Resilience: How to Manage Your Brain in Crises

As a busy executive, you manage people, yet the most challenging person to manage may be yourself. Stress and business crises happen all the time, and even more so to leaders. How can you manage your brain so that you develop resilience?

I read a lot of business books, mostly on the people side of the equation rather than finances. I believe that people matter most, that without finely tuned collaboration among colleagues and team members, the desired outcomes —including financial success —won’t happen.

However, I know from years working in the trenches, as a coach, motivational speaker and consultant, it’s not a matter of holding hands and singing “Kumbaya!” In spite of the most inspiring company mission statements, people behave as warriors and defend their territories and positions with fierce resolve.

Our brains aren’t that different from those of the caveman hunters on the savannahs of East Africa 100.000 years ago. Here’s what happens when a perceived threat gets our attention (and it doesn’t matter if it’s a tiger, a competitor, or the boss who’s about to pounce):

An instant jolt of fear surges through your body in milliseconds, due to increased activity within the amygdala. We feel an urge to fight or flee, and then the more rational parts of the brain kick in to evaluate the current situation, in light of past memories. How quickly and accurately you evaluate the current situation will lead to you making an appropriate response. Or, you may burst out in anger in what’s been termed an “amygdala highjacking.”

In the jungle, it’s a matter of life and death. The body reacts with lightening speed and intensity to prepare you to either do battle or get the heck out of there. In the workplace, it’s rarely life-or-death, but it still feels that way. Most of us are sophisticated enough to feel the fear and discount it, and make the right response of what to say and do.

But the brain is still operating under the laws of the jungle. To protect us, it will remember negative events and danger efficiently. It doesn’t let go of the memories of threats. Social scientists call this the negativity bias. Without the intelligence and experience to master our emotions, we easily think, believe and act in negative ways.

Here’s what happens in the brains of successful people after they experience a jolt of fear in the amygdala.

  • They focus on what needs to be done or said.
  • They tune out distractions and select the most relevant issues to be addressed.
  • They check to make sure they are aligned with their core beliefs and mission, and aren’t reacting inappropriately.
  • They notice the facial expressions and nonverbal expressions of the other people involved.
  • They ask questions to clarify.
  • They connect with the needs of others.
  • They breathe deeply to stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System to restore calm.
  • They make their decision and express it clearly.
  • They focus on the positive aspects and express realistic optimism.

All this happens in seconds, in a flash between our most primitive and most sophisticated brain functions. Pretty amazing stuff on a cellular level, don’t you think?

The next time you’re faced with a jolt of fear, no matter the source, become consciously aware of the thoughts your brain pulls up. Of course, you’ll only be aware of the ones that come to consciousness, and a lot of stuff stays underneath on an emotional, subconscious level.

I think it’s interesting to raise your awareness of these brain processes. With practice, with effort, you can really feel and experience your brain more consciously. And, more importantly, you can get better at recognizing the pull of the negativity bias, and counter act it with conscious positive thoughts and realistic optimism.

What are your thoughts on this?

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