We are concluding a testing year. Over and above the risks of digitalisation, polarised politics, environmental tipping points, and turbulent markets, Covid-19 is testing our communities, businesses, governments and economies.
As we come to the end of this year, our team recommends that you think carefully about what you need to bounce and recover. Most important, please be deliberate in the execution of your plan. We share some practical suggestions here to help you rejuvenate and re-engage for a constructive 2021.
The five horsemen of apocalypse according to Ian Morris are disease, mass migration, conflict, state failure, and climate change. These have, according to Morris, always been the cluster of factors that have disrupted humanity over the past 12,000 years. All five are at full gallop.
Many are afraid (anxiety), sad (depression) or mad (angry). Under the covers, we are exhausted by the reality of disease, lock-down, job loss, political chaos, and disasters relentlessly broadcast by media engines.
The end of year break is coming, and we need it more than ever. Will you press hard to the bitter end? Will you continue to fidget with your devices and media feeds? Will you splurge on food and alcohol? Will you collapse into illness as the rest allows your defences to drop? Will family conflict erupt?
Here is a plan of action to restore your resilience. To rest. To disengage. To recover. To bounce. To sleep. To restore health. To reconnect with people you love. We strongly recommend a disciplined approach to year end.
Plan your holiday now
Identify what you need to bounce and recover
Create quiet time for rest, sleep and nature
Schedule quality time with those you love
Get out of your home office
Get close to nature
Automate your “not available” messages
Switch off your devices
Allocate a short burst of “work time” each day
Disconnect from the news
Commit to three daily recovery practices
We all wish you a wonderful end of year break and time with your loved ones. Bounce, Grow, Connect and rediscover your Flow.
A resilient mindset appears as a simple, compelling concept. If we could just acquire such a thing – perhaps with a pill or an app – life would magically become better. A resilient mindset could solve all sorts of problems.
For a critical mind, the concept is complex and confusing. Is there even such a thing? If there was such a thing, how might we develop and apply it?
In this article we try to understand and define what a resilient mindset might be and explore whether it is possible to develop such a thing.
What is a resilient mindset?
First, we must define a mindset. The catchy answer is to tease out Carol Dweck’s growthmindset. A fixed mindset takes the position that things cannot be changed – even with dedicated effort. For example: “There is no point in me trying to do mathematics. My mind is just not built for mathematics. I simply cannot solve these problems.” This built on Martin Seligman’s learned helplessness. Research demonstrates that it leads to a less fulfilling life.
The growth mindset, previously calledlearned optimismby Seligman, takes the position that if I apply myself, I can learn to master this. For example: “Mathematics is challenging for me and many others. If I apply myself and practice hard enough, with the right support, I can learn to solve these problems.” Research demonstrates that this belief leads to fulfilling and successful lives.
We cannot see these mindsets in a brain scan. They are beliefs about our abilities and the challenges presented to us. We could say that a mindset is a strongly held belief. There is evidence – primarily from twin studies – that some beliefs have as much as 50% genetic origin. Conservative views, pessimism, risk taking, and anxiety correlate with inheritance.
Nevertheless, we can become more aware of our beliefs and through this learn to challenge and adjust our beliefs. In this way cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can cure depression as well or better than anti-depressants. Likewise, a belief that ‘those people’ are evil and awful can change with constructive engagement to a belief that ‘those people’ are just like me.
In summary, a mindset is a mental representation of how things do or don’t work. Here are some mindset tests.
Which statement describes your mindset?
People are selfish
We should be self reliant
Humans cause climate change
High taxes are good
I will take care of myself
Empathy is a hardwired trait
I believe I can master ‘x”
Life is brutal, solitary, nasty and short
People are kind and generous
We should support people
Climate change is random
Tax should be minimised
Others should care for me
We can learn empathy
There is no point trying ‘x’
Life is a creative advance into novelty
Does one really want a mindset? Perhaps in this age of polarisation, what we need more are flexible perspectives. Rather than having set beliefs, we might learn to explore different perspectives thus testing the pros and cons of each. The BBC advocates aparadox mindset. There is no one right way and therefore, “mindset” may be misleading. We vote for flexible minds.
Second, we must define resilience. Is it a genetic attribute which is fixed at an early age? Alternatively, is it a learned set of skills that we can all acquire with effort and support. Some believe that it is ‘bouncing back’ from adversity. Others believe that adversity stimulatespost traumatic growth.
