We work in an incredibly fast-paced environment, and if we’re being honest, we really just say fast-paced because it sounds a little less scary than terrifying and stressful. Event professionals are almost always up against a deadline, under pressure to outdo their last event and do it all on an ever decreasing budget.
This places us under a great deal of stress, both mental and physical. We all know that either kind of stress can have an adverse effect on our health, and since that stress isn’t going away any time soon, we need to make sure that we not only understand what stress is doing to us, but also ways that we can mitigate its effects on our health.
I want to walk through a quick thought experiment with you. It’s 1.89 million years ago and your cave dwelling ancestor, Homo erectus is roaming the African savanna, and all of a sudden out of the blue comes a lion, a huge, angry, prehistoric lion. Your brain registers the danger. It knows that you’re not taking on this lion, so it starts a process to get you ready to hightail it out of there.
Going into overdrive
Your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action and tells your adrenal medulla to flood your bloodstream with epinephrine which in turn produces a chemical called cortisol, which increases your blood pressure, increases your blood sugars and suppresses your immune system. Your brain takes everything that’s going to aid your escape and turns it into overdrive, anything that won’t help, or will inhibit your ability to fight or run gets put on the back burner.
This is all incredibly hard on your body, but it’s the price our squishy ancestors had to pay to live in such an inhospitable environment. Your brain is an amazing organ, and it’s probably the only reason that our fledgling proto-human ancestors survived the rule of huge carnivores long enough to evolve into you and me.
There is one thing that your brain isn’t great at though. Context.
Let’s re-run our thought experiment, but this time, instead of hundreds of thousands of years ago, it’s present day. And instead of a hungry prehistoric lion, you’re facing an unending traffic jam, a huge presentation, the caterer forgot to order the cupcakes, the convener didn’t tell you they needed translation receivers for 300 instead of 150.
The exact same things happen.
Your brain is incapable of distinguishing a real threat like a lion from one that you manufacture yourself, like an angry boss or a missed deadline. To put it in the words of Dr Amit Sood Chair of the Mayo Mind and Body Initiative at the Mayo Clinic, imagine someone lights a match inside your house, but you’re incapable of telling the difference from that match and a five-alarm fire. So every time someone strikes that match, you call the fire department.
Big red button
We have, inside our brains the mental equivalent a big red button, one that’s designed to get pushed once or twice a lifetime, if at all. And a great many of us are pushing that button all day, every day, and it’s killing us.
So what do we do to stop it? We stop writing our story. You see, a traffic jam is not the scary thing that your brain reacts to. What your brain reacts to is the story that you create once you get in that traffic jam. You’re not getting fired; you’re thinking about getting fired; you’re not getting reamed out by an angry boss; you’re thinking about an angry boss. You’re creating the lion. You are the lion.
We’re killing ourselves by living inside of our heads and creating lions.
How many times have you received news that a project would be delayed, or a shipment was ordered wrong and then went inside of your brain and walked through all of the terrible things that were going to happen because of it? You were pushing that big red button. Your brain reacted to your imagined disaster the exact same way it would to a real one because it didn’t have a choice.
In the environment in which we evolved, those of our ancestors that reacted the fastest to danger got away to live another day; those that decided to wait to see if the lion’s teeth were really that big didn’t. We are the ancestors of those whose brains didn’t wait. So we need to be very careful about when we push that button. How do we do that, we stop writing the story. The way we can do that is by becoming more present.
Living in the present
Presence is a term that you may have heard before and it’s just that. Being present in your day to day life. The time spent thinking of all the awful things that will happen when you get to work late is time not spent in the present moment. The time spent re-playing that perfect comeback is not time spent in the present moment.
To stop the constant state of stress that we find ourselves in, all we have to do is to be here. We all spend so much time thinking about what has happened what did happen and what could happen that we’ve forgotten how to just be here and acknowledge what is happening. It’s so easy to be here, once you’ve realized that you’re not. In fact, realizing that you’re not being present, is the first step to becoming present. The second is as easy as breathing. Buddhist Monk and meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh summarizes the first and most important step in becoming more mindful and present in 16 simple but beautifully profound words.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
The next time you’re stuck in traffic, or that you’ve learned that your paper work didn’t make it to shipping in time, take just two minutes, say those 16 simple words, and watch your breath. Breathe in and out, and just notice it, if it’s shallow, or fast, or laboured, don’t judge it. Just notice it and breathe. Thoughts will stray into your mind during these two minutes, but that’s ok, acknowledge that they’re there and they’ll leave the way they came. Take two minutes, for yourself, and just breathe.
Your brain is an amazingly powerful ally. You are in control, and you can stop pushing the button. The things that we spend our lives in fear of are simply creations that, when you look at them in the correct light, show you the awesome power that is your mind.
You don’t need to fear the lion.
You are the lion.