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British neuroscientist Professor Patricia Riddell on stress, resilience and emotional regulation

There’s a reason why we feel stressed, why we feel overwhelmed –and it is not just about the amount of work we have to do. Individual brains react in different ways to the same work environment and understanding this can help us cope better and indeed maybe even help to conquer stress altoget

THERE’S a reason why we feel stressed, why we feel overwhelmed –and it is not just about the amount of work we have to do. Individual brains react in different ways to the same work environment and understanding this can help us cope better and indeed maybe even help to conquer stress altogether.

I first became interested in neuroscience when a friend of mine called me in to help with a conundrum she had. She ran a training company and was wondering why they were able to deliver what, by everyone’s consensus, was fantastic and practical training, but yet little of the learning made its way to the workplace. How could we make the training stick? she asked me.

That was my first foray into applying neuroscience in organisations. I thought long and hard about her question, I did some research and then, because I’m not a specialist in memory, I went to a colleague who is an expert on memory and learning and presented my thoughts to him. He looked at all my work and then he turned to me, “there’s not a single thing I can disagree with here – but I would never have thought of applying our understanding like this”, he said.

That’s why I do what I do.

There’s a wealth of research out there that’s growing all the time. There are people that do research and come up with these incredible findings and there are people who want the interesting findings but can’t understand the research. My calling is to translate the one for the other, but it’s never a knowledge sharing exercise for me. There’s no point in it unless I am able to teach things that will give direct benefit to people, things that they can practically do with the knowledge to make an immediate difference to their lives.

Three immediate examples of areas where this really works would be: the neuroscience of stress, resilience and emotional regulation; the neuroscience of confidence and the neuroscience of decision making. For instance, with regards to stress, It is difficult to find people in any organisation who don’t feel that they are being asked to do more with less, with the net result that they feel totally harried. Understanding what that does to you neurologically when you are put under stress can be really helpful in finding ways to control it.

Another issue that fascinates me is the concept of resilience because as psychologists, we speak of resilience in the context of trauma and the ability to bounce back from trauma. So, when organisations are asking their staff to be more resilient, it almost suggests that the employers concede that the work place is traumatic and that they would like to train their staff to bounce back from that. It is important for leaders to consider what they ask of their employees and whether this is reasonable. It is also important for employees to recognise when they are becoming overly stressed not only by work but what is also happening in their home lives.

All of this underscores just how important it is for us as individuals to set boundaries and to be able to ask for help, and for our employers to be enlightened enough to accept that stress is cumulative; there is the stress from work, from home and from friends; it’s everything that’s going on in our lives.

There was a recent paper produced by Henley Business School UK about how a four day week leads to more productivity from staff than a five day working week. We have to break out of the syndrome that that more you give people to do, the more they’ll cope and that the more they cope, the better it is for the bottom line. That’s wrong; morally and neurologically speaking; what you want is to have staff who are at their most productive not feeling overwhelmed. The key is to have the tools to create that culture.

One of the things I love the most about studying neuroscience are those Eureka moments, when you discover things that aren’t really that self-evident that can be shared with people and that you know will make an immediate difference to their lives by allowing them to think differently. Confidence is one of these areas. I suddenly realised that the brain is trying to do two things simultaneously – one which is protective and the other that helps us to be more confident. The conflict between these two drives can cause people’s confidence to be undermined – by their own actions. This is something that we will explore during our day looking at the neuroscience of confidence.

There’s also a neuroscientific explanation – and solution – for just why we can be our own worst critics. While we might imagine that the empathic people will be more empathic with themselves, this might not always be the case – and there is a good neuroscience reason why not. By understanding what the brain is doing – and what it cannot do- we can create better ways to be less critical of ourselves.

Another important topic in this day and age of VUCA, when the environment can be Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, is how we make decisions. Even when we cannot have all the information we would like to have, quick decisions still have to be made because there isn’t the luxury of time. How do we cope best with this?

We know that we have two decision making systems in our brain, so which one do we use, given that each one is best for a particular situation? When we understand what each decision is designed to do, we have a better understanding of when to use each system – especially when information is missing, and time is short..

Neuroscience is helping us to understand the brain in new ways, but it’s also allowing us to better understand ways of behaving that we always knew intuitively were right but did not know why. And, the good news is, especially for managers in business, it is not necessary to have a degree in neuroscience to understand this. By translating this complex science into easily understandable and immediately applicable tools, anyone can benefit immediately from knowing more about their brain.

My belief is that, as we understand more about how brains work and therefore why people behave as they do, we will all be able to be a little more compassionate with ourselves and each other. Hopefully this will help us to enjoy life more and reduce the felling of overwhelm that many of us encounter in our lives. I am looking forward to sharing my learning with delegates on the courses in South Africa.

Ground breaking British neuroscientist Professor Patricia Riddell is presenting three master classes at Henley Business School Africa in October: Stress Resilience and Emotional Regulation on October 7-8; the Neuroscience of Confidence on October 9 and Decision Making and Planning on October 10-11.

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