Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Visualize to improve skills and stop thinking so much
Stress for Success
April 28, 2009

Let’s move beyond the ubiquitous financial stress and address something truly important: your golf game – or any skill that’s important to you. Here are two ideas to help with anything from improving your tennis game to being more assertive.

First, research shows that rehearsing mentally, like athletes do, can enhance your performance just as well and sometimes better than actually physically practicing.

In a Texas A&M study medical students learning to suture received guided physical practice followed by either:
* 30 more minutes of practice;
* 30 minutes of guided mental imagery;
* Or no more training;
When tested, the first two groups performed better than the third, and just as well as each other.

Mental rehearsal can be better than physical practice because it only “exercises” neural representations of physical skills. So, after a golf lesson if you physically practice ineptly you might hamper relearning the right technique later. Mentally practicing a bungling swing isn’t muscularly detailed enough to hurt your proficiency. (Obviously, visualization is most helpful when you rehearse correctly.)

When rehearsing any behavior change:
* Visualize the changes you want to make in as much detail as possible;
* Instantly re-visualize correcting mistakes;
* With new tasks imagine the detailed moves slowly; speed up as you improve.
* Observe others performing the same moves to activate the same motor programs in your own brain to progress.

Frequent visualization doesn’t ensure you won’t mess up, however. Here’s another idea that researchers recommend to avoid choking.

When you’ve practiced something so well that you don’t need to think about it, your subconscious takes over. Slowing down to focus on automatic responses, though, can interrupt your subconscious and cause you to stumble.

The part of your brain that’s most involved in learning a new skill is the cerebral cortex. As you rehearse a piece of music, a tennis swing or a speech over and over, you gradually transfer control to another area of the brain, the cerebellum, which orchestrates the lightning-fast motor activation needed to perform complex action. (This must explain why a well-rehearsed piece of music plays endlessly in my brain; it’s moving to my cerebellum.)

The cerebral cortex is consciously accessible. The cerebellum isn’t. So if you think slowing down your presentation will help you focus, it may actually do the opposite by tripping up your subconscious.

“It’s actually better just to get on with things if you’re well rehearsed,” says psychologist Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago. In a 2008 study Beilock divided novice and skilled golfers into two groups. Those in the first group were instructed to take their time while those in the second group were told to swing as quickly as possible. Their results:
* Novice golfers performed less well when swinging faster and better when they took their time.
* Skilled golfers performed better when swinging quickly and less well when taking their time.

So, use repetitive and detailed visualization to speed up your learning curve. Once you’re skilled stop thinking so much and let your cerebellum do its thing.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com for information about her workshops on this and other topics.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Social support helps longevity
Stress for Success
April 21, 2009

Recently I’ve been writing about the damage chronic stress can do to mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Most research as to why has focused on the fight/flight hormones, particularly cortisol. To counter this damage channel your stress energy through what I call Stress Breaks – rest away from your stress through exercise, meditation, engaging in your favorite hobbies, etc.

Additional research suggests that another hormone, oxytocin (in Greek meaning quick birth), may also help mitigate some of the fight/flight damage.

Oxytocin’s an interesting hormone believed to be released in both sexes during touching, bonding and orgasm. In the brain, it’s involved in social recognition and connecting with others. In women, it also facilitates birth and breast-feeding.

UCLA Psychologist Shelley Taylor argues that the even though the fight/flight response occurs in both men and women it’s more about what happens to men, who are generally more aggressive. She suggests that because women are the primary caregivers when they’re stressed they can also rely upon the “tend and befriend” response where they focus more on care-giving and pursuing social support. A growing number of scientists believe this response may help to explain why women tend to outlive men.

Regardless of gender, close social connections are good for your health. However, research shows that women get more benefit from friendship than men.

Dr. Terri Apter, Cambridge University social psychologist and co-author of “Best Friends” reports, “The friendships of both sexes tend to promote health, even though they differ in style. Social connectivity … increases health and longevity. The difference is that women have more friends to turn to more often, so they get more benefit.”

Scientists at the University of California report that women also release oxytocin in times of stress. Women seem to be programmed hormonally to use friendship as a remedy to life’s problems in a way that men aren’t.

Oxytocin then, especially in conjunction with estrogen, promotes seeking out and nurturing relationships. An increase in this hormone is calming and may lessen the worst consequences of women’s stress reaction. Evolutionarily speaking it makes sense since the fight or flight response is less practical for women nursing their young. It also makes survival sense since the sex that bears progeny must be protected so they can continue to procreate.

Conversely, for men during the stress response testosterone floods their systems taking a high physical toll on them. And testosterone inhibits oxytocin.

Some experts, however, fear that the health advantages from tend and befriend are threatened from our pressure-cooker lifestyle, which can lead to less time for friendship. If so, this may explain the increase of heart disease among women.

But Marla Paul, author of “The Friendship Crisis” says: "Women need to spend time with friends to maintain their balance and health. Friends are not a luxury. They're essential." (I hear “hallelujahs” from female readers affirming this statement.)

The take-home message for both genders: strong relationships are vital to health and longevity. How will you make more time for your important relationships to protect your health?

