Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Emotions, the window into your inner stressful world

Stress for Success

September 16, 2014 

How many people would you guess wander through life with little awareness of their own behaviors and subsequent consequences? Bull in a china shop comes to mind.

To some degree we are all self-ignorant. We all have blind spots and miss tons of clues as to how our own reactions often cause more of our stress than the event we’re reacting to. Tuning into your emotions can expose many of these blind spots so you have a fighting chance of understanding how your reactions contribute to your stress.

An underappreciated window into your stress reactions is emotions. Psychotherapists are well aware that emotions are vital in identifying what’s bothering you. You can learn about your inner emotional world to help you navigate your outer world.

Tune into your emotions to become aware of which situations and people trigger your stress response. These reactions are always fueled by anger and/or fear-type emotions: impatience, irritation, intimidation, jealousy, insecurity, etc. Once you recognize these emotions kicking in it’s a short hop to feeling the tension they create in your physical body.

Who in your life easily triggers your stress emotions? When these emotions are swimming around in your body, what do you feel physically: Tension in your arms and legs? A queasy stomach? Pay attention until you can easily see the connection.

Once you make the connection between a stressful person and what they do and your emotional and physical signs of tension in response to it, you are closer to being able to choose a healthier response.

Try this: choose a person or a situation that consistently triggers your stress emotions. Choose one you can avoid for a while with no negative consequence:
1.    Make the connection between your emotional reaction to a stressful situation or person and your body tension that develops from it;
2.    For one week, avoid the situation or the person and pay attention to any greater sense of calmness and freedom from tension;

Doing this develops your “observing self;” you can observe your emotional reactions rather than be tossed around by them. Watching and witnessing your internal emotional states make the stressor less personal so you can dampen some of your drama and be more objective, which in turn, helps your body relax.

Over time, developing your observing self can also help improve your health. You’ll become more aware of your blood pressure, physical tension, and other symptoms. Consciously observing yourself can also lower the stress hormones thereby protecting your body from the ravages of stress.

Your observing self requires your conscious awareness of whatever you have chosen to focus on. Mindfulness teachings also advise you to observe WITHOUT JUDGMENTS.

Judgment of yourself or others is a fertile area for the observing self, as well. Observe without trying to change. Simply notice. Right behind your negative judgment, “I’m so stupid,” are your negative emotions aimed at yourself. It’s the same when the judgment is aimed at another person. The judgment triggers your anger/fear emotions. Close on its heels are your physical signs of stress and tension.

Your observing self can help break your dysfunctional, habitual and emotional reactions by distancing you from them giving you a brief moment to decide how you prefer to respond. This puts you into the driver’s seat of your own life rather than being a victim to your life-long internal insecurities. I call this a “space of time” between the stressful event and your reaction to it. With this little space of time a well-developed observing self can choose a more appropriate response.

Your defensive reactions (aren’t both fight and flight defensive in nature?) are much if not most of what feeds your physical symptoms and resulting physical and emotional maladies. Every desire to choke someone puts pressure on your heart and adversely affects you in a multitude of other ways.

In other words, it’s not just that jerk who puts stress on you, it’s also your own defensive reactions. And the only part of stress you can control is your own reaction.

Your growing observations of your own automatic, emotional and defensive reactions increase your power to decide if you want to change them for your own benefit. Your choice will influence whether your blood pressure shoots up or calms down, whether your internal inflammation grows exacerbating your arthritis or subsides and calms it. It’s always your choice and yours alone.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html.  Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Train others how to treat you

Stress for Success

August 19, 2014 

“I train people how to treat me.”  Source unknown.

This quote absolutely changed my life decades ago. It taught me to stop fussing and stewing over what others were doing that was upsetting to me and take a close look at what I may have been doing to encourage their behavior. Don’t get me wrong, this quote isn’t saying you are responsible for others’ behaviors, it’s simply saying that we are all partly responsible for all outcomes with all people because of our own behaviors.

For example, a coworker aggressively walks all over you and you passively allow it. What are you training that person to do?  To walk all over you.  Instead of blaming your stress on that person, consider what you are doing to teach that person that it’s OK to treat you that way.

Here’s an example of a work team of five people and how four of them taught the fifth person how to treat them differently.  Four of the team members were constantly frustrated with the fifth person who was a hothead and exploded regularly leading the four others to give the hothead whatever she wanted at the moment of her outburst.  In other words, they were teaching her to blow up to get her way! 

