March 1, 2017 / Uncategorized

WiseTalk Summary on Fear of Difference

On February 22, Sue Bethanis hosted Janet Crawford, Janet Crawford, CEO of Cascadance, Inc. and co-author of Leadership Embodiment. As a scientist and pioneer in the application of social neuroscience to corporate culture, Janet has two decades of experience working Fortune 500 companies with her client organizations spanning the who’s who of Silicon Valley. A scientist and pioneer in the application of social neuroscience to corporate culture, Janet helps companies uncover and address the hidden biological roots of inequity.

Favorite Quote: 

“You really cannot think your way out of lack of sleep. Lack of sleep changes the brain and changes the way the brain is equipped to respond. Lack of sleep activates the amygdala to a very significant degree. So we know that you can’t think your way out of amygdala activation, but you can sleep your way out of it.”


What is going on in our brain when we experience fear?

Your brain is always assessing how safe am I versus how threatened am I. Janet says “one of the basic principles about the brain is that very little of what we do is the result of any kind of conscious decision. They are automatic responses because we have a pre-installed instinct that’s been fine-tuned and honed over millions of years of evolution. “

The prefrontal area in the brain is where most of our more sophisticated nuanced intellectual thinking takes place. We have these very basic automatic instinctual parts of the brain, and the brain tries to figure out how much threat there is in the environment. Am I being overstimulated? Is there a clear and present danger to me? The brain then calculates if it is much better off behaving in an instinctual unconscious way than trying to think through the situation. Conscious thought is incredibly slow, and we can’t go through this very cumbersome process of responding to the world when we’re in a clear and present danger.

On fear of difference:

We often think of this in terms of race and really obvious differences. But according to Janet, “we can fear somebody who has a different worldview from ours, who has a different religion from ours, who has a different set of beliefs from ours, even a different way of interacting with the world. Introverts and extroverts can sometimes be grouped. So any form of difference, but it’s a difference that we don’t understand and feel comfortable with, and that’s a really important differentiator.”

How we respond to fear:

 We typically feel a sense of nervousness, inability to focus well, inability to sleep well, irritability, a kind of rapid response of the classic fight-flight and freeze. But we don’t typically run away from things, or engage in fist fights, or totally clam up and freeze. But it can look like things like just shutting down around certain kinds of conversations, or saying snarky things to people or posting things on social media in a very erratic way. So we tend not to be good filters when we’re living in fear and we also lose the ability to be discerning and focused.

  • Freezing Up: This idea that somebody says something to you and you react so strongly, or you’re so strongly caught off guard that you don’t defend your boundaries, or you don’t say something or maybe what you say is unintelligible, or in one way or another you just lose your ability to respond in a way that represents you well or to respond at all. So a lot of people just shut down and they don’t say anything. And then later we’ll be quite angry at themselves. I didn’t say anything to this person when clearly it deserved a response. So that’s the shutting down fear response. And we can shut down around generalized anxiety to just kind of clam.
  • Fight Response: Another acute response would be saying something really inappropriate, or getting into a kind of a fight mode with somebody where we might use language that we wouldn’t normally feel proud of ourselves for using, or become combative with somebody or start to overtly compete with them in a way that doesn’t really represent our long-term interests.
  • Avoidance: We can also do things like avoid people just avoid answering their calls, avoid responding to them altogether which is, in essence, a little bit of a flight response, or we can just leave a meeting or cut something short because we feel overwhelmed.

On the Amygdala Hijack:

The amygdala are two almond-shaped structures in the brain. And what they do really is they measure the level of stimulation in the environment. According to Janet, “If the amygdalae sense that there is enough threat in the environment it triggers what’s called an “amygdala hijack”. Which is that the brain pretty much cuts off resources to the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that does this nuanced thinking, can respond in a measured thoughtful sort of way, and reroute to your behavioral choices to the lower part of the brain which is more linked to these kinds of automatic and really brusque or abrupt kinds of responses to this fight-flight-freeze type behavior.”