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Monday, April 13, 2009

An over-stressed amygdala inhibits problem-solving
Stress for Success
April 14, 2009

Stress isn’t necessarily bad; it just is. In fact, without any stress at all you’d be dead.

Eustress, healthy stress, is the amount that motivates you to get out of bed every day. When it becomes too much or too negative it’s called distress. Neither is particularly harmful unless it becomes chronic: elevated stress that lasts more than four months.

When experiencing chronic stress, as Americans collectively are due to the economic meltdown, the trick is to channel stress energy to minimize the damage from the fight/flight hormones.

Problem-solving is the key to stress management and it’s the most effective method of channeling this energy, since a problem solved no longer triggers your stress response. Reacting overly-emotionally, however, inhibits the process.

Operating out of the emotional part of your brain (the limbic system including the amygdala or fear center and the hippocampus or short term memory center) makes it difficult for the more advanced part of your brain, the cerebral cortex, to function. This is especially true when you emotionally “catastrophize” things (build mountains out of molehills).

Stress emotions (anger and fear) are always part of your stress response and are absolutely normal. They’re intended to motivate you to take positive action in response to what troubles you so identify which positive actions they’re signaling you to take. Always ask, “What are my options?” For example, if you’re worried about a job interview identify your options for preparing for it better.

Medical scientist Dr. Nick Hall advises to, “stop the chemical pinball game in the brain areas that are engaged in emotions,” shift your focus away from your escalating feelings.
§ Finish this incomplete statement three times in context with what’s stressing you, like being stuck in traffic:
o “I am glad that …” (my car’s not overheating, there’s good music to listen to, it’s not making me late for anything).

When excessively blaming and complaining (becoming a victim to whatever you’re blaming and complaining about) use:
§ Healthy venting, which allows you to leave behind your frustration and/or moves you toward problem-solving;
§ Gratefulness, which counters victimhood:
o For each stressor what are you grateful for? E.g., Budget cuts threaten your job; your spouse is still employed.

With excessive negative thinking like worrying (about something in the future over which you have no control) or regretting (something in the past, which is over with, therefore beyond your control) seek:
§ Mindfulness or live in the present:
o Deep breathing quickly brings you into the present;
o Remind yourself that you’re not your thoughts or your emotions; they’re simply a part of you;
§ Count to 50, 70 or higher;
§ Alternative Explanations -- find different ways to explain situations:
o E.g., Your boss isn’t handling her stress well;
ΓΌ Alternative: She’s under significant pressure from her boss;

You shouldn’t deny your emotions. But sometimes they become more the problem than the original stressor. To tame an over-active amygdala, distract yourself so you can focus on the options that will resolve your issue.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Learn to distract brain’s amygdala to attain control
Tiny part of brain regulates stress, for better or worse
Stress for Success
April 7, 2009

Stress isn’t completely about control, but it mostly is. The less influence you believe you have in any situation in which you want control, the more stressed you’ll be. It’s obvious in situations like losing your job or when you’re in a rush and someone’s driving slowly in front of you.

When anxious ask yourself how your control is being impeded and by what or whom. Your answer is what you’ll likely say is causing your stress. To reduce your tension you’ll probably assume that that person or situation must change. But, of course, that increases stress since the only thing that’s within your control is your own reaction.

Instead, ask, “What are my options?” Seek problem-solving solutions that are actually within your control. Often you’ll be successful through legitimate problem-solving like letting the radio distract you from aggravating traffic. Other times your attempts increase your stress; like screaming at the driver as if that gives you more control, or going into attack or denial mode when faced with losing something you value.

There are signs that indicate you want more control in a triggering situation: feeling dread, anger or fear (Mother Nature’s survival emotions), worry, complaining or blaming, etc., and thinking the emotional thoughts that accompany each. These activate your Stress Cycle, an automatic mind/body reaction to stress, which pushes your attempt to regain control.

To increase your chances of finding workable options it’s important to limit the role too- strong emotions can have in this process.

When stressed a tiny part of your brain, the amygdala, is engaged. It’s part of your subconscious limbic system involved in emotional processing, memory and imagination.

For survival reasons, your amygdala remembers, for instance, who has wronged you in the past and when that person’s back in your life your amygdala will be on high-alert for being aggrieved again. But can it over-react?

I just learned that imagination is part of the amygdala’s function (thanks Jack). When you’re stressed do you think yours could conger up unrealistic scenarios?

An example was after Hurricane Charlie and the threat of another hurricane sent some people’s over-active amygdalas into the stress stratosphere. Fear of another hurricane was absolutely normal and motivated us to take precautionary action. But an over-active fear response would likely inhibit one’s ability to prepare for and possibly even survive another storm.

The amygdala also regulates the fight/flight response, therefore, anger and fear (some scientists call it the fear center). In other words, it’s triggered when you think that you have insufficient control. It reacts strongly to emotionally charged events, positive or negative and puts you into automatic unconscious reaction mode.

When your amygdala is strongly engaged it makes it more difficult to access your prefrontal cortex where conscious problem-solving is largely directed. So, in situations where finding a solution is called for but you’re being overly emotional, it’s in your best interest to increase your prefrontal thinking. Distracting your amygdala can help and I’ll cover ideas on how to do this next week.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.