After each episode, the four would gather and grumble about how disruptive she was.  The team members’ blaming the hothead and complaining about her kept them from examining their own role, thus responsibility, in the interaction.  Excessive blaming and complaining discourage taking responsibility for your own choice of reactions. 

These four team members ultimately decided to do something totally different in response to the hothead.  They agreed the next time this happened, one of them would speak privately afterward to her to warn her that the next time she lost her temper all the others were going to end the meeting with her, leave the room and finish the meeting elsewhere without her.  Sure enough, another day and another blowup occurred.  All four walked out together and finished the meeting without the hothead.  This only happened a couple of more times before the hothead learned to control her temper with her teammates.

In your interpersonal stress, are you training others to treat you in an unacceptable manner?  To get a better handle on your responsibility, follow these steps.

· First, identify your desired outcome.  In this example the four team members said their goal was for the hothead to quit yelling.  But this goal is beyond their control because it requires the hothead to change.  She is beyond their control.  They re-worded their goal to make its accomplishment within their control:  to conduct their meetings without caving into pressure and to think clearly to make necessary decisions. 

· Identify options:  to avoid caving into her pressure and to create an atmosphere where they could think clearly to make decisions, they could:
ü  Keep the meeting going ignoring the hothead
ü  Get up and leave to conduct the meeting elsewhere
ü  Talk to the hothead and ask her to stop (which they had done on numerous occasions)
ü  Take the problem to their mutual boss
ü  Etc.

· Choose an option(s) that will best lead you to your goal.

This sounds so simple and of course it often isn’t.  The key is to assess what you are contributing to the stressful outcome and change your behavior in a way that leads you toward your goal.  This teaches others to treat you as you want to be treated and puts stress reduction more within your reach since your reactions are within your control.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html.  Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com

Monday, June 30, 2014

To motivate employees increase their sense of “causation”

Stress for Success

July 1, 2014 

Workplace stress takes on many forms. Moving further away from the Great Recession helps but there’s still plenty of other stress to take its place:
·         Still digging out of the financial consequences of the Great Recession;
·         Balancing home and work responsibilities;
·         Dealing with stressed out internal and external customers;
·         Deadlines, personality differences and the conflicts they produce;
·         Etc.

A casualty of this stress is employee motivation, which if suffered too long leads to burnout. And you don’t want your staff to get burned out since it usually requires drastic change to remedy, such as a getting a different job.

So what does and doesn’t work to increase employee motivation??

The research is in and it shows that rewards don’t really motivate, at least not for long. Rewards such as gifts, money, and benefits may be appreciated in the short run but according to much research these external motivators:
·         Can be perceived by the receiver as having strings attached - a controlling intention - which won’t motivate at all;
·         Refocus employees’ attention onto the reward to the point where the task suffers;
·         Rewards are difficult to end once started;
·         The most important reason: External attempts to motivate decrease a sense of causation on the part of the recipient, the true motivator that actually works;

Depending upon the intention of the person giving the reward (is it to recognize employees’ good efforts or to get them to work even harder?) will determine whether the reward motivates at all and if so for how long. Rewards tend to work better for recognizing people’s efforts if given with no strings or manipulative intentions attached.

The true motivators are intrinsic ones; specifically, conditions that increase a person’s sense of control – of causation.

Humans need to believe their own actions cause outcomes. That’s why bosses who include subordinates in decision-making and problem-solving in areas that affect their work become better managers with more productive employees. Bosses can also allow their employees to decide how work gets done as long as it meets the required outcome, rather than dictating how staff is to accomplish their work. This also explains why micromanaging is so demotivating.

Intrinsic motivators lead people to greater persistence, creativity and success. They’re so important that psychological researcher, Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of PA, says that developed nations’ workforces are moving from assuming that money is the primary motivator - you can only buy so many things, which are extrinsic (external) motivators that don’t work well - to understanding that being the authors of their own actions is what truly motivates. The challenge is for managers to help their employees be more in the driver’s seat of their own jobs.

To apply this to your workplace, you could hold regular quarterly or monthly meetings with your employees to seek their input about how you can give them more control over how they do their jobs. Also, ask their advice on identifying problems and their solutions. These employee involvements will lead to their “engagement,” another strong predictor of employee motivation.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html.  Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com

Monday, June 02, 2014

Which is better, intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?

