It's impossible to be mentally agile if your body is in fight or in flight mode. Through techniques like mindfulness, you can calm your nervous system so you're able to make better decisions.
- Part of what makes modernity so stressful is that our bodies weren't optimized for a world like this. Sitting at a desk for eight or 10 hours a day, navigating office politics and figuring out how to launch a new product or which 401k plan to pick, no. Our systems were built for simpler times. The threats in the early days of humanity are a lot more dire. You're far less likely to get eaten by a lion now. But, they were also simpler to spot and to deal with. You see the lion, you run.
When we're dealing with uncertainty or rapidly changing circumstances in the workplace today, first of all, it can be hard for our bodies to realistically gauge the threat. Rarely is anything life or death, but our bodies often react that way. They snap into fight or flight mode, meaning that our senses get heightened, our focus narrows, and we become physically tense, ready to spring into action to either run away or step into a confrontation. That innate reaction is a great survival technique when your life really is in danger.
But when you're dealing with a less imminent threat, let's say your company just upped the sales quota you have to reach and you're not sure how you can possibly do it, it's often unhelpful for your body to be in such a state of arousal. First of all, it's physically exhausting and damaging to you over the long-term. It's not good to have that much cortisol, which is a stress hormone, floating around in your system over long periods of time. Second, studies have shown that when your focus narrows that way, singularly focused on that threat, you're so focused on the task at hand, must increase sales, you lose your ability to find creative solutions or make unusual connections.
It's quite possible there's a counterintuitive solution that would be great, but when you're in that physical state, you just can't see it or notice it. Third, with that limited focus, you also stop being able to notice other unrelated things that may be important. You forget small details like sending an invoice to a client in a timely fashion, or bungle tiny but critical things. The client gets 100 red widgets but they wanted the blue. It adds up and it can be costly.
If we want to be mentally agile and ensure we have access to our highest cognitive capacity, we have to get ourselves out of that state. So here's how to do it. First, slow down your breath. We all know that our mental state affects our bodies. If you're stressed out, you'll probably end up with a headache or a stomach ache as a physical manifestation of that tension. But far fewer of us understand or take advantage of the fact that the connection works the opposite way too.
If we can change how our bodies are feeling, we can use that as a lever to take control of our minds. When you slow down your breathing, it fights back against fight or flight mode and it calms your nervous system. It allows you to tap back into more reflective thinking. Second, the study of mindfulness has taught us that another great way to slow things down, and that's what needs to happen here to stop your mind from racing and jumping from one stressed out scenario to another, is simply noticing.
Take a little time, even five or 10 minutes will make a substantial difference, to focus on becoming aware of what's happening in your body. Are you clenching your jaw? Is your breathing still too rapid? Are your shoulders bunching up? If so, could you release them just a little? We're all busy but we can all spare five minutes. Focusing our attention on what we're feeling and noticing how those sensations might be contributing to raising our tension level can help us stop and reset.
Finally, especially if you've been feeling pressure for a while, it's easy to fall into a mode of skimping on sleep because it feels like you don't have enough time to get everything done or you're just up worrying about what direction things will take. Even if it means hard choices like doing fewer emails at night or cutting short your evening with friends, it's especially important at times like these to prioritize sleep almost above all else. When you need to be mentally agile, you need your full wits about you. Mental agility is a mindset, but first and foremost, it's a way of using your mind.
By leveraging these techniques, you can get your body out of the fight or flight mode so you have your full mental fire power at your command.