The more you know about how your brain works and what is happening physically inside your body, the more you can cope with stressful situations.
I have learned this lesson countless times, especially during business trips and when meeting new people or interviewing sources. As a confirmed introvert, I have to manage the negative thoughts that come flooding in, because I'm always analyzing situations and parsing out what people say. It's a full-time job, and I'm not that gifted at it.
Now, I have a better way to combat the problem.
I've been reading a lot about the chemicals in our brains that control behavior. I've written many times about dopamine and how positive experiences trigger warm feelings and thoughts. It's one reason we like to check email, hoping for an encouraging message. It's also why we check our phones so often for text messages.
Curiously, in studying this topic lately, it turns out there's a competing chemical called cortisol that is related to your hormones and stress levels.
I find this so fascinating: Cortisol is a chemical in your brain that tends to flow more freely and spurs negative thoughts. Your brain loves cortisol. I've read dozens of books and articles about this, so I don't have one particular source for this information other than my own tacit knowledge and experiences, but there is a war between the wonderful pat-on-the-back of dopamine and the negative slap-on-the-wrist of cortisol.
Known as an alarm system, your brain releases the chemical cortisol as a way to warn you about an imminent danger, and, let's be honest, that's pretty helpful at times. The car in your rearview mirror is speeding up too fast; a toxic person in the office is spreading rumors about you. These experiences are common, and they trigger cortisol in your brain with a snap, which means negative thoughts come more easily than positive thoughts.
Think about how that works. When you see that car approaching too fast or you encounter that toxic person in the office, the default reaction--the one that is easier and more fluid, the one that seems oh-so-right to you--is to feel stress and anxiety, to assume the worst will happen, to unleash negativity. The problem for a lot of us is that we develop a pattern of negativity because our brains prefer that pattern. The pump is already primed.
The truth is a bit more complicated, however.
That car will probably swerve away from you, and that toxic person will probably not last at your company. If the toxic person spreads rumors about you, it's easy to dwell on it because your brain is wired that way, but the reality is that most people know when someone is toxic and difficult in the office, so the rumors probably won't stick.
Years ago, a friend introduced me to the bounce principle. It's something I've been doing for many years now, and I won't get into the main reasons why it's so useful. (Let's just say it is highly personal and not related to the office environment.) Yet bouncing away negative thoughts is a brilliant strategy. It means when that easy-flowing cortisol makes you think negatively, you "bounce" the dark cloud away and think a positive thought instead.
In the office, it can happen dozens of times per day. An accusatory email? A confrontation about a sales call? An accusation about being late every day? Instead of spiraling into negativity, think of a positive angle instead. That person accusing you might be having a bad day and you could offer some encouragement instead. The sales call was a bummer for everyone involved, but you could think about what you learned and how you can do better next time. If you are always late to work, maybe you could refocus your thoughts on how it's not the end of the world, and that you have enjoyed visiting a coffee shop to help you deal with anxiety before you start the day.
There is almost always a positive thought you can muster in any given situation. (If the environment is so toxic you're finding that to be impossible, it's time to find a different environment.) Positive thoughts are harder. They take more work. You have to develop new patterns and new ways of thinking. Cortisol is always there, fighting back.
Will you try one simple experiment, though? Try my bounce principle for one single day. Each time your brain switches to a negative thought after a conflict or some dissonance at work, bounce it into a positive reaction and a positive thought instead. Do that all day long and even take notes about what you had to bounce for the day.
Drop me a note and let me know if it all worked out. I'm confident that, by the end of the day, you will start seeing life a bit differently.