Here’s how you can take control of your brain’s knee-jerk reactions to distressing situations, says psychology researcher Lisa Penney.
This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
Question: When you’re under stress at work, are you able to do your best thinking?
For almost all of us, the answer is No.
In fact, for many, we might go one step further and say we end up doing some of our worst thinking when we’re under pressure.
But there’s a big problem: When you’re under stress, that’s often the time when you need to be at your best — to think clearly and critically.
Lisa Penney, a business-school professor at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee, has been looking into this phenomenon. She specializes in studying stress, a key element of the business world. When she began, she focused on trying to identify the causes of stress because she wanted to figure out how to dispel them. “What I learned is, that’s not realistic,” she says in her TEDxUFSM Talk. “We can’t make it all go away and even if we could, that’s not a good thing — we need challenges to learn and grow.”
In the course of her research, she has realized that when we’re distracted or distressed, our thoughts can get distorted. “Some of the more fundamental assumptions you make on a daily basis about the world you experience and the people in it, including yourself, can’t always be trusted,” Penney says. In numerous lab experiments, it’s been shown, as she puts it, “sometimes we see things that aren’t there, and sometimes we fail to see things that are in plain sight … This happens because we are hardwired to make fast decisions not accurate ones.”
As Nobel Prize-winning economist (and TED speaker) Daniel Kahnemanrevealed, our brains process information in two ways: fast and slow. ”Our fast brain is highly efficient, and it makes decisions automatically by focusing on a few details that it thinks are important, based on past experience,” explains Penney. “Our slow brain, on the other hand, uses control processing in order to make decisions, and it takes into account far more information and it thinks critically.”
Our brains spend almost all of their time in fast mode — more than 95 percent of our thoughts are believed to be unconscious and automatic. “The fact that our thoughts and decisions become automatic is really helpful and it works great in situations that closely match our past experiences,” says Penney. “But it gets us in trouble when we have new experiences and when we’re under stress.” (Our fast brains are also the ones responsible when we fall for phishing emails and other scams.)
The next time you’re in a tense situation at work, here are a few things you can do to counteract your fast brain.
“Be aware that your brain will default to making fast decisions, not accurate ones, “ says Penney. “Pay attention the next time you find yourself telling a familiar story about what’s happening at work.”
For example, let’s say you just sent your boss a detailed proposal that you’ve spent a considerable amount of time on. She replies to your lengthy email with this word: “OK.” You start to worry that she didn’t like it. Worse, maybe she dislikes you. But before you begin to fall into a spiral of rumination and worry, check yourself. Tell yourself something like: “I know I’m under stress right now, and it’s affecting my thinking.”
Take some deep breaths
“Once you notice that story, breathe,” suggests Penney. “Remember, when we’re stressed, part of our brain goes offline as our bodies go into fight or flight, and we can’t see clearly. Taking a deep breath tells your body you’re safe.”
You can try what’s called “coherent breathing,” which has been shown to help calm the nervous system. Here’s how to do it: breathe in, letting your inbreath last five to six seconds. Pause for a moment. Breathe out, letting your outbreath last five to six seconds. Repeat. To feel its full effects, some experts recommend practicing coherent breathing for 10 minutes (or more) every day.
“Ask yourself: ‘What’s the story I’m telling myself? Is it true?’” says Penney. She cautions, “Remember, thoughts that are familiar will feel true, so don’t stop there. Ask yourself: ‘What evidence do I have? Do I have other stories that might also make sense?’”
With the “OK” email from your boss, consider the many other possibilities: she’s really busy, she’s going to look at it later, she just wanted to reply and acknowledge she received it, she’s walking into another meeting, she’s really busy, etc.
With practice, according to Penney, you can learn to disrupt your fast thinking before it runs away from you. But there’s one important thing you should keep in mind — having those automatic thoughts in the first place doesn’t make us bad or gullible or weak. “It makes us human,” says Penney. “We just have to be willing to be aware of and question those thoughts so we can decide which thoughts we want to drive [us].”
The more that we can take the time to question our thoughts, the wiser decisions we’ll be able to make for ourselves and our organizations. As Penney puts it, ““We live in overwhelming and stressful times and face very real and serious challenges in our personal lives, at work, and in our communities. In order to effectively meet these challenges, we need to be able to see clearly.”