When my sister hears my weekly schedule, her eyes glaze over and she shuts down, completely overwhelmed by how packed it is. I have the same reaction when I consider one of my friend’s weekly itineraries, which is even busier than mine. And yet, my friend thrives on her schedule just like I thrive on mine.
Because our brains are not the same, we all need different amounts of stress to function at our best. The amount of stress you need is different than what others need. And there’s plenty of science behind that truth.
Your brain has a prefrontal cortex (PFC) that is the executive control center for planning, decision-making and problem solving. This is the part of your mind that synthesizes information, assesses best approaches to deal with people, analyzes facts, empathizes with others, and basically helps you function in a mature, rational way.
The chemicals in your PFC have to be “just right” for you to function well. In fact, it has been compared to Goldilocks, the little girl who needed everything “just right” to be content, by Amy Arnsten, PhD, Professor of Neurobiology and of Psychology and Member, Kavli Institute of Neuroscience at Yale University at the Yale School of Medicine.
When you’re operating at your best, your brain produces in a balanced way neurotransmitters and neuromodulators called catecholamines, which include “happy chemicals” like dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine.
When you’re bored, your brain only releases trickles of catecholamines, which leads to inertia, procrastination or more boredom – not a very engaging, creative or productive space to live in.
On the other hand, being overstimulated, overwhelmed or stretched for too long causes decreased performance, waned creativity, increased anxiety and loss of joy in work and life. Unfortunately, this kind of stress is the type most people are experiencing daily.
With this in mind, it’s time to pay attention to your neurochemical self by reflecting on how you’re performing under stress and being aware of your comfort or discomfort in different environments.
I just had a conversation this week with a client who did just that. He found his work environment and the demands of his leader unsustainable, and recognized a shift in leadership was not going to happen. After a year of effort to communicate his needs and that of his team for clearer goals, adjusted expectations and more support, he made the decision to move on in his career. What a leadership loss to his (now) former employer! He recognized the stress was too high and impacting his motivation, health and family in negative ways. He believes that life is too short to throw it away. I couldn’t agree more!
Like my client, you can determine your optimal stress level by simply noticing and caring for your mental health. As a leader, you have the opportunity – perhaps the responsibility – to do the same for your team members by creating an environment where they can produce great work and achieve expected results.
So what’s your optimal stress level? What does your neurochemical self need most right now? Ask yourself the following questions to give you a better sense of the action you need to take:
- When have I been most challenged, yet thriving in a job or hobby? What made it challenging but not overwhelming? What is missing now that I had then?
- How might I adjust my expectations, schedule or activities to better balance myself?
- What am I doing for myself relative to exercise, sleep, nutrition and relaxation when I’m most engaged?
- What would the people who know me best say I need to do differently? How willing am I to do that?
- How about your team? Who on your team is operating at his or her best, displaying strengths under pressure? Who needs you to advocate for them so they can reach a higher stress level (because they’re bored) or lower stress level (because they’re totally stressed)?
If you take the time to reflect on how you perform at different stress levels, you’ll realize what’s “just right” for you and your brain.