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‘It’s Always Personal’: Coping with emotions, stress at work

It's normal to feel intense emotions and anxiety levels at work. The trick is figuring out how to use those feelings rather than be undone by them. To find out how, read this excerpt from “It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace” by Anne Kreamer.
/ Source: TODAY books

When was the last time you cried at work? Or didn’t know how to respond when one of your colleagues broke down? Did someone at work blow up at you — or did you yell at a co-worker? Do you wish people where you work laughed on the job more — or less? Or didn’t exasperate you constantly? Or showed a little tact and sensitivity? Or didn’t go to such ridiculous lengths to avoid telling it like it is?

Guess what? You are not alone. Author Anne Kreamer spent two years roaming the country, talking to dozens of scientists and other experts and more than 200 ordinary Americans about their feelings — their positive emotions, their negative emotions, their crazy emotions — on the job. Here is an excerpt from her new book, “It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace.”

Our age of anxiety
I was curious to know if chronic anxiety and amped-up stress lev­els compromised our general effectiveness. For help in under­standing what biochemical effect anxiety might have on work performance, I turned to Daniela Schiller, a Ph.D. in neuropsy­chology and a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Neural Science and Psychology at New York University.

Schiller, a warm and engaging 37-year-old, investigates the neural mecha­nisms that underlie emotion control. She focuses on understand­ing emotion before the fact, from the chemical precursors to the expression of an emotion, while I was more interested in what happens after the fact, from the moment of experience through the practical consequence of its expression. As a caveat before we started to talk, Schiller explained that she was not an expert in all the areas in which I had questions, but that she would offer her opinion when she felt that she had something of value to con­tribute. She also qualified her responses by saying that the nature of her research was circumscribed by laboratory conditions, with studies carefully sequenced to build provable conclusions— in other words, the scientific experimental method. The messy, multifaceted aspects of the real workplace wouldn’t offer quick or definitive assessments.

We began by exploring how problematic workplace anxiety is for people. When a person is under chronic stress, Schiller ex­plained, the structure of neurons can be altered. Neurons have bodies and branches used to communicate with other cells, and the more branches the neurons have, the better the communica­tion. Chronic stress causes a person to experience a loss of higher brain control over emotion — in  old-fashioned Freudian terms, the superego succumbs to the id. Stress reduces the number of branches in the prefrontal cortex, a regulatory part of the brain connected to memory and depression, which in turn causes den­drites, the branches that relay information between neurons, to shrink. Another region vulnerable to this effect is the hippocam­pus, a part of the brain exercising “contextual” control over emo­tions, that is, the expression of learned emotional responses in the appropriate interpersonal contexts. Reduced prefrontal and hip­pocampal activity may deplete normal levels of emotion inhibi­tion and appropriate expression.

I asked Schiller what we could do to counterbalance the neg­ative effects of anxiety. “Well, I would say just avoid chronic stress, or attempt to have relief from prolonged stress.” The good news, she added, is that “there is evidence for reversal of these effects — a rebranching, if you will.”

What Schiller was referring to is new research that indicates that our brains actually have the ability to stimulate new neuron growth, and to increase our “neuroplasticity” — the notion that the brain, even in adults, continues to change in response to expe­riences and perceptions. We now know that our brains are not objects fixed forever in late adolescence, but rather, like other parts of our body that continue to change during our lifetime, they respond and even grow in response to the ways in which we use them.

This idea that we do not have to persist in a perpetual state of anxiety but instead have the ability to change the way our mind is working is radical and refreshing. As with exercising only one group of muscles in our bodies, if we excessively favor one side of our emotional lives, in this instance the anxiety-inducing side, we’ll develop psychological and behavioral limps, shuffles, and stoops. Everyone knows not to work your triceps without also working your biceps, your lats without your delts, or your quads without your hamstrings. We get the physical analogy — so why is it hard to appreciate that we can work our emotional “muscles” in an analogous way? If we focus only on negative experiences, fret­ting and worrying over every slight, our emotional resiliency muscles atrophy.

