the challenge.

Press PLAY

When you look at memorable learning moments in your life, they are often found where you confronted big and scary challenges. There is nothing more rewarding than finding a way to engage adversity with curiosity and a sense of play. This is what young animals do in play. In play we engage voluntarily with adversity. We chase, we run, we wrestle, and develop the skills to be able to do it under pressure.

  1. Develop a habit of playful engagement. When adversity presents:
  2. Feel the fear and name it
  3. Breath out and relax your body
  4. Step back and up to look around
  5. Say to yourself: ‘this is interesting, there must be 7 ways to play.’
  6. Make a decision
  7. Execute

 As you keep practicing this your attitudes to adversity will change from threat to playful opportunity. As your skills improve, you vagus nerve will myelinate and get stronger. Calm, focused connection becomes easier. You will learn to trust yourself.

Life and its challenges become a playground for adventure.


References:

  • Joseph LeDoux, Anxious, 2015 (a sound neurobiologist)
  • Jean Twenge, i-Gen, 2017 (researcher on young people)
  • Ceri Evans, Perform under Pressure, 2019 (how All Blacks do it)
  • Deb Dana, Polyvagal Exercises for Calm and Connection, 2020 (get it)
How to beat burnout with a growth mindset

How to beat burnout with a growth mindset

Originally published on www.resiliencei.com and reproduced with permission.
 by 

A search of “burn-out” delivers 485 million results. How strange to be so attached to a word that has no clinical or biological substance. A year ago, the World Health Organisation included “burn-out” as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. This is an error second only to their mishandling of Covid-19.

First, humans do not burn out. Second, there is a better way to understand the experience of overwhelm so that you can recover, bounce and reconnect with life. Third, the term burnout hurts the person labelled and misleads the experts trying to help you.

Surprised? Bear with me and I think you will drop the term.

Why you can’t burn out

A light bulb, an engine and a fire can burn out. Entropy wins and the system has no further use. It must be replaced. That is a poor analogy for human life.

Humans are self-healing and regenerating systems (negentropy). In fact, under pressure we respond with learning, growth and greater resilience. A recent meta-analysis showed that about half of people (77.3% in one study) experience post traumatic growth after severe traumatic events.

What actually happens when overwhelmed?

Our desire is to be calm, connected, playful and effective in one’s life. In this state, the ventral Vagus nerve is active. We feel safe, trusting, intimate and energised to engage. To have this experience through childhood is a key factor for a good life. We can learn to have more of it.

Sudden or prolonged experiences of threat or pressure cause us to lose this adaptive state. The sympathetic system activates and shuts down the ventral vagus system. This is not a decision you take but rather a reaction deep in your autonomic nervous system. It can be sudden, erupting as a panic attack (flight) or rage (fight). It may also activate slowly as a feeling of anxiety or anger.

These unconscious autonomic reactions are selected when the body feels unsafe or threatened. The old sympathetic system will select cues that your mind may not notice. For example: “are those footsteps of a thief in a dark alley?” or “is he looking at my daughter…?”

The sympathetic system can become unstable and overactive. This is what happens in anxiety and hostility disorders. The first questions asked is if I can run away and avoid the situation (flight, fear or anxiety). If I cannot escape, the system switches to attack (fight, anger or hostility).

These reactions do serve a snake or a mouse in in the jaws of a cat. In humans, it is a huge waste of energy, disables thinking and rarely has any positive effects. In any demanding situation – combat, sport, keynotes, performance – the effect is debilitating.

It can get worse. We call it the freeze reaction. If the threat is so severe that neither flight nor fight are options, we simply immobilise. The old, dorsal vagus activates and we collapse. In extreme situations we may void bladder and bowels, faint or burst into tears. This is common in natural disasters, war and abuse. Blood pressure drops and the human brain is deprived of oxygen.

In a more chronic situation, hope fades, we lose energy, give up and surrender our responsibility. Yes, it feels like being “burned out”. It is hard to distinguish from depression if sustained over weeks. Remember, you did not consciously choose it. Your body activated an ancient reaction to protect you.

Polyvagal theory is being successfully used by hundreds of therapists to show you how to reconnect with and master your autonomic system. Deb Dana’s book (see below) is an excellent start.

