Any Grizzlies in Your Office?

Let’s say you came to work this morning and there was a 700-pound grizzly bear by the copy machine.

No, I’m not talking about Herb from accounting.

I’m talking about an actual frickin’ bear.

You’d get the hell outta there, right?

Of course you would because this is a classic fight-or-flight scenario.

And while I’d like to thank those prehistoric cave men and women for the evolution of this response in the wild, it’s obvious we are surrounded by a lot of modern-day cave folks as well.

You may not wear a leopard print loincloth (keep it to yourself if you do), but if you react to every “crisis” at work as if you were in real, physical danger – that’s cavewoman behavior, my friends.

I’ll explain.

Most of us already know that – broadly speaking – the left side of our brains handle more logic-based functions and the right side handles more intuitive and creative functions.

But here’s something you might not know.

If you were to reach up and touch your forehead – right behind your finger and spanning both sides of your brain – is a really important area known as the prefrontal cortex.

Basically, if your body was a company, the prefrontal cortex would be the board of directors because it’s where your problem-solving and decision-making happens. Aside from that, what’s MOST interesting about the prefrontal cortex is that when you’re under stress, it doesn’t function properly.

In other words, your board of directors is squabbling again.

And the reason this happens goes back to fight or flight.

When your body senses danger – and your body reads stress as danger by the way – your brain sets off an alarm system that triggers a flood of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, thereby increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. Essentially, your heart is pumping blood to major muscle groups like your arms and legs to prepare you to HIT or RUN.

Of course, if you’re in the presence of a grizzly, this is fabulous news.

Well done, biology.

But while all that blood is rushing to your arms and legs, guess where it’s NOT going? That’s right. Your head. And so the prefrontal cortex – those little decision makers upstairs – aren’t getting the oxygen they need to do their job.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Science has proven this.

On MRI scans of people under stress, the prefrontal cortex actually looks dim – and since it’s not in a state to make good decisions –  neither are you.

But here’s the good news.

You can teach yourself to calm down the body’s natural fight-or-flight response IF you can recognize when you’re getting hooked into it in the first place. So when you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, angry, or stressed – that is, when you can feel that adrenaline kick in and your heart start to pound – the first question you need to ask yourself is whether you are in any immediate danger.

Any grizzlies in the office?

Assuming the answer is no – there’s no need to act like there are.


P.S. Training yourself to calm down starts with mindfulness, i.e. the practice of bringing clarity and concentration to your moment-by-moment experience. For more on this process, check out Awake Exec or watch this 2-minute preview video on Mindfulness as a Career Strategy.

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