The power of positive thinking
Historically, psychopathology — mental illness and its underlying causes and treatment protocols — was a primary focus of research. A new movement, positive psychology, encourages people to pay attention to and develop a group of core “virtues” — courage, wis­dom, humanity, justice, temperance, and  transcendence — that can help our lives go right. This is a key insight driving the positive psy­chology movement, pioneered over the last decade or so by Martin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psy­chology Center and author of “Authentic Happiness,” and Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor and author of “Stumbling on Happiness.” And while “the power of positive thinking” is de­rided as a corny, conservative artifact of 1950s Americana, as was the suggestion that we “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” considered just a chirpy 1944 song lyric, maybe Norman Vincent Peale and Johnny Mercer were on to something.

Central to the emerging discipline is the notion that the pur­suit and development of these virtues is not the exclusive province of Eastern mystics or “spiritual” enthusiasts, but rather some­thing accessible by virtually all of us, even the most secular and skeptical. It’s liberating to think that by taking time to register and enjoy aspects of everyday life that delight — the moment of hope sparked by teaching kids to read, the inspiration found in a team working seamlessly together, the beauty of sunlight stream­ing through a red maple leaf — we may be encouraging new kinds of neuron growth and increasing our neuroplasticity.

Just as research has demonstrated that the portions of the brain that control motor coordination are physically larger in vio­linists or professional baseball players and those parts of the brain that control recognition and memory tasks are physically larger in chess players, so it seems that devoting more of our mental fire­power toward the life-enhancing activities in our lives might strengthen the parts of our brains cued to their appreciation.

Regularly diverting our attention from the irritating, nitpick­ing small things in life toward expansive, inspiration- generating potential in the world also improves what psychologists call the “recovery function,” which is the time it takes a person to return to a baseline condition of calm after being upset. And this has demonstrable, long-term physical health benefits, as noted by Daniel Goleman in his book “Destructive Emotions”: “The person who is able to recover quickly also has a lower level of cortisol.” As I’ve described, cortisol plays a key role in stress — high levels have been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and depres­sion. Ergo, the better one is able to control stress, the better one’s health and mood.

It also appears that stress affects our creativity. By studying people’s “Aha!” moments of insight, Northwestern University psychologist Mark Jung-Beeman found that one’s brain state be­fore addressing a problem can importantly influence the creativ­ity of one’s proposed solution. He discovered that if someone is too focused, too wound up, the scope of their problem solving is reduced. “If you’re in an environment that forces you to produce and produce and you feel very stressed,” he told The New Yorker, “then you’re not going to have any insights.”

“There’s a good reason Google puts Ping-Pong tables in its headquarters,” writes John Kounios, a cognitive neuroscientist at Drexel University who partnered with Jung-Beeman in his research. “If you want to encourage insights, then you’ve got to also encourage people to relax.” Their research has found that on average, people in good moods solve 20 percent more word asso­ciation puzzles than a control group given the same amount of time. Is 20 percent not rational and quantitative and bottom-line enough to convince managers that smart emotional management isn’t a touchy-feely waste of time?

Building your anxiety emotion management toolkit
Unlike the more specifically provoked emotions such as anger — She didn’t promote me, He stole credit for my work — anxiety is often a free-floating condition that exists over time. And while anxiety may be fed by real, external factors — the economy is bad, our in­dustry is in trouble — it is nearly always kept under control or turned destructive by how we choose to process it internally. When we fret, especially when it becomes irrational or compul­sive, we fan the hot coal bed of anxiety until it bursts into flames. And so it follows that anxiety must be remedied over time as well, by learning to fret less. The strategies that follow offer a range of ways to minimize anxiety.

EMT — Just say ‘ohm’ or just get moving
An Asian practice — meditation in its various forms — is one re­laxation technique under study as a means of reducing anxiety. And the data are encouraging. As one example, a study in the de­partment of physiology at Chlalongkom University in Bangkok of 52 men practicing Buddhist meditation found that cor­tisol levels, blood pressure levels, and pulse rate were all significantly reduced after meditation.

