When stress goes up...cognition goes down
Your ability to innovate new ideas is far more related to your capacity for processing stress than it is to how “creative” you can be. The more taxed your system is, the more it focuses on survival and recovery rather than creative optimization. Think of the relationship between stress and innovation like a seesaw; when one goes up, the other goes down.
If stress is low, your mental resources are freely allocated to cognition, creativity, innovation, and other optimal brain functions. If stress is high, your ability to think clearly and creatively goes down as resources flood toward supporting your survival. High stress levels make everything more difficult. Whether you are a chef, artist, engineer, parent, spouse, or a human being simply trying to be the healthiest you can be, your ability to ideate and create is deeply connected to how you process the circumstances you encounter every day.
Bears and Deadlines
Your brain can’t tell the difference between a bear chasing you for dinner and a deadline approaching. To your brain, they both register as threats to your survival. To get a clear understanding of what this means, think about the last time you were running late for a flight. What happened to your heart rate, breathing, mood, clarity of thought, feelings, and irritability? Did you feel a zen calm rush over you? Did you make crisp, clear decisions as you maneuvered through the terminal? Probably not.
When you encounter stressful situations, your brain decreases cognition to the degree that your stress increases in order to move you into survival mode and keep you alive. It’s normal and necessary. The only problem is that your life, if it’s anything like the average human life in 2020, is flooded with stressors; and if your brain can’t differentiate between a life-or-death scenario and a deadline, non-threatening stressors are likely eating up a significant portion of your valuable personal resources.
Think of how this applies to innovation. If you are functioning in a state of high stress, you are planting fresh vision in depleted soil. If there are no nutrients in the soil (because they’re rushing to areas in distress), seeds can’t grow or mature properly. As human beings on a quest to become whole and healthy, we should take an honest look at the soil in which we plant our new “ideas”. Often we are instructed to audit our processes, efforts, and behaviors on the surface, but we are not often equipped with tools for evaluating the “terroir” (the complete natural environment) we are trying to thrive in and grow from.
Sprints and Ultrathons
If you and your ideas want to thrive, focus on two of your most powerful resources: perspective and self-awareness. Perspective is a vital resource not only because it allows you to feel and experience your stressful circumstances more mindfully and compassionately, but because it allows you to foster a deeper, more meaningful level of self-awareness that helps you realize you are safe and free to create.
Change in perspective is a sprint. Self-awareness is an ultrathon.
Your perspective can be altered in a moment based on how you view an experience, but a significant and sustainable change in self-awareness requires intentional practice, understanding, and self-compassion. Think of the different choices you’d make while training for a 100-meter dash in comparison to an ultrathon. One scenario requires resources for seconds and the other requires resources for days. This is why it is vital for us to see the difference between perspective and self-awareness. Perspective will generally fizzle out by the time you’re done reading this article. Self-awareness is a lifetime endeavor.
To transform healthy perspective into lasting self-awareness, ask yourself these questions the next time you experience stress:
- What physical sensations am I experiencing in my body?
- What thoughts are running through my mind?
- What emotions do I feel?
Take time to consider your reactions. Notice patterns and recurring behaviors. Use this to build a greater understanding of yourself. Over time, as you practice the art of introspection, self-awareness will develop. Self-awareness is a powerful tool when it comes to moving resources from “survival” to “optimal” brain function. If you’re not aware that you’re subconsciously stressed and reactive, you’re leaking valuable resources. When you call awareness to your physical, mental, and emotional responses during stressful circumstances, you’re empowered to make more mindful decisions.
*Pro Tip: To boost your self-awareness practice, include an impartial feedback loop; this might be a life coach, mentor, professional counselor, spiritual director, or someone you deeply trust to act as an impartial external sounding board who will support you in understanding the difference between your “bears” and your deadlines.
Reframe the Past
Have you ever seen Ratatouille? Remember the food critic, Anton Ego? There is a moment in the film when Anton first experiences Remy’s version of ratatouille. The food is so good and so reminiscent of his childhood, he literally re-experiences his memory of love and connection with his mother through the familiar flavors. An entire scene takes place featuring Anton as he flashes back through blissful memories and savors Remy’s dish. Our brains are that powerful at recreating experiences.
Your past has a way of curling it’s fingers around your present. As you weed out subconscious stressors contaminating the soil you’re planting new ideas in, consider the way your past might be impacting the terrain you’re standing on. If you carefully recollect a traumatic loss in your life; a business that failed, a powerful relationship that ended, or even a life-giving encounter like Anton had, you will likely think and feel similar thoughts and emotions you experienced during the event, even though the event isn’t happening anymore. Remember, your brain can’t tell the difference between perception and reality.
Here’s how to use this knowledge powerfully: by intentionally recognizing your memories as historical events and not current experiences, you can minimize and possibly eliminate the threat associated with these moments in your story. In fact, the definition of “recognition” (re-cognition) is “the identification of a thing or person from previous encounters or knowledge”. So, when you “re-cognize” your past and reframe your perspective, you allow your brain the opportunity to say, “I have been here before, but this threat isn’t currently taking place. I am safe.”
This utilization is a powerful resource as you journey towards innovating greater self-awareness. With self-awareness, you can tell the difference between perception and reality. You can stop reliving your past as if it’s happening to you all over again. You can embrace how your history informs you, but does not define you. Your past is an educator and trusted advisor, not a present-day threat. You can use self-awareness to make informed decisions when responding to stress. Instead of an uncontrolled response, you can shift your mind towards accepting that you are safe in reality no matter what your perception. There are no bears. You are innately capable of change. You are becoming whole.