Adapted from Scott Halford’s new book Activate Your Brain

Activate Your BrainI met a businessman not long ago who shared a horrific story during a workshop. It helped illustrate how stress can help us and then hurt us, especially if we don’t pay attention to the signals our brain is sending.

You may recall hearing about the attack at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where terrorists killed seventy-two people on September 21, 2013. This businessman was there when it happened. He described the intense focus that came over him as he and others hid behind boxes of light bulbs in the back room of one of the targeted stores. He was able to stay calm and help keep calm others who were frantic with fear. He even covered some of the shoppers with his body to keep them quiet. He was having a threat response, and that was the positive aspect of it. He explained how the cortisol and adrenaline came to his rescue and how he was able to operate deliberately and calmly, with the clear vision of what needed to happen in the mall that day.

Four weeks after this horrific incident happened, he was in the leadership program telling his story and describing the overwhelming exhaustion he had been combating every day since the incident—another effect of the threat response but, this time, not so good. When our brain is in constant “fight or flight” mode, it has no time to rest. When we are under constant stress, our stamina suffers. We become tired and lethargic. The more we fail to manage the stress; the more stress comes to us uninvited.

The first step to combating the constant stress is to check your own stress levels.

  1. When I feel exhausted and I can’t point to an illness, I check the amount of negative stress I perceive.
  2. Am I in a grouchy mood?
  3. I look at the amount of tasks I’m juggling and pare them down to one at a time. It’s critical to calming the stress response.
  4. I look at the promises I’ve made to others and check to see if I’m keeping them. It’s an exhausting element for our brain to pay attention to countless open orders of things we said we would do but have not done yet.
  5. I check to make sure I’m taking periodic, brief breaks throughout the day to reset the stress.
  6. I do some of my work standing. It’s been recently recommended that we stand at least two hours of our work day. It’s also been suggested that we are more creative when we stand. Do conference calls while pacing the office. Have standing meetings. Go on a walk with a colleague to meet with them instead of doing it in a conference room.

Not all stress is the same. There’s the monumental stress of the situation above and then there is the cumulative stress of everyday living. Either way over time, when not reset, the stress can become a mental obstacle to successful and fulfilled living.