Reducing anxiety may have even farther-reaching benefits for women. Cardiovascular disease, which has been clinically corre­lated with high stress and anxiety levels, is the number one killer of women in the United States, accounting for 26 percent of deaths and killing more American women then all cancers com­bined, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Yet because it is only within the last decade that scientists have begun to real­ize the extent to which women’s biochemical and hormonal con­stitution may influence their predisposition toward contracting a variety of diseases, there is no clear consensus regarding specific benefits of stress-reduction protocols for women.

Until that consensus emerges, for those of us who feel anxious a lot of the time and for whom the idea of sitting down to medi­tate is a foreign concept, I have found several other practical, physical ways to help me slow my overactive, anxiety-prone mind. Every day I try to walk a mile outdoors. The methodical rhythm is soothing, and hearing birds chirp, watching dogs frisk, and observing other people going about their business instantly decompresses me. It’s almost miraculous how quickly my tension diminishes. And on days when I have a bit more time, I try to fit in a yoga session or tai chi class. Moving in unison with a group of like-minded people for a sustained period of time, fully focused on breath and ritualized movements, serves as a powerful anti­dote to anxiety.

EMT — Smell the roses
I’ve stolen an elegant practice from Japanese culture that helps me step outside anxiety at work. Many Japanese have a small, re­cessed area, or tokonoma, in their houses where they place objects of singular beauty or personally meaningful artistic value — a piece of calligraphy, a bonsai tree, a flower  arrangement — for contemplation. The area is a sanctuary, celebrating artistic en­deavor or natural splendor, and serves to connect one to the more spiritual or meaningful aspects of life. When passing a tokonoma it is common to take a moment to pause for reflection.

At work, one need not follow this practice literally — most of us don’t work in environments that lend themselves to some­thing as precious-seeming as this. But it is very easy to establish a modest equivalent anywhere — a desk drawer, on your interior cubicle wall, in your briefcase or pocketbook. I suggest having the object near you at all times, creating your own always accessi­ble tokonoma. It can be anything that lifts your spirits and draws you outside the feedback loop in your head — a particularly cheer­ful drawing your kid made, a glittering rock you picked up on your last vacation, a postcard of Monet’s Water Lilies whatever object best calms and inspires you. When you feel anxiety gaining the upper hand — before you head into a big meeting, after a con­frontation with a boss — take a moment to plant your feet firmly on the ground, close your eyes, take five deep breaths, and then open your eyes and gaze at the object. Fresh observation should change your perspective and lift your mood.

EMT — What’s the worst that can happen?
When I prodded Jane Harris to reveal how she managed to main­tain her outward calm while waiting for the returns on election night, she paused a moment. “I think having a good sense of humor was essential, and the wine helped,” she said, “but really it was two key strategies — although I’m reluctant to use that word because they were not wholly conscious at the time. First, to try to look at the situation from the outside — what were the issues sur­rounding the vote that were unique [and] that might have shaped the results in ways beyond my or the party’s control? And then I tried to look at it from a very personal perspective: what would the worst-case outcome be? Well, when I looked at it like that, I real­ized it wasn’t so bad, since if I’d lost it would have been a huge weight off my shoulders and I’d have had more free time.” By pushing yourself to contemplate personal Armageddon, it’s possi­ble to step back and realize that the worst as envisioned in that moment is often or usually not so terrible.

EMT — Diagram what you need to do
One approach to changing our relationship with anxiety is to channel the excess energy produced by our agitation from a ru­minative state into something productive. Instead of simply wor­rying, for instance, about the upcoming meeting, sit down and write your presentation. Then get up and rehearse it. By breaking your anxiety into discrete, easily ac­complished tasks and redirecting your tension into action, you can turn your emotional state to your advantage. In fact, one in six people in our Emotional Incidents in the Workplace Survey reported that they believed that stress helped them perform bet­ter at work. I’m betting that it’s because most of them have taught themselves to use it rather than be undone by it.

Excerpted from “It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace” by Anne Kreamer. Copyright© 2011 by Anne Kreamer. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.