Stanford University Professor Explains Secret To Resilience And Performance

In A Nutshell

Having worked with many people over the last 10 years, it is clear that the majority of people do not fully understand how their thought processes can have a significant impact on their resilience, performance and productivity.

Persistent stress, even at low levels, can impact our health and wellbeing.

Resilience and performance can be eroded without you even realising it is happening.

The subject of how stress affects our wellbeing has been the study of Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University.

In brief, he explains that every time we have an unhelpful reaction, we activate the fight or flight mechanism.

Professor Sapolsky explains that frequent activation of the fight or flight mechanism can cumulate and cause a number of health issues and can affect resilience and performance.

Conversely, helpful responses activate the rest and digest response and this boosts our health and resilience.


Understanding Stress

Stress is the body’s reaction to a change that requires a response, a response that re-establishes a normal state of functioning.

The stimulus could be a change in temperature, an emotional shock, or the body responding to a virus.

In relation to our resilience and productivity, it is useful to consider how the following can activate the fight or flight mechanism (also known as the stress response):

  • Thoughts
  • Feelings
  • Internal dialogue: the conversations we have with ourselves
  • Internal images: the movies we play in our head

The fight or flight mechanism evolved to protect our ancestors when in a threatening situation; perhaps being faced with a sabre toothed tiger or invaders.

Why Zebras Do Not Get Ulcers

People often think of stress as being the really big stuff, when we are really stressed.

Professor Sapolsky has written a book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

Professor Sapolsky explains that if we think of a spectrum where at one end we have extreme fight or flight and at the other end we have Rest and Digest.

When a zebra is fleeing from a hungry lion, the fight or flight response is activated.

When you are lying on a beach or by a pool, sipping a cold drink and reading a book by your favourite author. Unless it’s a spine chilling horror fantasy, your body is going to be in a relaxed state; rest and digest.

In the middle of the spectrum is homeostasis, which is a state of normal functioning.

When a lion is chasing a zebra, either the zebra is killed, or it escapes and lives.

Whilst the zebra is running in fear of its life, it’s body releases powerful hormones to help it run away.

If it gets away, the zebra will recover from the episode, and the body achieves homeostasis. When the zebra is relaxing in the sun, physiologically it will be in a more relaxed state.

Zebras And Humans: A Key Difference

Zebras don’t think about all the frequent smaller stressors that humans do, for instance:

  • The reaction you have when you receive a call from a difficult client
  • Receiving an email pointing out a mistake that you made
  • Missing a train

Professor Sapolsky explains that all these stressors add up and can cause all sorts of health issues.

The reason that zebras don’t get ulcers is that they don’t experience all these intermittent stress events. What makes us different to zebras is our ability to anticipate or react to a threat.

Essentially any unhelpful thought, feeling, dialogue or image activates the fight or flight response.

How Often Are We Activating The Fight Or Flight Response?

Consider that there are 86,400 seconds in a day. That is a lot of opportunity for unhelpful thoughts.

This can have a profound effect on energy levels, our general health, clarity of thought and other key functions.

Often, people are aware of some of their unhelpful responses but don’t know how to change them.

They are also sometimes unaware of some of their unhelpful responses.

Simply becoming aware of an unhelpful response that we were unaware of can help us stop those responses.

Your Personal Threats To Resilience

Discover which of the common triggers are relevant to you.

Knowing what these are and avoiding them prevents you from activating the fight or flight response, which threatens your resilience and productivity.

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‘the 5 threats to resilience and performance that career driven professionals must avoid.’