More choice, less wellbeing

The natural instinct when you see somebody is suffering with their mental health, stressed, anxious, depressed, in a state of reduced wellbeing is that we should be offering as much support and as many options as possible.

It seems to make sense. We want to help, and thinking that as not everything works for everyone, that we all respond well to different approaches, we should therefore give a wide range of choices. Right?

Wrong. Neuroscience and an understanding of how the brain works when under threat, tells a very different story. Our brains have not changed that much for thousands of years, however the world that we live in has changed dramatically and this affects the way in which we respond to threat.

Back in the day when we were under threat, this was perhaps because a Sabre-toothed Tiger or Woolly Mammoth was running at us in a menacing way. We had to focus on this real and present threat to survive and choose how to deal with it, fight, flight or freeze. This response was triggered by a part of our brain called the amygdala telling us, in no uncertain terms that there was danger, this was self-preservation.

Todays threats are often caused by the 24-7 pressured world that we live in, the ecology that we have built, deadlines, pressures, information overload, a world that our brains are not adapted to, these threats often manifest themselves in symptoms such as stress, anxiety, depression etc. The amygdala is once again screaming danger!

Information Overload

The problem is that when our brains are in this state of threat, we cannot make choices, or informed decisions. We are pretty much incapable of thinking divergently or creatively and our brains revert to these well-established neural pathways. These may not be the most beneficial to us, but they are the most familiar and “hard wired”. We are often stuck in this position of threat and again our instinct is to fight, take flight or more often freeze. At this stage you really don’t want and can’t cope with a whole load of choice and information.

American social psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about how our ability to make good decisions is degraded with each additional choice we are offered. The more choice we are given, the worse the quality of the decision made and the neuroscience supports his claim.

Research by American psychologist and professor of social theory, Barry Schwartz, also confirms this in his book The Paradox of Choice. “If we’re rational, [social scientists] tell us, added options can only make us better off as a society. This view is logically compelling, but empirically it isn’t true…we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from”. In neuroscience terms, we end up feeling regret, self-blame and depressed at the missed opportunity from our decisions. With so much to choose from, it’s easy to see how rejecting an alternative with equally attractive features can make you feel dissatisfied.

What to do?!

If we are to really support people in this position we need to guide them away from threat position into one of empowerment, where they are able to make choices. Surprisingly, this can be done simply, and even 2 minute exercises can change the brain and body chemistry and can move people out of threat. A few simple activities that any individual can do, can have a hugely positive effect.

There are ways of changing these established neural pathways to help us move out of threat to a position where we are capable of autonomy and free will, free from the shackles of our negative responses. I know because I use these, when faced with multiple deadlines and a growing inbox and juggling a whole load of priorities, I have sometimes felt overwhelmed and stressed, so what do I do?

  • Get up and go for a short walk, 5-10 minutes in the fresh air, this instantly changes my brain and body chemistry.
  • Try a wonder woman pose! 2 minutes with a smiling face, reduces cortisol, a stress hormone and increases testosterone. It works for me, more focus, more creativity, less threat!
  • Do something different, shake it up, get your brain thinking differently, creatively, divergently away from those old patterns.

Three ideas, as they say, enough is a feast.

Once you have moved out of threat, this is the time to look at choices and options. Preferred ways of working will seem easier and more natural. However, offering a large amount of choice at the outset will only intensify the problem and be counterproductive.

So in the first instance when we are stressed, anxious and depressed, fewer, simpler more focused methods and less choices will get us into the driving seat of our brains.

Less is more, ask me how!

If you believe your organisation is struggling with emotional engagement, we have developed CARI: the worlds first engagement survey measuring both cognitive and emotional responses, giving you an insight into whats really going on with your employees. 

You can learn more about techniques to reduce stress, anxiety and depression for you and your organisation on our 1 day Introduction to NeuChem: Neuroscience and Coaching course.

Stuart Paviour: Business Psychologist and NeuChem® Coach at the Maria Paviour Company

spp@mariapaviour.com                                01273 934136                                    www.mariapaviour.com

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