Even after severe trauma, in autism, anxiety, depression and hostility, this methodology is changing lives. There are some clear learning steps:

  1. Accurately perceive what is happening in your body
  2. Label and observe the freeze, flight, fight and engage signals
  3. Develop skilful state shifts to move in the right direction
  4. Activate calm, connection, trust, and playfulness
  5. Myelinate your ventral vagus nerve fibres (swim or meditate)

When you feel overwhelmed, remind yourself that your body selected protective immobilisation to keep you safe. Relax, notice, exhale, reconnect and reengage. As your ventral vagus response strengthens, you can leave burnout behind you.

Getting past burnout and fixed mindsets

As we become more familiar with how physiology, body, emotion and mind operate, the concept of burnout becomes redundant. When you say it to yourself you reinforce hopelessness. When experts label you with burnout, you feel broken and permanently damaged.

All too often, burnout leads to grievance and blame. This is absolutely the last thing you need for your recovery.

Burnout is a term that no longer serves us. It locks us into the fixed mindset. With patience, understanding, learning and practice the immobilisation reaction can be mastered with many safe and proven techniques. Therapists, consultants, resilience experts, business and you really can do much better with a growth mindset.

  • Polyvagal Theory Exercises for Safety and Connection, Deb Dana, 2020
  • Lost Connections, Johan Hari, 2018
  • Perform Under Pressure, Ceri Evans, 2019
  • Polyvagal Theory, Stephen Porges, 2012
Ride the Black Swan

Ride the Black Swan

Take care of yourself, your family and your teams

Nassim Taleb wrote about Black Swan events in 2010. A Black Swan is an improbable event with massive consequences. We are in one right now. Every one of us is facing unknown unknowns. Our savings are impacted. We are concerned about family, friends and business as borders start to close. Many can no longer go to work. Am I well enough to survive an infection?

Leaders walk a blurry, dangerous edge between under and over reacting. The consequences of closing a border, a store or a business are huge. We are facing decisions under an overload of information and unclear guidance. There is little certainty.

Activate Centripetal Forces

There are disruptive centrifugal forces at play. Centrifugal forces pull things away from the centre. It feels uncertain, scary and threatening. Centripetal forces hold things together. They keep calm, control and connection. Now is a time to focus on the key centripetal forces that you can apply to guide yourself, your family and your team.

10 Centripetal Forces

These recommendations are aimed to maintain your physical health and immunity first, and second to support your mental and emotional wellbeing. 

  1. Discipline your attention: sip cautiously and sparingly on information
  2. Maintain or reinforce your daily disciplines of self-care and growth
  3. Exercise every day and make sure you get out in fresh air and sunshine
  4. Lock down your sleep discipline: consider stretching it to 8 hours
  5. Eat fresh foods & eat sparingly: lose unwanted weight if you can
  6. Stay calm and relaxed: a daily relaxation practice has multiple benefits
  7. Be present and savour the moment: catch worry, focus on breath and body
  8. Stay connected to your family: consider co-locating while you can
  9. Be positive and seek out optimistic positions: don’t catastrophise
  10. Keep cash on hand and set yourself up for remote work

No one can predict how this will turn out. Focus on what you can control and change. Fretting over provocative media hype is futile. Stay informed but focus on respected authorities like the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

Focus on Physical Health

Reduce inflammation, fatigue and poor health. Experts warn that that age, obesity, diabetes, smoking and chronic conditions increase risk of infection and consequences. Now is the ideal time to put in place a good daily discipline that nurtures fitness, sleep, relaxation and wellbeing. A fresh-food diet and relaxation will keep your gut bacteria healthy.

Master Anxiety (and worry)

Anxiety is a key risk. Uncertainty and risk trigger the emotion of fear. Fear will stir and stimulate futile loops of worry. It is essential to discipline your thinking. When you notice the discomfort of anxiety or loops of worry, breath out long and slow. Bring your attention forcefully to your breath, your body, and the feeling of being alive right now. As your attention learns to stay present on the unfolding moment, anxiety will dissipate.

Build Hope, Optimism and Joy

Hopelessness and depression must be countered. We may lose money, jobs and opportunities. Isolation can fragment the connections we need for emotional wellbeing. Humanity is brilliant at rapid bounce. We will find a way. Be active and practical. Do useful things like keeping your home tidy and lovely, cleaning your car, or reading a good novel. Be alert to rumination on losses and what could have been. Create a positive story with your situation. Spend time with loved ones and help each other build optimism and hope.

Know that things will eventually get better. Humanity will learn. We will come out wiser and stronger. When things are shaken up like this, it is a great time to reflect on what really matters to you. Perhaps let go of some things that no longer matter quite as much. It may be an opportunity to make a much needed change.

Bounce, grow, connect and seek flow.