When you get threatened you start to become less thoughtful, less resourceful. And if that threat is sudden or you just get too much built up the threat of stimulus in the environment the brain is going to just cut off your access to those higher thinking capabilities and send you into these lower responses. And when that happens in a kind of acute situation it’s called an amygdala hijack and you’re in that moment of hijack. You can’t do that much about it right in that moment because the part of the brain that you need in order to do something about it has had its resources cut off.

How to stay in control of our bodies and our minds:

Janet says, “Our brain evolutionarily is still operating primarily on a level of the African savannah instinctually not on the level of New York City. So there’s a lot that happens in our lives on a daily basis that our brains are not well equipped to handle.”

The basics are things like getting enough sleep (seven to nine hours a night), good nutrition, adequate hydration, time in sunlight, social time with friends and family, meditation, and exercise. All of those things that we just intuitively know make us feel better also are critically important to our brain functioning well.

Any time that we tell ourselves to turn off the distractions, turn off the screens, turn off the background noise, then go sit and be still and focus on one thing whether it’s our breath, or a mantra, or a prayer, that has a huge benefit to the brain in terms of creating a background sense of calmness. Think about where you can turn off the stimulus.

What we found most interesting:

A lot of people have this intuitive sense that it’s really good to connect with people who are in the opposing camp, but then they go into that conversation really unclear on what they hope to accomplish. In the back of their mind what they hope to accomplish is vindication or the other person to acknowledge that they’re right – those things are not likely to happen. What is likely to happen is that the other person is going to say something that you vehemently disagree with, and you’re going to go into an amygdala hijack.

Janet believes, “There is no shame in saying I’m not ready to have this conversation because I think it’s more important to have the conversation in a productive way than it is to just have the conversation. Having a conversation in a negative way can actually do more damage overall to the cause than not having it at all.”

What do you hope to accomplish with the conversation?  Prioritize things like:

  • I hope to accomplish a sense of connection with this other person.
  • I hope to find a place where we have commonality.
  • I hope that they walk away with a sense of me as a human being that they respect.

According to Janet we should, “Take a moment out before you have that conversation to ground and center yourself and think about the larger perspective on life and why this matters to you. While you can’t really pull yourself out of the amygdala hijack when you’re in the middle of one you can prevent one as you’re going into it.”

To learn more about Janet Crawford’s work, listen to the WiseTalk recording.

February 5, 2017 / Stress / Work-Life Integration / Wise Talk

WiseTalk Summary on the Upside of Stress

On January 26, 2017, Sue Bethanis hosted clinical psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Professor Ian Robertson. Dr. Robertson is an expert at applying the latest psychological and neuroscience research to contemporary political, health, social, economic and business affairs in a very accessible manner. Professor Robertson discussed his new book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper, a revelatory study of how and why we react to pressure in the way we do, with real practical benefits to how we live.

Favorite Quote:

“In order to control your anxiety you have to believe that you can.”

Robertson says in order to gain control of your emotional state, thinking patterns and behavior there is a fundamental prerequisite that must exist before you can exercise that control – you need to believe that it is possible.


Stress plays a huge part in leaders’ lives and can be both a hindrance and motivator. When your perception of a demanding situation exceeds your ability to cope with that demand – you feel anxious. Anxiety is the activation of the autonomic nervous system which prepares us for fight or flight. This is meant to prepare us to deal with short term danger or opportunity and also gives us the ability to focus.

Too much stress can be debilitating. A moderate amount is extremely good for the mind. Robertson explains that stress causes the brain to secrete a chemical called noradrenaline. “The brain doesn’t perform at its best with too little or too much of this chemical. There’s a sweet spot in the middle where if you have just the right amount, the goldilocks zone of noradrenaline, that acts like the best brain-tuner.”

Anxious responses are habits that we learn. To overcome a habit you need to engage in repetition in order to reshape and gradually replace your old habit with a new habit. Most of us are impatient and easily get demoralized or discouraged. Often, taking a medication reduces your belief in your own ability to control these habits and sabotage the hard work you need to do in order to change an emotional habit. People have a desire for a fast fix.