While we must each come to our own definition, our research shows that the learned ability to bounce, grow, connect and find flow is an integrated set of skills. A skilful performer takes on increasingly difficult tasks. Adversity and failure are inevitable. They must learn tobounce forwardfast. As they learn bounce, theygrowphysical, emotional and mental skills. These skills areconnectedin a team, game, or specific situation to achieve theflowstate. Whilst super-productive and fulfilling, there will be setbacks.
Right here we face one of the conundrums of our time. Should we protect our children and people from adversity? Shall we make sure we are physically safe, emotionallycoddled, and mentally complacent? In this mindset, adversity is the problem. People must be protected. Pressure and challenge must be avoided. We must support people at all costs and ask little of them.
Alternatively, should we challenge people with adversity and risk? Evidence shows that adversity stimulates awareness and growth. Further, serious adversities connect communities and increase collaboration. Rather than seeing people as vulnerable and victims, we view human ability as noble. We expect dedicated self-improvement and altruism.
Either one can become a fixed resilience mindset. These are the polarised perspectives of liberal humanism versus stoic self-reliance. Taken to extreme, both perspectives have risk. If we press the first, people can become frail (unwell), fearful (anxious) and fragile (depressed). If we press the second, people might feel isolated, exploited and distressed.
A flexible, resilient mind might ask when safety is the priority versus when challenge and accountability is a better solution. Pick your battles with wisdom and learn to adjust with new information.
How to build a flexible, resilient mind?
The bad news is that it takes time, effort and repetition. A pill or an app is not the solution. Hard work over thousands of hours defines the path. The good news is that we can learn and master well established, defined skills. There are even some bio-hacks (short cuts).
The goal of a flexible, resilient mind is:
“to construct a conscious, deliberate alignment of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual resources to engage effectively with a defined situation”
Conscious and deliberate cognition is essential. Our thinking must be clear, ordered, flexible and creative. In approaching the situation, we must have a clear view of the complexity of the situation, master our own state, and be able to generate creative options to solve it.
The All Black rugby team has drilled this under the name of ‘red or blue, decide, do’. Articulated well byCeri Evans, it is the discipline of engaging with a challenging moment knowing that we can choose between a ‘red’ emotionally reactive approach or a ‘blue’ thoughtful and deliberate approach. Players practice selecting the ‘blue’ by stepping back, up and in. They ‘step back’ to calm the ‘red’, then step up to get a clear view, and then step into the situation fully committed and deliberate.
In a challenging situation, the body will often react with fear (flight), anger (fight) or withdrawal (freeze) reactions. These strong negative emotions disable clear thinking and decisions. They can set the mind in stone.
The challenge is to restrain strong, negative reactions. To do this we have to name them, tame them and reframe them (step back and up). It is only when our emotional state is calm and positive that we can activate the mental skills required to assess, analyse and solve the challenge.
Our physical wellbeing is essential to support this effort. Good quality sleep, adequate rest and recovery, physical fitness and smart nutrition are required.
We can think of our spiritual resources as faith. Faith that with deliberate practice I/we can learn to master this situation (grow and flow). Faith that self-care is an ethical imperative (grow). Faith that people are fundamentally good (connect). Faith that flexible and creative work can solve the toughest challenges (bounce, grow, connect and flow). Faith that those who love and support us will be there regardless of the outcome (connect).
To apply this approach in your own life, think of a specific situation or challenge you are facing right now. Describe the situation clearly in writing. Reflect on the last time you confronted this situation. What were you thinking? What emotions were in play? What did you experience in your body?
As you describe how your mental, emotional and physical resources lined up to the situation, you can see with clarity how the situation evolved. This is called situational awareness and is the foundation of a resilient mind, emotions and body.
Next, define in writing what sort of outcome you would like to achieve in this situation. When you can define clearly the current versus desired outcome, you have created tension – a gap that you intend to close. This is the purpose of a flexible, resilient mind. We can apply willpower to close the gap.
Then, you must apply the creative solutions that help you close the gap. There are many variations that you might consider and explore. What new thinking might you introduce? What emotions will motivate and inspire action? What sort of physical wellbeing and engagement is required? This is called situational agility. This is the work of a resilient mind, emotions and body.