Stress for Success

June 3, 2014 

In my last article I shared self-motivation advice from Dr. Mary Ann Chapman whose suggestion seems counter-intuitive: daily keep in front of you the negative consequences of making no changes where you know you should change. So a person with painful arthritis who knows he should exercise but can’t quite make himself do it should keep reminders of sore joints in front of himself daily. Perhaps he could hang an advertisement for arthritis medicine that shows red, achy joints. Gross but possibly effective.

Another way to influence yourself is to search for intrinsic motivators, which can actually work, versus extrinsic ones that tend not to work as well or for very long.

Intrinsic comes from within yourself. Intrinsic motivation is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself rather than needing external pressure or a reward. You want to take an action because it will help you achieve something you intrinsically value. So, losing ten pounds could be intrinsically motivating if you work at it to help you feel better physically.

Intrinsic motivation engages you in a behavior that is personally rewarding so you’re performing an activity for its own sake. Examples include:
  • ·         Participating in a sport you find enjoyable;
  • ·         Doing word puzzles because you find them challenging;
  • ·         Taking on work problems because they interest you;

Extrinsic motivation occurs when you do something to earn a reward or to avoid a punishment like:
  • ·         Studying because you want your parents to be proud of you;
  • ·         Cleaning your house to avoid others’ negative judgments of you;
  • ·         Earn lots of money to impress others;
  • ·         Lose ten pounds so others think you look good;

Which of these two motivators is more likely to be effective?

Studies have shown that offering excessive external rewards for an already internally rewarding behavior may actually lead to a reduction in its intrinsic worth, like kids rewarded for playing with a toy they already enjoyed. In a study, they became less interested in it after being externally rewarded.

Yet extrinsic motivation can help in situations to:
·         Spark your interest in something you have no initial curiosity about;
·         Learn new skills or knowledge, which once learned may become intrinsic motivators;
·         Be a source of feedback, allowing you to know when your performance has achieved a standard deserving reinforcement;

Something to learn from this information is to avoid extrinsic motivators where:
·         The person already finds an activity intrinsically rewarding;
·         Offering a reward may make a “play” activity seem more like “work;”

Even though intrinsic motivation is usually more effective, it’s not always possible. So use extrinsic rewards sparingly perhaps to get you to complete a task where you have no internal motivation.

Here are three important conclusions regarding extrinsic rewards’ influence on intrinsic motivation:
  1. 1.    Unexpected external rewards typically do not decrease intrinsic motivation. For example, you love working on a particular project and are intrinsically motivated to do so. Then your boss extrinsically rewards the team with dinner out. You’ll likely stay intrigued with or without a reward.
  2. 2.    Praise and positive feedback can help increase internal motivation, especially when what you’re being rewarded for is done better in comparison to others.
  3. 3.    A warning to contemporary parents: Intrinsic motivation decreases when external rewards are given for doing minimal work. Parents heaping lavish praise on their child every time she completes a simple task, sets her up to be less intrinsically motivated to perform that task in the future.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations have their uses. Make it a conscious choice which one you use to make it as effective as possible.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html.  Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Awareness of negative consequences of poor choices motivates change

Stress for Success

May 20, 2014

Have you ever hung a photo of your heaviest self on your refrigerator door to discourage you from eating unhealthy and fattening stuff? If so, you may also have read self-esteem advisers telling you that was a bad idea because it was putting yourself down.

Not so fast. Perhaps telling your self-esteem to look the other way is worth it if reminding yourself of the negative consequences of overeating help you to get your eating under control.

In my 2010 published book, Let Your Body Win, Stress Management Plain and Simple,
I quoted researcher Dr. Mary Ann Chapman who addressed what best motivates us to make difficult changes:
“The key to breaking a bad habit (e.g., avoiding exercise) and adopting a good one (e.g., regular exercising) is making changes in your daily life that minimize the influence of the now and remind you of the later.”

In other words:
    Minimize the immediate reward from avoiding exercising.
    Make the long-term negative consequences of not exercising - continued depression/anxiety/anger/weight gain - seem more immediate.
So instead of excuse after excuse to avoid exercise, remind yourself how tired you are of being emotionally stuck and exhausted.

To put her theory to work on your own bad habits, you’ll need to expand your conscious awareness of your unhealthy choices even as you are making them and be very aware of their resulting negative consequences.

