With our amazing hot weather in the UK at the moment, we just want to be outside, enjoying the summer sun. Although we would love the pace of life to slow in the heat, this deceleration does not seem to happen: Emails come pinging in. The phone rings. People interrupt with their urgent matters that need our attention. And the ‘to do’ list still seems as long.
Added to this is our own internal pressures. That voice telling us we ‘must do that’ and ‘should do that’ for example “I must get this done today or my client will be disappointed” or “I should go for that run now or I will never get fit’. We have sub-personalities within us driving us to succeed, to look good, to keep the peace, to fit in, to seek approval and their demanding voices crack the whip to keep us going at all times.
This push to accomplish and achieve triggers ancient systems of reward and pleasure in the brain through the neurotransmitter dopamine. When we attain a goal – a difficult email sent, a proposal completed, a sale closed – this ‘feel good’ chemical that gives us a sense of relief rises while other neural systems give us a feeling of pleasure. Correspondingly, when we fail, or make a serious mistake, it plummets leaving us with emotions of disappointment, frustration and even despair. Dopamine levels also start to fall while we are in the process of completing a task, giving rise to the reactions of pressure and anxiety. To avoid these drops in dopamine, we push ourselves hard to do all we can to attain our objectives and have that sense of a target realised.
Unfortunately, we suffer from being ‘always on’, driven by the need to fulfil our outcomes. We feel permanently stressed which has long-term negative effects on us emotionally and physically. Our focus narrows as we lock on to our specific challenges. All of this makes us contracted, tense and permanently conscious of our performance, both in comparison to others, and when we are falling short.
So, what can we do about this given we seem to be driven by our neural circuitry?
Here are some suggestions:
• Put your thoughts in a journal. Journaling daily is one of the best ways to get negative mental energy out of your mind. It allows you to pour out whatever you are holding on to and clean the slate. We all have emotions that want to swamp us and writing them down and considering their validity in a journal is extremely valuable.
• Question your attitudes on paper. Mindsets that are holding us back can be dissected and questioned for their authenticity. I like to repeatedly ask myself the question ‘Why’. Why I believe a certain thing, or feel a certain way, to get to the root of my restrictive mindsets. Drilling down into your limitations allows you to understand yourself more and consider if your current attitude is truly serving you or could be replaced with something more affirming.
• Be aware of your ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. Are they really necessary or are they coming from that critical parent talking away to you in your head? What would happen if you eased back a bit? Lowered your standards a fraction? Said no? Took time out for a walk in the sun?
• Imagine a buffer of protection around you. When people, phone calls, emails and texts come at you, let this buffer give you some imaginary space between you and them. Don’t take on their urgency unless it really is an emergency. Often people want to offload a problem onto someone else, so it is no longer their responsibility. You don’t have to take it.
• Work hard but without the ‘rod on your back’. Going at 100 miles an hour doesn’t accomplish more. The tortoise always beats the hare in the end. See if you can work efficiently, without the pressure that drives you desperately forward. Take regular breaks every 90 minutes and let your brain and nervous system recover. The ability to take time out and rest is what sustains us long term.
• Breathe. Taking four deep breaths, counting to 6 on the in breath, and 7 on the out breath with a slight pause in between. This allows you to slow the breath down to 4 breaths per minute. This activates our ‘rest and relax’ parasympathetic nervous system which counteracts the negative reactions to stress in our bodies
• Listen mindfully. Take time to listen fully to music, hearing the different instruments that are playing, tune into the birds’ song, attend fully to the people you are with and what they are saying. Hear both the sound and the gaps between the sound by being fully present. Doing this will automatically still your mind and give it the rest it needs.
Keeping your mood and spirits elevated is the ideal throughout our day. To do that track your accomplishments, however small, so that you are regularly and consistently achieving something. Research shows that the most important thing for happiness at work is regularly completing goals towards something that is meaningful to you. So, have lots of mini accomplishments every day so your dopamine keeps flowing plentifully.