Once you can build a few potential solutions to the challenge, you are applying integral resilience and situational agility. It may not work on the first attempt. Be willing to test and trial these options with a colleague or a coach. The first time you apply it, it will feel awkward and may go astray. Sit down and reflect following the steps described. What do you need to be more aware of? What other options are available? How can you practice that particular part of the solution?
If you have made it this far, you are on the path to aresilient mindset– sorry –flexible, resilient mind. Well done.
Mindset: updated edition, Carol Dweck, 2017
Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, 2006
The Coddling the American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt, 2019
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 alife-saving super-poweror 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:
A Psychiatric Perspective
Large population surveys show that up to 33.7% of people are affected by ananxiety 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 theDSM-5is 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 disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobia, andseparation 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Develop a habit of playful engagement. When adversity presents:
Feel the fear and name it
Breath out and relax your body
Step back and up to look around
Say to yourself: ‘this is interesting, there must be 7 ways to play.’
Make a decision
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 connectionbecomes easier. You will learn to trust yourself.
Life and its challenges become a playground for adventure.
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)
According to aForbes articlepublished at the onset of the COVID pandemic, people leaders across all industries are facing similar challenges for their teams and themselves. Using the Resilience Institute’s combination of Bounce, Grow, Connect and Flow, leaders and employees alike can learn the essential skills required to thrive in an uncertain and changing environment.
But first, what do Bounce, Grow, Connect and Flow mean when discussing resilience?
The ability toBouncemeans to recognise resilience failure and to regain optimal function. In other words, when you aren’t operating at optimal performance, bounce is detecting what is happening and committing to getting yourself back on track.
WeGrowwhen we look after ourselves mentally and physically via self-care, adopting and maintaining positive habits that permeate throughout our personal and professional lives. Ensuring good sleep and a healthy diet helps to give us a positive outlook, which translates into staying calm under pressure, countering negative thoughts and reducing impulsivity.
When weConnectwe enter a state of union, be it a physical, emotional, cognitive or spiritual connection. With ourselves, others or even with nature, Connection is a powerful skill in the resilience toolkit that allows us to have heightened emotional intelligence (EQ), empathy and self-awareness.
We enter theFlowstate when we have a strong concept of effective, engaging and skilful responses to challenges. In Flow you are “in the zone” and have deep focus, achieving optimal performance and situational agility. Like top athletes who get “into the zone” when competing, the Flow state sees us operating at our peak.
HOW DO I BALANCE BEING AN INSPIRATIONAL AND COMFORTING LEADER WHILE CONTINUING TO PUSH ON PERFORMANCE?
Connect and Flow. It’s essential that your team know and trust that you are empathetic to their individual circumstances, whether you front a team of one or one thousand. Empathy and Emotional Literacy are two facets of connection that all great leaders possess. Combined with Flow, you can practice Situational Awareness and Agility that lead to optimal performance. Some days are harder than others and if your team feels safe knowing that they won’t be punished on difficult days where they aren’t as productive, they will work to make up the productivity on their better days. It’s a balance of give and take, of trust and of Connect and Flow.
HOW CAN I RESPOND TO COUNTLESS QUESTIONS FROM MANAGERS AND FRONTLINE WORKERS WHEN NO CLEAR ANSWERS EXIST?
Bounce. Reduced revenue, reduced working schedules, redundancies. Some industries have been hit harder than others but very few companies have been immune to some sort of reductions. No one can have all the answers but it is possible to instill confidence in others even when you don’t know what’s around the corner. Tactical Calm helps people understand that panic and anxiety are not the only options in uncertain times. Just like how fear can easily spread from one person to the next, so too can calm radiate throughout the team. Even if events do have less than ideal outcomes, Tactical Calm and Bounce show your resilience.
HOW DO I MAINTAIN MY VISIBILITY AND INFLUENCE IN THE ORGANISATION WITH LIMITED INTERACTION OPPORTUNITIES?
Grow and Flow. By adopting a Growth Mindset and building a comprehensive Personal Plan you can be prepared for the interactions and opportunities that arise, regardless of whether they are in person, in a virtual meeting or over email. Just like how if you think of a red car you begin to see red cars everywhere (called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon or Frequency Illusion), if you prepare yourself for opportunities, visibility and influence then you start to see those chances arise and confidently step into them.