For example, if you know, in your heart of hearts, that you overeat but you still keep on doing it, consider keeping track on paper what you snack on every day of the week for at least a couple of weeks. Once you come face-to-face with evidence that you eat monstrous amounts of ice cream virtually every night, for example, it’s hard to deny it. Then, ask yourself which negative consequences you experience from this unhealthy habit. Your list might include:
·         Your inability to lose weight;
·         Your excess weight’s negative impact on your joints;
·         Low energy due to being overweight;
·         Etc.

Try Dr. Chapman’s advice to break your bad ice cream habit by remaining consciously aware on a daily basis of the negative consequences of it. If that means post those “fat” photos of yourself on your refrigerator – or better yet, on the freezer – then do so. You could similarly post words or photos representing joint pain and low energy to keep them in your conscious awareness. When you experience the joint pain and fatigue, consciously connect them right then and there to your over-eating habits.

It’s great to motivate yourself with positive images – if that works for you. But if nothing is working to change your bad habits, consider a different motivation. This is how I successfully changed many a bad habit in my own life. When I read Dr. Chapman’s research, I knew it was true because it had worked for me so often.

I challenge you right now to identify something you’ve been saying you want to change for a long time but haven’t. Pay conscious attention to it for a week or two and honestly note the negative consequences of it. Figure out how to keep these negative consequences in front of you daily until you successfully change for the better. Good luck.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html.  Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

For emotional balance redirect blood flow in your brain

Stress for Success

April 1, 2014, Week 449

Emotions are interesting, aren’t they? Sometimes they are so overwhelming it’s easy to believe your emotions determine who you are rather than simply them being a part of you. They can feel so completely suffocating you can see no way out of them. It can feel like they’re never going away.

Looking at emotions intellectually can provide you distance from them allowing you to see you can control them rather than vice versa. Last week I shared the connection between emotions and stress hormones: your “Emotional Landscape,” provided by Heart Math. Here’s a review of their “positive” and “negative” emotions and their hormonal counterparts:”
·         High energy emotions: Anger, hostility, impatience, etc., and happy, motivated, creative, etc.
·         Low energy emotions: Bored, depressed, hopeless, etc., and calm, content, relaxed, etc.
·         Emotions accompanied by cortisol, which in too high amounts over a longer period of time lead you to be vulnerable to illness and disease development: Anger, hostility, impatience, bored, lethargic, hopeless, etc.
·         Emotions accompanied by DHEA, which helps suppress elevated cortisol: Happy, motivated, creative, calm, content, relaxed, etc.

For greater emotional balance it also helps to intellectually understand how the brain works emotionally to see how easy it is to get stuck in seemingly endless emotional cycles. This can lead to accepting there are Brain Training Techniques (I’ve been using this term longer than Luminosity has been advertising theirs) that can redirect brain blood flow away from the emotional areas to more rational thinking areas.

Before I address this, let me make clear that I am not advocating the avoidance of emotions. But too often, your emotional reaction can become more of a problem than the triggering event itself. Other times your emotions keep you from effectively solving whatever the triggering challenge is. Brain Training techniques can help restore emotional balance so better problem-solving is possible.

In a snapshot, here’s how your emotional brain works. Keep in mind, this has developed for survival reasons:
·         You perceive a threat or stress. It makes no difference that your neighbor may not consider the same situation stressful. It only matters that you do.
·         This triggers your brain’s “fear center” or your amygdala, the part of the unconscious brain’s limbic system, which is primarily responsible for your emotional life.
·         The amygdala sends out an alarm, triggering the physical fight/flight response with all of its potentially damaging stress hormones, including cortisol. The amygdala has been likened to a guard dog protecting property: it attacks first and asks questions later.
·         The problem develops when this automatic reaction triggers stressful, angry/fearful thinking, which continues to trigger the amygdala, which continues to trigger the stress hormones.
·         During chronic stress, the amygdala can actually grow while your higher level brain’s executive functioning region, the cerebral cortex, can shrink!

Brain Training techniques are intended to break this cycle and move to problem-solving.

Psychology has long offered up a host of skills to help break this cycle, prime among them is cognitive restructuring, a process to identify and challenge maladaptive thoughts. (Remember, stressful thoughts keep the emotional loop going.) On-going brain research now tells us why these skills among others can help. In my own nonscientific words, skills such as cognitive restructuring redirect the blood flow away from your amygdala to other brain regions to break the cycle of stressful thinking, amygdala engagement, and stress hormone dumping.

