Your Survival Instinct May Be Killing You

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Survival Instinct is Killing YouAfter a particularly down day, my husband turned to me and said, “You know what? You are your own worst enemy.”

How many times have you heard or thought that yourself?  Usually, this phrase comes up when you’re being a little too critical or hard on yourself.  But did you ever consider that this is actually true?  I don’t mean figuratively, I mean literally true.

We all know that our brains and our evolutionary wiring hasn’t quite kept pace with our culture or environment. Our brains still act as if we’re in the stone age; hunting and gathering and running from saber-tooth tigers, while the biggest threat we face in the Western world is a long line at the Starbuck’s that might make us late for our next meeting.

You’re Stressed Because Life is Just Too Easy and Pleasant

It didn’t take long for this book, “Your Survival Instinct May Be Killing You, to grab my interest.  As soon as I opened the envelope from the publisher, the title grabbed me. But it was the idea that our stress is really triggered by the fact that we’ve lost touch with discomfort that pulled me into reading this book.

This seemed counter-intuitive to me, so I had to read more.  I mean, how can all the advancements in our culture that were designed to keep us “safe” actually contribute to more stress and anxiety? For the answer, you have to understand how our brains are wired and what triggers this survival instinct.  And for that, it helps to learn a little about the author.

Marc Schoen (@marcschoen) is an assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine, where he teaches and conducts research on decision making under pressure, mind-body medicine and hypnosis.

Toward the beginning of the book, he tells the story of what prompted his curiosity about how our inability to process discomfort impacts our reactions to stress.

He relates how Mikeal, a Finnish man, had been hiccuping for more than two years, every fifteen to twenty seconds.  As it turned out, the hiccups were a result of Mikael’s poor management of his discomfort. Mikeal had experienced several significant losses in his life.  For some people, hiccups are a reaction to being upset or fearful.  And in most cases, they resolve themselves fairly quickly, but for some, as in Mikael’s case, they didn’t.  Instead, they created a new pattern and eventually turned into a vicious, unresolved cycle.

The book is filled with many different stories and examples where our inability to deal with discomfort literally transforms into a physical malady.  As you read through each one, I’m sure that you’ll see a little bit of yourself in several of them.

How to Override Your Brain’s “New” Wiring

Your Survival Instinct is Killing You is almost a handbook for identifying those areas where you are managing your discomfort poorly and then helping you put new patterns in place so that you can recondition your brain to deal with your life more effectively.

Schoen discusses the five main steps to boosting your performance under pressure:

  1. Lower your “agitance” levels: Agitance is a measure of your inner speed or activation levels.  When your agitance level is high, then you are likely to freak out more when you experience discomfort, and this triggers your fight or flight mechanism.
  2. Manage your discomfort: The next step is to realize that it’s your feelings about discomfort that play as the trigger for the stress reaction.  Recognize that you can’t eliminate discomfort, you can only manage your reaction to it.
  3. Build your discomfort muscle: Once you are aware of all the areas where you may feel discomfort, you can train your brain to deal with it.  In other words, instead of letting your brain run amok by simply reacting, you can manage how you will react to stress.
  4. Discomfort becomes a source of power: Now you are ready to transform the discomfort from being a source of stress to being a source of power and control.  This puts you, not your brain, in control of the outcome.
  5. Strengthen your discomfort threshold: Use the discomfort-dealing tools that are offered in the book to increase your tolerance to discomfort and ultimately, become more successful.

Your Survival Instinct is Killing You actually contains practical exercises you can do to begin rewiring and training your brain to deal with discomfort.

Can “Your Survival Instinct is Killing You” Cut Healthcare Costs?

I’m being a little facetious with the headline, but maybe not as much as you might think. I’ve personally experienced where a company’s healthcare costs literally doubled when they were sold to an equity company that radically changed the culture of the company.

When employees who were used to working 40-hour weeks were suddenly thrust into 80+ hour work weeks, more of them started having stress-related health issues. Prescription costs increased as more managers started taking anti-depressants and sought treatment for cardiovascular issues.

If you find yourself and your employees under performing when under pressure or overreacting to seemingly harmless situations, you may just be suffering from an overreacting survival instinct. Your Survival Instinct is Killing You is a must read for today’s multitasking, crazy-busy business owner.

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Ivana Taylor Ivana Taylor is the Book Editor for Small Business Trends. She is responsible for directing the site’s book review program and manages the team of professional book reviewers. She also spearheads the annual Small Business Book Awards. Ivana publishes DIYMarketers, where she shares daily do-it-yourself marketing tips, and is co-author of "Excel for Marketing Managers."