HOW DO I CONTINUE BUILDING MY PERSONAL BRAND WITHIN THE COMPANY WITHOUT APPEARING SELF-CENTRED?
Flow. By finding your Optimal Performance and understanding Situational Awareness you can continue your personal development while still being empathetic of others. Personal success and emotional intelligence are not at odds with each other but are intricately linked. Equally, by demonstrating an ability to deliver on your objectives during times of turmoil can be an inspiration to others.
HOW CAN I KEEP MY TEAM ENGAGED WHILE WORKING REMOTELY?
Resilience training. Bounce, Grow, Connect and Flow are greater than the sum of their parts and a resilient team is one who collectively works together in all areas. With the right training, entire teams can help each other stay engaged and supported no matter what is thrown at them. What’s more, a team that has collectively gone through resiliency training together can use that common ground to remind and support one another with best practices.
Founded in 2002, The Resilience Institute has been training people and corporations Bounce, Grow, Connect and Flow by bringing together modern preventative medicine, positive psychology, emotional intelligence, and neuroscience. By delivering high impact, practical, evidence-based and integrated Resilience training, clients have built healthier bodies, achieved greater levels of emotional intelligence and have developed stronger minds, bringing their tremendous performance benefits of resilience to work.
Now with an app available on Android, iOS and the web, users can measure, learn and achieve their resilience goals from anywhere. With micro-learning video and audio sessions, daily goal tracker and an AI-powered chatbot, resilience training has never been more available.
Covid-19 has catapulted us into a strange new world of work. Many of your people are working from home. The initial novelty is wearing off. Business and team leaders wrestle with how to lead and motivate. People leaders wonder how to support people, manage risk and continue learning and development.
A New Reality Presents
Those of us thrust into remote work wrestle with family boundaries, find our daily routines upside down, and discover that sustained self-motivation is tricky indeed. We are confronted with rethinking how home can operate as a workplace. How do we maintain our team connections? How do we engage effectively through virtual meetings? Do we even want to continue to work like this?
Remote work has been creeping up on us with a boom in digital tools. The current crisis has accelerated the transition. As the cost savings to business become clear, remote work is becoming an inevitability. There are significant benefits. Office costs will fall, commuting time and frustration has collapsed, and the call for “work-life balance” has been answered. We are sorting through a messy transition. We are heading into the unknown.
The Risks of Remote Work
We are still coming to terms with the risks. Four present clearly:
Most homes are not designed for remote work. We work in bedrooms, try to focus amidst family activities, and negotiate the temptations of the kitchen and Netflix.
Our daily rhythms and transitions are upended. One can get lost in the dramas of home life and challenged relationships or sit for hours in front of a screen. Maintaining sleep, exercise, relaxation and work rhythms is even more testing. The discrete breaks of daily commutes, meetings, coffee breaks and office activity are no more.
The emotional connection, support and motivation provided by our work community has been replaced by virtual calls. Many feel isolated and lonely. The buzz of the human marketplace cannot be replaced by digital interaction. A sense of meaning will be hard to sustain without the messy physicality of human interaction.
The natural interactions of leadership, teaming and coaching as we move in and out of work tasks, have gone. Many remote workers will end up confused, overloaded or misguided. Leaders face deep questions as to how well they are providing direction, support and autonomy. Some may overperform and fatigue. Others may disengage and lose themselves in distractions – or worse.
Immediate challenges for Leadership
What is the role of the business in helping people create productive workspaces at home?
What should leaders do to make sure people are safe, healthy and well?
What is the responsibility of leaders to support productive and resilient life rhythms?
How do we train people for effective virtual presentation, empathy and influence?
How do we rebuild leadership, teaming and coaching in virtual teams?
What will training look like in a virtual and digital environment?
Opening up a laptop at home is the easy part. The hard part will be finding our way through these six questions. As the acute phase of Covid-19 settles, people leaders will need to make time to address and meet these challenges. It is going to be an interesting and creative advance into novelty.
We share offer some early thoughts and support here:
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 recentmeta-analysisshowed 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 becalm, 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:
Accurately perceive what is happening in your body
Label and observe the freeze, flight, fight and engage signals
Develop skilful state shifts to move in the right direction
Activate calm, connection, trust, and playfulness
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 thefixed 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 agrowth mindset.
Polyvagal Theory Exercises for Safety and Connection, Deb Dana, 2020