Guest Post by Tojo Eapen
We have all been through a few changes in life, both positive ones and those that are tough and challenging. It would be safe to assume that very few people want or look forward to constant disruption in their lives.
However, sometimes in life, one doesn’t seem to have much control of what the world brings to your doorstep.
After having been through a multitude of difficult change scenarios at work (and life in general) during recent years, I felt it would be beneficial to share some experiences on working through them and evolving positively. I’ve also had the opportunity to observe, interact with many individuals at different levels working through similar situations and also, learn and apply some of the available expert knowledge personally.
My focus here is on the individual perspective. I hope to cover the organizational perspective in a different post.
What are some effective practical steps to take when the world seems to be chaotic, with things running out of control?
Taking The Time To Reflect/Be Grounded
When the whole world seems to be rocky especially in the initial stages of a change, one needs to find ways to feel grounded by finding moments of peace, silence and calmness. Consciously taking the time to reflect and understand the big picture, avoiding unrealistic panic from taking over by putting things in context/perspective, remembering what is really important to oneself in the overall scheme of things, acknowledging good aspects of life, and focusing on things that one has control over are some ways to progress meaningfully. It’s also normal that many people try to get busy with the things (sometimes mundane, unimportant activities) that they have on their table, in a way to help lessen the difficulty, avoid facing the realities and to stay with their comfort zones. Even though it may be helpful to stay active and find comfort zones, before one gets too busy with work in general, it’s worthwhile to breathe deep, take a step back, and spend some time reflecting on the overall direction and focus areas. This exercise would result in a set of practical steps or actions in the positive direction, even if they are small ones to begin with. In relation to this step, a very effective practice is meditation or even focusing on the breath for few minutes. Studies on meditation find that if practiced consistently, it has a huge impact on overall individual wellbeing, recovery and happiness. Seeking spiritual meaning and understanding can be very helpful for some individuals. Listening to music may also help with deep relaxation and alignment.
Finding One’s ‘Secure Bases’
The term “secure base” comes from the post-war attachment theory research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. According to this theory, all humans have an innate desire to seek closeness to and comfort from a person who gives them a sense of protection. This becomes especially relevant during tough and challenging times. George Kohlrieser and team defines “secure base” as ‘a person, place, goal or object that provides a sense of protection, safety and caring and offers a source of inspiration and energy for daring, exploration, risk taking and seeking challenge.’ In tough times, secure bases can come in the form of trusted friends, relatives, colleagues, coaches or leaders. Trusted Coaches or mentors can act as healthy ‘reflection/sounding boards’ and encourage you towards positive actions. They can play an important role in providing a ‘safe zone’ to explore new paths and build momentum towards positive actions and outcomes. I remember from a Harvard study that ‘social support’ is the number one factor for people to rebound from major life challenges (e.g. loss of a spouse, job, major disappointments etc.)
Maintaining Physical & Mental fitness
Research suggests that staying physically active leads to both better physical and mental state. According to research from John J Ratey, MD, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, adding exercise to your lifestyle sparks your brain function to improve learning on three levels. First, it optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, mood, and motivation. Second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information. Third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells. His book, ‘Spark’ also cites studies where exercise plays a key role in combating mild depression, stress, addiction and aging. From my own experiences, I am convinced that there is a strong connection between physical and mental fitness. Even one or two days of squash per week and a couple of long walks helped me feel much better mentally and cope with stress better. Building exercise routines with a peer or group of friends or acquaintances increases the probability of them happening. When feeling low, getting fresh air into our system can be refreshing. Sticking to a healthy food diet consistently goes hand in hand.
As indicated earlier and supported by research findings, meditation is another powerful practice for mental fitness and seems to hold many benefits. I’ve found the practice of mindfulness meditation by trying to simply focus on my breath (non-judgmental observation) a highly effective way to counter the panic and stress button in my brain from taking over. Tony Schwartz recommends in his popular HBR article (Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time) that deep abdominal breathing is helpful in defusing negative emotions (probably inspired from mindfulness meditation). Exhaling slowly for five or six seconds induces relaxation and recovery, and turns off the fight-or-flight response. Personal development, emotional intelligence and neuroscience literature note the importance of building self-awareness for leaders. Dr. David Rock indicates in his book, ‘Your Brain at Work’ that a person’s capacity to use his or her brain effectively can be impaired under conditions of peak stress or anxiety. It’s useful to be aware when you can feel your breathing gets faster, pulse rising, hair stand up blood pumping hard, and how you respond. Our self-awareness muscle can be developed in everyday life by paying attention to the relationship between how we feel and what we do. Calming ourselves down or quieting the mind will help us to be highly effective. Another action to consider is learning something new in an area that one is really interested in or passionate about and ideally, also contains a social interaction element. From my experiences, joining a coaching/certification program was very helpful to learn new skills, stimulate thinking, spend quality time in reflection, focus on positive building blocks and build new, diverse connections.
Seeking Inspiration and Humour
When the going gets tough, even small moments of inspiration and humour can go a long way.
Inspiration can come in different forms. It’s important to keep an open mind and proactively seek them out as well – in the form of stories, people, books, movies, pets, real life examples etc. Neuroscience studies support the notion that your focus is fundamental – focusing on inspiring, positive thoughts have a higher probability of spurring you towards action. Once ideas and insights flow out from your thinking, you have to follow it up with small, practical actions quickly. Humour tends to defuse the stress. Humour, inspiration and positive emotions are also contagious. An important choice would be in considering with whom or where you spend your time. The book, ‘How Full Is Your Bucket’ indicates that 9 out of 10 people say they are more productive when they’re around positive people. Neuroscience studies also indicate that a general feeling of expecting good things generates a healthy level of dopamine and may be the neurochemical marker of feeling happy. Studies on happiness note that focusing on gratitude and acknowledging good things in life (eg. maintaining a gratitude journal) improve happiness.
For me, it’s been extremely useful to be aware of, apply these practices during continuous, tough changes, make adjustments, adapt and confront challenges with a positive view point. I sincerely hope some of these tips are practical and helpful for you.
As we all know, no two human beings are the same. The effectiveness of change management practices, how we cope, and solutions vary with preferences, individual personalities and environments.
Are there other helpful actions or practices that have helped you to personally navigate effectively through uncertainties and changes?
Please do share your wisdom.
Wishing you the very best in your journey…
- Secure Bases
- Your Brain At Work (Book) by Dr. David Rock
- NeuroLeadership Institute Website – http://www.neuroleadership.org/index.shtml
- Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy, Harvard Business Review Article
- Exercise and the Brain
- Mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn (Video of a session on Mindfulness at Google) And Multiple Books Publised http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc
- How Full Is Your Bucket? (Book) by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton