Have you been feeling increased pressure at work? One of the effects of the economic downturn has been for companies to create leaner teams, so if it feels like there are less people to do the same or more work, you’re not alone. In addition, we have amazing technology which allows us to be connected 24/7. Great in so many ways, especially in an emergency or if you get lost, but it doesn’t allow for much, if any, down time. Western society is so busy, and there’s a constant pressure to do more, more, more! It’s exhausting, and it takes a toll on your body. It also takes a toll on your ability to be creative. This is the second of three posts of what you can do for yourself in this situation.
Our bodies are designed to respond to times of stress by shifting our hormones, getting us prepared for fight-or-flight. It was very helpful when we were in caveman and cavewoman days. When a saber-toothed tiger showed up, we could leverage the burst of energy from our body’s response to escape. Some of the physical changes that occur include taking blood flow away from digestion to the muscles in your arms and legs, increased heart rate and respiration. The brain also shifts function from the outermost layer, the cerebral cortex, to the inner, more instinctual parts. When the danger had passed, we would breathe a sigh of relief – a physical way to tell your body the time for fight-or-flight is over, and your body could release the stress hormones and go back to calm.
Although the dangers in our lives have changed, our bodies still react the same way. I frequently talk to clients who experience stress at work and describe a sense of panic. I can hear over the phone their breathing is shallow and fast, and many people notice their heart beating quickly. The “tigers” today are constantly ringing phones, over-booked calendars and schedules, and never-ending email. (I remember when I was in the corporate world my set-point for email was to try and keep it under 100 or less unread. Most of the emails I received needed a response from me, and the incoming volume was more than I could keep up with. 100 was significant, but I really noticed my stress levels skyrocketing when it got above that.) The New York Times recently covered the issue of the insane amount of emails that are sent and received and noted how it is a major cause of stress.
Unfortunately, this fight-or-flight state of being shifts you out of your creative mind and makes you less productive. The brain is focused on survival and can’t make the connections and associations that create new ideas. And our work is not just demanding that we do more, more, more, they also want you to be brilliantly creative and conceptualize the next big thing. Or in fields like medicine and science, the creative brain is key to solving puzzles and treating patients with unique combinations of symptoms or conditions.
The simplest and quickest way to shift your body and brain out of the fight-or-flight mode is through breathing. Our breathing is the one thing that can be either automatically controlled, such as during sleep or fight-or-flight, or controlled by our conscious decision. By taking a few minutes to focus on your breathing, consciously drawing in a deeper breath and releasing it more slowly, your body will realize you are safe and you will be able to access your amazingly creative side. An easy way to do this is to breathe in to a count of 5 and breathe out to a count of 5. Do at least 3 inhalation and exhalation cycles.
I would suggest adding “Breathe” reminders to your calendar or phone. While this may seem ridiculous – who forgets to breathe??? – taking a short time-out several times a day can have amazing benefits to your physical and mental processes. If you want to take it to the next level, take 15 minutes to do a brief meditation or take a short walk outside. (I call these my non-smoking breaks.) While this doesn’t change the stressors in your work life, it can change your perception of them and therefore reduce your stress level. And your creativity should get a boost as well.