Robertson says that here is evidence that young adults that have little to no adversity in their lives end up becoming more emotionally vulnerable than those with moderate levels of adversity. “Paradoxically, there is a sweet spot of stress that people need to experience in their lives for them to achieve emotional resilience when they are adults. The overprotection of young people and having a slightly coddle existence means that they are going to be more emotionally vulnerable in the real world of work and all the stresses that go with it.” They experience symptoms of arousal because they have never really experience failure or threat.

Unlike animals that live in the moment, humans can torture themselves with past memories and anticipation of future ones. We can expand this indefinitely and make ourselves anxious long beyond the period of acute stress and make it become chronic.

According to Robertson, there are distinct techniques we can learn in order to reframe our approach to stress. “We can change the chemistry of the brain just as much as any antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug can, but we have to learn the habits to do that,” he says. Genes cannot be changed by environment or experience but the functioning of genes can. “We have the ability to shape our mental destiny.”

  • Breathe. Take five long, low breaths in and out. Temporarily apply a routine that you have practiced and anticipated in advance can change the chemistry of your brain and help you build confidence.
  • Set goals. Setting goals for ourselves also helps to change the chemistry of our brain. He says, “It could be as seemingly small as getting out of the house and walking 200 yards down the street — something that challenges you to a degree and gives you a feeling of accomplishment to have completed.” The good feeling you get when you achieve a goal increases the dopamine in our brain and part of the reward network. Increased dopamine is a natural antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug. This is where behavior is very important. If you are feeling anxious setting small goals for yourself can stretch you. Achieving these goals will allow your brain to create this natural anti-anxiety compound.
  • Squeeze your hand. According to Robertson, “One way to give the left frontal part of your brain a boost is to squeeze your right hand for 45 seconds, release it for 15.”
  • Visualize it.  Say the words “I feel excited.” Our mind only knows what emotion we are having by context. So, we can trick our mind to be excited instead of anger or upset. “Practice an imagined situation so when you actually come to that, you won’t have to try to remember how to handle it”, says Robertson. It will become a habit.
  • Posture. You can also change your posture out of the defensive, aggressive, or defeated posture into a calm and erect posture. Robertson believes that people who adopt a power pose actually feel more in charge or confident. Posture affects our psychological state and the functioning of our brain.

What we found most interesting:

“One of the greatest motivations that humans have is to feel in control,” says Robertson. Feeling out of control is hugely anxiety provoking and particularly so for some people more than others. If we can predict what is going to happen even if what is going to happen is no good you can engage in this amazing capacity of the human brain to plan and prepare. “Most people can adjust to most situations. The change is not comfortable, but you can get there.” The trouble with uncertainty is you can’t engage in mental preparation and planning. This creates a sense of being out of control. Being out of control is an extreme example of helplessness where you don’t believe there is anything you can do to change the outcome, and that leads to passivity. According to Dr. Robertson, “If I can predict something that is going to happen in my mind I can enact certain scenarios and anticipate certain outcomes (hopefully success). Once you stop taking positive actions it pushes your brain into a flight response. Once it is in that mode it is difficult for it to activate the reward and anticipation mode.”

To learn more about Dr. Robertson and his thoughts on shaping your brain’s response to pressure, listen to the WiseTalk recording.

August 29, 2011 / Articles We Like / Coaching Skills / HR / Talent Management / Mariposa Articles

The Brain – Friendly Organization: What Leadership Needs to Know for Intelligence to Flourish

brain2Advances in human neuroscience are giving us a window into why people behave as they do and how we can manage our environments and behaviors with others to maximize results. These new scientific findings challenge old assumptions of what it means to lead. While intelligence is our greatest strategic asset, our way of life has become profoundly out of sync with our neurology. We can fight biology or leverage it. As we understand more about human neuroscience, true leadership may become defined as the art of creating brain-friendly organizations.

Find out how advances in neuroscience and our understanding of the human brain are revolutionizing what it means to lead effectively by downloading the full article here.

About the Author:

Janet Crawford, M.A., has over 15 years of experience working with executives in Fortune 500 companies and high potential start-ups.  As Principal of Cascadance, Janet primes leaders and organizations for productivity, innovation and collaboration in the 21st Century. Her approach combines traditional leadership development and coaching with cutting-edge insights from neuroscience.