In the past several months, I’ve become aware of a rising undercurrent of panic, stress, and anxiety. It permeates through the entire population, regardless of wealth or health— and this is especially evident in the professional and entrepreneurial circles. Myself included.
What started this investigation was a recent trip. On my way to speak at a conference about a month ago, I started experiencing some weird pains in my left arm. Kind of like growing pains, but stronger. Shortly after, chest pain followed, which unleashed a very uncomfortable thought spiral. As you may know, these are often signs of an oncoming heart attack.
I’ve been under high degrees of stress for prolonged times before, but never experienced symptoms like this. As my mind raced to detect any burning toast smell, I was also actively looking for which ditch I would swerve into in case this goes down.
Long story short, the heart attack never materialized — but this experience led me to investigate the cause. On my way home I made an appointment with my physician. After a thorough examination, blood tests, and even seeing an optometrist — the doctor concluded it may have been a form of a panic attack. Which, as it turns out, has similar symptoms…
I’ve never had this happen before, or since. And I had no idea I was under that amount of stress.
Armed with that knowledge I reached out to a few friends, both in the working and entrepreneurial worlds — and it turns out quite a few were experiencing some form of anxiety on a somewhat regular basis. This, in turn led to a few long nights of reading medical and psychology journals, as well as trends analyses and popsci articles.
Some of the data I came across was terrifying (see the video below), and some offered reprieve.
The causes will vary. From financial worries, economy and climate change, to crime, terrorism and wondering if you will have enough of an impact in your lifetime. It’s real. Anxiety, depression, and even mental illness in children is on a 80 year upswing.
For those of us, who as professionals get affected by it (knowingly or otherwise) — the effects come multi-fold:
Stress has a profound physiological effect on our body and brain. In case of a threat, we are hardwired to bypass the neocortex (your reasonable and logical mind) and give full control to the sympathetic nervous system (the reptilian brain) which operates compulsively and is meant to keep us alive.
A few hundred thousand years ago, this served us well. You would see a Sabre-tooth Tiger eyeing you up, and your brain would flood your system with noradrenalin and cortisol — all meant to prepare you for “violent muscular action” (running, or fighting). After the threat subsides, hormone levels would retreat back to normal.
That was then.
The unfortunate reality is that our sympathetic nervous system doesn’t discern between real and perceived threats. In modern professional life, this system can get triggered by someone cutting you off on the way to work, a heated customer service discussion, or even an ill-timed WiFi outage.
In modern life, it’s easy for us to careen from one perceived threat to another. Constantly priming the “reptilian brain”, and flooding our body with stress-hormones. It’s like seeing a Sabre-tooth Tiger every 15 minutes, and also expecting one to be in your closet, car, and office — waiting to attack.
The problem is, when there is no threat, when all is going well, work is flowing, and your business is doing amazing — there still may be an underlying sense of dread. Just waiting for the next stressful event to occur. Your body gets used to heightened hormonal load, and expects more of the same. This can often result in adrenal fatigue, insomnia, and even panic attacks.
Operating out of a stressed state has a significant impact on critical and creative thinking. Due to the way our brain is constructed, during stressful periods reason and logic give way to emotion and impulse — which may work well for expressive art, but inhibit our ability to solve complex problems and come up with creative solutions.
In this state, stress-hormones flood the neocortex, which is where new information is processed and retained — and this in turn affects our ability to focus, concentrate and remember. It’s basically like experiencing symptoms of Alzheimers.
At this time, you should also be aware of “cognitive load theory”. This is a term used in instructional design that refers to our brain’s ability to utilize working memory, process information, and learn (all functions of the neocortex).
Let’s go on a little trip down memory lane.
Recall the last time you went to an all-day conference.
In the morning, you were probably excited, caffeined up, and ready to suck in a vast amount of knowledge. The first speaker was great — you jotted down a few great insights into your notebook and got ready for the breakout session. This speaker was great, but tended to drone on a bit and never varied his voice. You got a couple of ideas.
Now the second breakout. This speaker is smart… but you’re starting to get hungry and text a friend to figure out where you’ll go for lunch, while half-listening to the talk. After lunch there are still two more one-hour sessions to go… and then you’ll have to battle traffic out of the venue, feed yourself, and get ready for the next day.
You can probably relate to how that day will roll out. By the time you’re going to the fourth or fifth session, chances are there is less note-taking. Chances are, fewer afternoon ideas will stick around in your long term memory.
This is because your cognitive load has reached its limit somewhere between the second speaker and lunch (I’m making a very sweeping assumption here). There was just no juice left to take it all in and retain the information.
In a stressed state, our cognitive load capacity gets significantly impaired. It’s like starting your day of decision making, after having attended an all-day conference.
The Domino Effect
When combined, two effects above have the power to trigger an avalanche of other symptoms and effects — each of them working against you. Your productivity, creativity, communication, relationships, behaviour, mood… you get the point. It sucks.
I don’t need to get into much science here. You know as well as I do, when you’re already stressed out, it’s much harder to have a nice, rational conversation. And the unfortunate truth is summed up in a quote by Warren Buffet: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”.
A terse statement, spoken or written while in a stressed state can have a significant impact on your relationship with employees, peers, clients, friends and family — or increase the possibility for a very public PR Fail, which have sunk companies and their reputations.
Further, operating out of high stress often leads to disengagement with work and reduced productivity. As much as I’m not a fan of Freudian psychoanalysis, he does bring up a valid point. We instinctually seek pleasure, and aim to avoid pain. If work is painful, we’re less likely to want to do it.
This is part of the reason we procrastinate, abandon careers, and often don’t start new projects.
Well then… isn’t this just a peachy article?
I wanted us to get started here. With a good understanding of the effects stress and anxiety can have on your work. But there is still more to come. And in season finale Game of Thrones fashion, we’ll stop here :)
In the next two articles, we’ll dissect the common causes of “professional anxiety”, and explore some amazing resources and techniques to start conquering this demon. I sincerely hope this will be of some help, as I will be going through this journey with you.