Leaders Train their Brains

In this third article, as well as in the previous two, I have taken excerpts and extracts from a recently published book called “The Leading Brain” by Friederike Fabritius and Hans Hagemann, 2017.

Your brain may be smart and powerful; but it’s also surprisingly naive and impressionable. You can often defuse a variety of stressful situations by using your body to fool your brain.

Lead With Your Body

Time and time again, psychologists have proved not only that emotions influence the body but that the body can influence emotions. The truth is that it’s a two-way street. By “acting as if” i.e. by assuming the expression and posture of a happy and successful person, you can often trick your brain into believing. Our physical expressions send signals to our brains to produce the appropriate emotional response. Although we smile when we are happy, sometimes smiling can actually make us happy.

Researchers asked one group of subjects to hold a pencil lengthwise between their teeth while rating the humour of a series of cartoons. A second group viewed the identical cartoons while holding the pencil between their lips but without touching it to their teeth. The first grip forced each subject’s face into a smile. The second grip generated a frown. Even though the subjects weren’t consciously aware of the facial expressions they were assuming; those expressions had a measurable effect on their reactions to the cartoons. The smilers enjoyed the cartoons more than the frowners.

The Power of Posture

Facial expressions aren’t the only things that influence your attitude. Subjects who assumed a so-called expansive posture – spreading out by crossing their legs instead of keeping them together and by draping an arm over the back of a chair instead of placing their hands under their legs – were found to exhibit a greater sense of confidence and power than subjects who sat more submissively. In a subsequent study that simulated a job interview scenario, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy found, that candidates who struck a “high-power pose” were judged as performing better and were more likely to be hired.

How ‘Bout A Hug?

Whereas smiles can cheer you up and a powerful pose can increase your feelings of confidence, a simple gesture can have an almost miraculous effect on calming you down. Giving or receiving a hug can trigger a huge release of Oxytocin, popularly known as “the cuddle hormone.” Physical contact in general releases Oxytocin, which has been found in studies to be more effective than even soothing words to reduce levels of stress. Granted, in some circles, hugging your business colleagues may be frowned upon; there are other more socially acceptable ways to get your Oxytocin fix. Cuddling with a pet or partner can release Oxytocin, and so can simply shaking hands with a client or colleague. Shaking hands has a neurological effect: reduces the threat response and generates a sense of connection by releasing a modest squirt of Oxytocin.

Switching Off Stress

Your autonomic nervous system has two main channels: the sympathetic channel and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic channel activates the fight-or-flight response, while the parasympathetic is responsible for what are sometimes called “rest and digest” activities.

In general, when one channel dominates, the other is dormant. Learning to relax involves developing the ability to shift from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic one i.e. switch off stress and switch on relaxation. Some of the techniques you may consider, to give effect to this switch are:

  • DEEP BREATHING: Most of us have experienced the fast, shallow breathing that comes with anxiety or stress, or the deep, leisurely breaths we take when we’re feeling pleasantly sleepy or relaxed. Deep breathing turns this process on its head, using your breaths to define your mood instead of the other way round.

  • PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION: It involves methodically moving through your body’s muscle groups, tensing and relaxing each before moving on to the next group. This technique provides systematic relaxation throughout your body and will often strengthen your ability to recognise and remedy any feelings of stress you may experience throughout your body.

  • AUTOGENIC TRAINING: This involves, sitting comfortably and quietly for fifteen minutes, and focus on a sound, word, or phrase, or gaze at a specific object. Over time, this practice increases your awareness and control of your autonomic nervous system, enabling you to switch from your stress-laden sympathetic nervous system to the more soothing parasympathetic system.

Although the instructions for each technique may vary, they share a fundamental idea. Changing your body can change your brain. Let you body lead the way, and your brain will usually follow.

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