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Psychology at work – Neuroscience of stress and resilience

26 Oct 2017
Brain model made from rusty metal gears

Shared among astronauts, the phrase “in space there’s no problem so bad you can’t make it worse” provides business leaders with a rare glimpse into the extreme stresses of the space industry.

This insight offers us an important lesson: astronauts willingly succumb to the things they must take on trust, because they make sure they take full control of the things they can. They cope with extreme stress because their mental health is in check, and they are confident they have well-trained minds, not only with factual knowledge, but with empowering psychological skills. They can access states of calm, focus and resilience whenever and wherever most needed. How do such demanding, high stress professions, including world class athletes, Special Forces and astronauts actually do it? How can this benefit business?

Stress: “The health epidemic of 21st Century”

Stress is the challenge of 21st century. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Statistics detailing the negative impact of workplace stress on finances, performance, health, and morale are extremely well documented, so we’ll not reiterate these issues here. We will focus on solutions.

We live in a knowledge economy. We are paid to use our brains. Our mind is our commodity. By developing it we can leverage and improve personal performance and business success. The amazing developments within our species arise because of our ability to assess challenges, develop strategies and evolve. As business leaders we should work to these strengths: take the facts, be decisive, and innovate.

Empowerment means meeting the challenge of workplace stress head on and doing something about it. The latest in neuroscience provides an exciting way forwards.

But first, the psychology. Stress is a fight-flight response to a real or imagined threat. Our modern work-life activates this response through its expectations: deadlines, targets, immediate solutions, competing priorities, email and project backlogs, intrusive social media…These are now considered ‘normal’.

However, as ‘normal’ as this heightened arousal may appear, nature could not have foreseen that it would be so prolonged, so persistent, and so unrelenting.  We are perpetually simmering with hyper-vigilance, scanning for information to make adequate sense of the challenges, threats, problems, solutions…

Our fight/flight bio-chemical system is ill-designed for modern living, but we’re stuck with it. Trying to cope with coffee, binge eating, and alcohol is self-destructive and leads further into irritability, worry, anger, insomnia, and emotional fatigue.  This leads to, at best, hindered performance, at worst, burn out. Professor Christina Maslach of the European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology, originally coined the term ‘burn out’. She says in The Psychologist earlier this year, “Organisations need to appreciate the importance of maintaining a healthy and sustainable workforce to support the long term common good.”  

But, there is real hope. Stress management has evolved. New techniques are now available that both de-stress AND build resilience.  Currently, important advice is given on nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, hydration, and sleep hygiene. These are all highly effective strategies that improve our health and wellbeing. But the astronauts, athletes, and Special Forces I’ve spoken to eat, exercise, hydrate and sleep well, yet still experience stress.  So there must be something additional going on here. What is it?

They learn specific psychological techniques that both de-stress AND empower them to resilience. They convert stress into energy. They turn it on. Essentially, their training ensures they can regulate their emotions and constructively harness the stress response. This ability to enter deeply relaxing states and access empowering resilience is a skill we can learn.

Neuroscience and Resilience

Neuroscience recently discovered that our brains continue to produce new brain cells throughout our whole life.  But more than this. When we think and imagine things for long enough, we actually change the structure of our brain.  For example, the ‘knowledge’ required by taxi drivers places huge demands on their memory which makes that part of their brain, the hippocampus, larger. Equally, highly stressed creatures in high stress environments, develop a larger fight/flight structure called the amygdala.

Dr Norman Diodge calls this ‘neuroplasticity’. In The Brain That Changes Itself, he writes, “Our brains change structure and function in response to the environment, as we imagine things, which is quite extraordinary”. In relation to stress he says “When people are imagining, they are changing the structure and function of their brain. This has great application in medicine (and) helps us to understand the influence of technology upon us”.

This all happens because: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

The more we continually experience hyper-vigilant states (stress), the more neuron fibres will wire together in bundles that create pathways or circuits primed for that way of thinking, feeling and behaving. Regular thinking states create lasting neural traits.

This explains why we struggle to rid ourselves of unwanted habits even though we know they are bad for us. It also explains why we struggle to convincingly adopt new ways of thinking and behaving in response to our stress, worry and hyper-vigilance.

But this can change. Through guided practice we can deliberately, purposefully create new neural pathways that build resilience. The growth of new positive pathways is called ‘neurogenesis’ and it opens up enormous possibilities. Business leaders world-wide are understandably paying close attention.

Business Benefits

The benefits to business are far-reaching. It almost goes without saying that it is financially prudent to be preventative and proactive in addressing this issue. Since competitive advantage springs from adaptability, this could be the opportune moment to apply this principle. We have a duty. Let us not be the reference point when Tom Peters says ‘Intelligent people can think up intelligent reasons to do nothing’.

Learning specialised calming techniques that build resilience ensures:

  • Controlled Decision-Making - Calm and relaxed states de-activate the stress response. 
  • Cognitive Clarity and Focus - Oxygenated blood flows back into brain areas designed for problem-solving.
  • Peak Performance - Building and accessing resourceful resilience states.

Heightened resilience will undoubtedly raise company financials and improve  employee morale and loyalty.

The Age of the Mind

A Stress2Energy system will guide us into, what Tony Buzan and others believe is, the next stage in human development. 

“We have been through many ages in our evolution. Beginning with the stone age, iron age and bronze ages, we then entered the space age, the computer age and, most recently, the information management age. So, what age are we entering now?

We are now at a point of liminality, standing astride the old and the new. Knowing our choices, that we can choose to tackle stress by building resilience, means we become more flexible, adaptable and competitive.

This is the scientific principle: ‘the law of requisite variety’

In any situation from government to business, the one who has most flexibility will be the most influential. The more ways you have of looking at something, the more choices you have. The more choices you have, the more likely you will end up in control.

Entrepreneurs are inspired by new, innovative ideas.This is the quality that ignited the initial spark and now continues to kindle the fires. The implementation of new strategies is what keeps adaptability alive and competitive advantage truly in sight.


Anthony Feilden, a post-graduate qualified psychologist and stress-resilience specialist

Anthony is also a qualified clinical hypnotherapist trained by world renowned Stephen Brooks.

Beginning this career as a UN research specialist, East Africa, he advised on Positive Regional Change. Returning to the UK he gained considerable experience researching and working with people from some of the most resilient professions including astronauts, athletes and the military. Recently he advised a leading London hospital specialising in anxiety.


Mental health in the workplace

The IoD is committed to raising awareness of mental health issues in the workplace, with a particular focus on opening up the conversation for small and medium-sized businesses. We have created a hub packed full of helpful advice, best practice and useful resources, as well as shared experiences from business leaders.

Visit our mental health in the workplace hub

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