One truly simple technique to redirect the brain’s blood flow is to count. Not just to ten as your mother advised but to 50 or 70 or 100. It seems the region of the brain involved in counting is the intraparietal sulcus. This fact is unimportant to this discussion. The point is, to calm yourself emotionally you need to redirect blood flow away from the amygdala to pretty much anywhere else in your brain until the emotion is calmed. If upon calming and therefore stopping the counting your brain races back to the emotional loop, do it again. None of the skills work instantly. They all require repetition.

In my next article I’ll share several more Brain Training techniques to redirect your brain’s blood flow away from your brain’s fear center.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html.  Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Technique to increase the “good” emotions and their corresponding hormones

Stress for Success

March 18, 2014, Week 448

Brain science is exploding. We’re learning more and more about how to regulate stress, emotions and hormones through, what I call, Brain Training techniques, since these functions are part of how the brain operates. There are many researchers touting these skills. One I will quote is “Heart Math,” (http://www.heartmath.org/). Based on their extensive research, they present a very simple approach to increasing the emotions associated with the hormone DHEA, which helps regulate and suppress the necessary yet potentially damaging stress hormone, Cortisol.

Before I get into this research, let me remind you that I’ve admitted in the past that I have had an odd awareness of my stress response, the fight/flight, since early childhood. Over the decades my awareness became stronger and eventually more academic, having taken many courses over the years to keep up with the growing body of research.

Over the decades, I came to the conclusion that to change anything about myself, from ending some truly unhealthy eating habits to quitting smoking, my own fight/flight response had to be tamed. So I devised many little tricks to do so ranging from deep breathing to what I call “Mind Games.” These enabled me to stop my automatic (fight/flight) reactions by creating a “space of time” between a stressor and my automatic reaction to it. Eventually, this space of time allowed me to bring in the response I’d decided was my preferred. My husband has often marveled at my ability to change many a bad habit and defensive reactions over the years.

Now much reliable research explains why my own strategies and those of many others can work. Here’s the basic explanation from Heart Math’s “Transforming Stress”.

Heart Math explains the connection between emotions and the hormones they trigger through what they call “Emotional Landscape.” They position four “types” of emotions categorized as:
·         High energy emotions: Anger, hostility, impatience, etc., and happy, motivated, creative, etc.
·         Low energy emotions: Bored, lethargic, hopeless, etc., and calm, content, relaxed, etc.
·         Emotions accompanied by cortisol, which in too high amounts over a long enough period of time lead you to be vulnerable to illness and disease development: Anger, hostility, impatience, bored, lethargic, hopeless, etc.
·         Emotions accompanied by DHEA: Happy, motivated, creative, calm, content, relaxed, etc.

Heart Math’s first approach to calming down the emotions associated with cortisol is a   breathing technique called, “Neutral Step.” Here are the three steps:
1.    Focus for a few seconds on the physical heart in your chest;
2.    Then inhale and exhale evenly to the count of 4 or 5 and imagine that your heart is doing the breathing (don’t ask me why);
3.    Repeat for several rounds;

Since I’ve been doing my own version of breathing and Mind Games for so long, I can’t attest personally to the effectiveness of this strategy. However, I’ve heard many, many people’s stories about how this simple technique has allowed them to deal more effectively with their daily challenges. Here are some examples from workshop participants:
·         Approaching home after work, seeing nothing picked up off the yard as requested that morning, and breathing to calm down to decide consciously how to respond in a way that gets the best results versus automatically blowing up.
·         Others testify to how much better they sleep doing this breathing exercise in bed at night to calm their overly busy brains.
·         Others have said the skills they had learned in other workshops, like dealing with conflicts, were only now being successfully used because they calm themselves down first with the Neutral Step.

This Neutral Step is so easy and it doesn’t require will power, so why not try it? The reason I believe it works is because the regulated breathing is much deeper than the fight/flight breathing, which is shallower and faster. Taming your fight/flight allows you to change some of your emotional reactions you do not like. It’s really pretty simple.

In my next article I’ll address Brain Training techniques to divert blood flow in your brain away from your “fear center” to other areas to help balance you emotionally.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at http://www.letyourbodywin.com/bookstore.html.  Email her to request she speak to your organization at jferg8@aol.com.