How To Be More Resilient
Illustration by Mr Tommy Parker
Tackle stress with neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart’s tips for re-focusing the mind.
Even a billionaire can have a bad day at the office – or in the case of Mr Travis Kalanick – it can happen in the back of a car. (The beleaguered Uber CEO was recently filmed angrily insulting a driver in an argument over fare prices.) This followed an investigation into sexism and sexual harassment at Uber’s headquarters. The company is now on the hunt for a COO (chief operating officer), presumably to prevent a total meltdown before Uber’s imminent IPO. In short: ouch.
The above scenario is an extreme demonstration of the fact that our working lives tend to be as full of embarrassments and setbacks as they are triumphs and successes. How to deal with the former, while maximising the later? Enter Dr Tara Swart, a leadership coach who uses her background in neuroscience and psychiatry to coach CEOs in times of intense pressure, such as after a major failure, or ahead of a challenge like a merger or IPO. Dr Swart, author of Neuroscience For Leadership: Harnessing The Brain Gain Advantage, calls the ability to deal with stress, “resilience”.
“Resilience is not only the ability to bounce back from adversity but also the strength to thrive in situations when confronted with change and uncertainty,” says Dr Swart. “I use neuroscience to help my clients to get back to good decision-making after a setback and to develop the cognitive resources necessary to achieve peak performance during times of intense pressure.”
What happens when we suffer a setback, or in the case of Mr Kalanick, humiliate ourselves in a very public manner? “The appetite for risk diminishes as we become less confident,” says Dr Swart, “which is a particular problem for my finance clients whose job it is to assess and take risks. Conversely, over confidence leads to excessive risk and bad decisions. Our energy levels also diminish and with it our ability to motivate others, which is crucial when you are a leader.”
“Most of us are paid to use our brains but very few of us understand how it works and what it needs in order for us to get the most out of it,” says Dr Swart. So here then is her advice for how to get going when the going gets tough.
Exercise is essential in our day-to-day lives, but is especially important when dealing with stress as it helps to increase testosterone and decrease cortisol, which is essential for getting back to peak performance. According to Dr Swart: “Testosterone impacts on confidence and the appetite for risk. In extreme cases some of my clients are prescribed testosterone supplements. For general cases, weight training will help to boost testosterone levels. There’s also a chemical in cabbage which boosts testosterone, which can be taken in the form of a protein smoothie.”
“Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands and is caused by stress and disrupts the sleep/work cycle,” explains Dr Swart. “Physical exercise, in addition to boosting testosterone has the beneficial effect of releasing endorphins and also helps to secrete cortisol out of the body. Magnesium supplements also help.”
Research from Mr Tim Feriss’ book about the habits of self-made billionaires, tycoons and corporate high-fliers, Tools Of Titans, showed that 80 per cent of the subjects studied practiced mindfulness, which is something that Dr Swart strongly recommends. “The main reason is that we need to articulate our emotions. Bottling up emotions such as shame, anger, fear, disgust, and sadness is dangerous. Even just writing your feelings down helps to decrease cortisol.”
Remind yourself of past success
“You need to own your past successes,” says Dr Swart. Remember and visualise past successes to boost your confidence for a difficult task. “Thinking about other people’s successes will also help them seem more achievable. Try to think: ‘If another person successfully launched the IPO, then it must be possible.’” Past precedents render challenges less threatening to the brain.
Say it: “I’m great!”
“Positive self-talk is proven is to boost confidence. Having a series of positive statements either written down or in your mind can reprogram the brain’s neural pathways and prevent negative thought patterns,” says Dr Swart. Even simple ones like, “I am capable” or “I make great decisions” can help to boost performance.
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