What Is Success Without Stress and Anxiety?

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Why do we accept stress and anxiety as the price of safety and success? And why do we forgo true happiness, clarity, confidence, and fulfillment in the pursuit of success? We accept chronic stress and anxiety despite their negative correlation with success and performance.

In this post I want to quickly help you:

  • Challenge these assumptions because stress and anxiety depress your success;
  • Understand why negative emotions and thought patterns are so prevalent and sticky; and
  • Choose a proven and simple path towards less stress and greater personal success.

We learn at an early age to push ourselves to be safe, loved, and successful. The pushing takes many forms: avoid conflict, be perfect, over-achieve, take control, etc. Initially these behaviours help us but over time they effectively bully and brutalize us.

We are familiar with the deleterious health effects of stress. There are hundreds of articles on stress management to improve physical health. Now we have conclusive evidence that chronic, negative emotions decrease effectiveness and performance.

Large-scale data analysis of neuroscience, positive psychology, and high-performance psychology overwhelmingly conclude that chronic negative emotions (e.g., worry, regret, frustration) depress our ability to solve difficult problems, be creative, and perform at one’s best. Negative emotions stymie high performance. And of course, they prevent us from being happy.

Surely, you have noticed that when you feel free and lighthearted you accomplish more. And you think more clearly. Have you noticed that when you are in flow there is no negative emotion present?

What do stress and anxiety give us? Confusion. Heartache. Migraines. Exhaustion. Stroke. Ulcers. What have they given you?

To be clear, when you are in a state of chronic fear, anxiety, or stress you absolutely cannot think clearly or brilliantly. When unpleasant emotions are present, you cannot perform at your best. They undermine and sabotage you.

Unwittingly and often with great frustration we self-sabotage at work, family, school, and social interactions. You know the feelings: disappointment, irritation, and even anger with yourself. You “know” better yet repeat the same self-sabotaging mistakes, feel badly, and achieve less than you hoped.

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As so convincingly described in the New York Times Bestseller book "Positive Intelligence" , Stamford professor Shirzad Chamine explains how and why we develop short-cuts in the form of thought-patterns to simplify decision making, keep us safe, and help us succeed. The most powerful thought patterns generally are developed in childhood. At your age they are well ingrained; however, some of them are sabotaging you and keep you stuck.

We are all subject to self-sabotage in one form or another until we learn otherwise. Why, you ask? Evolutionarily, a dominant part of our brain focuses on negativity and danger to keep us safe; however, the danger is often in our imagination, a story we created from our misinterpretations of the facts, or an imagination of a future danger or lack. Awe, wonder, and beauty are of no consequence to this part of the brain which is designed and trained to keep us alive and out of harm’s way. Let’s call it the “survival brain”.

The survival brain is not designed to discern subtleties of misinformation or poor logic that result in us feeling uneasy when we could be joyful. It cares to keep us alive but not lively.

That might have been sufficient for our hunter-gatherer ancestors but today, we want to be safe and happy. We want meaning and fulfillment. But from childhood we have developed habits and thought patterns to look for and avoid danger; however, the focus on danger morphs into wallowing in emotional distress.

It is as though our brains are Velcro for unpleasant emotions (despair, pessimism, irritation, etc.), and Teflon for pleasant emotions (serenity, gratitude, elation, etc.). We ruminate on unpleasant emotions and stories yet quickly forget the pleasant ones.

So, unless we deliberately change our thought patterns and habits, we effectively build a bullet-proof system to focus on danger, experience stress, and forgo happiness, i.e., we self-sabotage. We allow the negative emotions to fester and let the positive ones slip away like water off a duck’s back.

Thought patterns such as “I’m not good enough…”, “I’m going to fail…”, “I don’t belong…” play in the background ceaselessly, similar to malware or bad muzak. This is not a loving or caring voice but demeaning, threatening, and critical. 

What repeated thought patterns menace you?

Uncomfortable emotions are not inherently bad. They are helpful as an alert to take corrective action. A good analogy is when you touch a red-hot plate. Pain signals you to quickly remove your hand. It would be masochistic to deliberately keep your hand on the hot plate. Yet we routinely sabotage our wellbeing and performance by prolonging negative emotional responses or ignoring them (as though ignoring the pain of the burn means that we are not being hurt). Our self-sabotaging system has us receive the painful message and instead of taking corrective action we stick with the pain and metaphorically fail to take our hand off the hot plate.

To counter the self-sabotage system, which is running on autopilot, we need to build mental fitness. Mental fitness gives us the capacity to receive painful messages, discern the corrective action, take aligned action, and quickly return to equanimity. Mental fitness allows one to excavate the malware of unhelpful thought patterns and to amplify thought patterns that encourage us to be effective and fulfilled, e.g., be curious, empathetic, creative, intuitive, seek meaning, and take appropriate action.

Contrary to the accepted cultural norms of chronic stress and overwhelm, it is the percentage of time our brains are in a positive frame of mind that determines our effectiveness, happiness, and fulfillment. It takes mental fitness to have the stamina to remain in our higher-order brain (executive functioning) despite the vagaries of life, and to avoid being sucked down by painful emotions and fears, (e.g., pessimism, panic, and anger), into our “survival brain”.

Mental fitness is more than stress management. It also improves performance and happiness.

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Mental fitness is a skill to be acquired.

The good news is that there is a proven path to achieve mental fitness. It involves:

  • Strengthening our self-command over our thoughts (to avoid unwittingly slipping into the quagmire of negative thoughts, fears, and self-doubt);

  • Recognizing and interrupting our personal mental habits and foibles that repeatedly self-sabotage us; and 

  • Boosting the mental habits that elevate our thinking and experiences.

Essentially, it is a process of weakening the dominant neural pathways of the survival brain (and its self-sabotaging thought-patterns) and strengthening the neural pathways that give us access to our executive functioning (middle- and pre-frontal cortex). This allows us to resonate with our innate skills, creativity, and elevated problem-solving thinking. This is a simple process to elevate our ability to access that part of our brain that seeks high performance, happiness, and fulfillment.

As our mental fitness increases, we more reliably access flow states and operate with the best qualities of being human: empathy, creativity, innovativeness, meaning making, and taking aligned action similar to a jedi master. We then experience success in the most important domains of our lives, e.g., health, family, marriage, work, and friendships.

Therefore, as our mental fitness increases, we better cope with the constant pressures of life. Instead of experiencing mental stress we experience joy and fulfillment. We develop a greater measure of positive intelligence.

Positive intelligence measures our capability to face and overcome challenging situations with more clarity, calmness and creativity. Our level of positive intelligence indicates how mentally fit we are to succeed in challenging situations without experiencing mental stress, e.g., depression, apprehension, and frustration.

Mental fitness determines the upper limit of your capacity to be a leader (of your team, family, self, etc.). The more access you have to your executive functioning and wisdom, the better leader you become. It accelerates your leadership development.

Your presence as a leader is dependent on your ability to:

  • Take aligned and appropriate action;

  • Enroll others into your vision and build trust; and

  • Navigate uncertainty.

If you experience chronic, negative emotions your performance is depressed, you repel others, and you cannot think clearly. 

Mental fitness is a pre-requisite to sustained high performance, joy, and fulfillment in a high-pressure environment.

At Balance Health we are proud to announce our introductory six-week mastermind to build mental fitness. We start on 28 June. Click here to register.

Written by Angela Nesbitt


Transforming Leadership

  Anxiety Photo by Alexei Maridashvili on Unsplash tress Photo by Francisco Moreno on Unsplash

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