The Back Foot – And How Not To Stay There

Last week we spoke about our ego – our very human tendency to look after Number 1.  We talked about how to tell when our ego has been activated and acknowledge the physiological response we have when adrenaline is coursing through our bodies, how it ruins our chances at teamwork and what to do about it.
This week, we’re going to talk about what happens when we’re on the back foot and how to increase our awareness so that we don’t stay there!
As evolving human beings, we love to learn and improve.  If you have any predisposition towards leadership or entrepreneurship, then seeking growth is non-negotiable.  However, there’s one thing that sets us back to our default settings regardless of how much work we do to learn new habits – and that’s STRESS.  When we come under pressure or stress, the very same physiological response that we spoke about last week, is activated as our primal fight or flight survival instincts kick in.  Our ego activates and adrenaline and cortisol course through our systems taking on the following roles:

“Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.  Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.”1

Mayo Clinic staff article

Now whilst our body’s response is designed to help us deal with cause of the initial stress, the problem arising is two-fold.  Firstly, this response causes us to essentially operate on “Safe Mode” – directing our functions (including thinking) to the most basic and immediate of knowledge.  It takes a very practised brain to operate well under stress, because stress causes you to default to whatever your original settings are.

It’s for this reason that, as soon as you’ve learned to fly straight and level as a pilot, no one ever mentions it again.  You spend the rest of your career training for emergency procedures – like what to do when the engine is on fire.  This is to ensure that WHEN you’re under stress, your default settings are programmed to react in exactly the right way and rattle off the first 5-or-so actions needed for any emergency procedure without “thinking”.  We know we can’t overcome the physiological reaction to stress; so instead we program our mental defaults in preparation for the actions we must take.

Here are a few things to acknowledge and take away:

We have an unavoidable physiological reaction to stress which derails all but our most necessary functions and send our thinking back to our default settings.

We need to program our “default settings” and habits whilst we’re NOT under pressure to ensure those defaults are desirable.  We must practise good habits until they become our immediate response.

We need to create awareness of the need for us to check ourselves when we realise we’re under pressure, especially when it’s for an extended period of time (like living in Southern Africa).

When we’re under stress for an extended length of time, our bodies and minds can start to sag in light of these hormones being present for long periods.  We can get depressed.  Our immune systems take a hit.  We start to look for coping mechanisms that take away the stress – and sometimes they’re not healthy or helpful.

So AS SOON AS you know you’re under pressure or stress, do the following:

Respond to the initial needs of the situation whilst reminding yourself that your “higher thinking” is probably offline or curtailed.

STOP – Stop, Think, Observe, Proceed.  Regroup yourself, your physical being and your mental state, and give yourself a chance to make better decisions and/or prepare yourself for the long haul.

Give yourself some leeway considering the full effects of stress on your performance – and extend that leeway to your team.

Acknowledge that you and your team will need some downtime to reboot your physical systems if there’s going to be pressure for an extended period, and you’re to continue for that period without going down. Plan for it.

If we’re going to have a shot at being productive team members and leaders, we must account for ourselves under pressure and make sure that our default settings are our best option by practising them when the going is good!

1Reference – Mayo Clinic staff article

by Christen Killick

February 25th, 2019

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