How social impact leaders can find relief from the pressures of the current political climate

In times like these, political leaders who are dedicated to stalling social progress gain the upper hand, we can find ourselves on the defense — feeling  hopeless, trapped, and with our backs against the wall. The truth is that in a political climate that seems to threaten our work, many of us end up caught up in a sustained survival mode.  And being in constant survival mode doesn’t allow us to show up as powerful and effective leaders.

In fight or flight stress behavior, all of the brain and body’s resources get directed to our defense and survival mechanism.  Adrenaline and cortisol get released into our bloodstream.  Blood gets sent from our organs to our muscles so that we can fight and defend ourselves better.  Our lung capacity increases, so we can run faster (away from our attacker). And our brain keeps scanning our environment for any other threats it may be able to detect. Under normal conditions, once we’ve escaped the attack or threat from our environment, our body returns back to homeostasis, a state of physical, mental and emotional equilibrium.  However, staying in survival mode for a sustained period– as many of us have done for the past two years — can cause serious damage on many levels. In other words, this defensive posture is not serving us, or the issues we care so deeply about.

Allowing ourselves to be forced into a defensive position cuts us off from our ability to access our creative faculties.  Those are the faculties we need to create a better world, and they are limited in two ways when we live in a defensive posture: 1. We get cut off from our ability to live into our bigger vision and sense of purpose.  Instead, we keep reacting to threats coming from our external environment. And because we’re so focused on our own safety in those moments, we tend to act more selfishly.

2. Our physical, emotional and mental health gets compromised.  And because our immune system weakens when we’re in sustained stress mode, our body starts to break down.  This prevents us from being able to show up powerfully and from creating the impact we want to have, especially during times when our leadership is needed the most.

A good way of understanding what happens when we stay in a sustained survival mode in times such as these is to compare it to our country’s budget allocation.  Imagine if 95% of our country’s tax dollars kept going into the defense budget for a sustained period of time. What would happen to our education system, health care system, social programs, or infrastructure development?  Now imagine what it does to our body, and our mental and emotional health if we don’t have time or resources for restoration and proactive visioning because our efforts are all going toward fending off attacks? Without opportunities to restore and repair itself, our system keeps breaking down more and more.

That’s why it’s so important to create opportunities to allow ourselves to rest, rejuvenate and to have experiences that make us feel good.  Doing things that allow us to experience elevated emotions in and of itself can have a deeply healing effect on our body and help us to improve brain functions.

Creating space and opportunities for healing and restoration is the real survival strategy, and is what will help you be the most impactful leader in this critical moment.  Here are some tips for how you can do this as a social impact leader:

1) How to take weekly breaks from news and social media and why it’s a must

One of the main stress triggers for social impact leaders is the news, including social media news.  I know you may not believe that it’s even remotely possible to take a weekly daylong break from the news and social media.  You may be thinking “What if something important happens while I’m offline?” or “Won’t I lose my competitive edge as a leader if others find out about something important that I wouldn’t know about because I’m offline?” First of all, most people won’t even know that you’re offline.  And by the time you get back to your work routine, you’ll have caught up with everything so that others can see that you’re plugged into what’s going on in the world. Second, you can create a controlled environment for yourself based on your needs.  This could include instructing a selected few to notify you via text message that can be sent to a private account in case of an emergency. Believing that you can’t afford to be offline or off the news for a day or more is a trap.  And it’s in part because we get addicted to the biochemical reaction in our body when we feel the drama surrounding anything that might be going on out in the world.  We literally become addicted to the adrenaline rush and other hormones that our body produces when we experience a repeated stress trigger. Our body sends signals to our brain in those instances that translate into statements like “You must stay online or something really bad is going to happen!”

However, the truth is that we can’t be our most powerful, impactful and effective self as leaders if we stay in survival mode.  Being in this state of mind doesn’t allow us to be creative, proactive or good at solving problems. And this is because the thinking part of our brain gets shut off and our autonomous nervous system takes over, which means we go into autopilot defense mode. Unlike animals, we humans can turn on stress responses by our thoughts alone.  So, for us to feel under serious attack, nothing really bad needs to actually happen.  A stressful thought or reliving a stressful experience is enough to set off our defense mechanism.  That’s why it’s crucial to take breaks from whatever triggers stress behavior, in this case social media and the news. I invite you to try this out and see what happens.  Make sure you fill your time and space with activities that are relaxing, rejuvenating and joyful during days you’re offline and away from the news.

2) How to rethink your limiting beliefs around self-care

As social impact leaders, we’re often conditioned to believe that taking breaks or having joyful experiences makes us complicit in whatever force of oppression we’re trying to resist or dismantle.  For some, this may be connected to survivor guilt due to certain privileges we may have compared to those we’re serving through our work. Or it could be connected to a belief that if we’re not working ourselves into the ground, we’re not really committed to the cause.  We might also believe that if we’re taking breaks to care for ourselves, more and more work will keep piling up that we need to tackle sooner or later. In other words, we associate taking breaks or relaxation with creating and experiencing severe overwhelm. We also often believe that as long as others are suffering, we can’t or don’t deserve to take a break, or to take care of our personal needs.  I know this is a tough one; after all, it is our commitment to respond to injustice or to creating a better world that has led us to our current path.  And it’s not always easy to unpack behavioral patterns and beliefs like this, because we may think that changing such a belief goes against our most important values.  However, if we as leaders want to stay in for the long haul, and stay strong and impactful, we must manage our energy levels. You can’t expect a car to run 200,000 miles if it never gets an oil change or a tune-up.

It’s important to realize that we live into our beliefs every day.  And often we’re not even aware of this because those beliefs and related behavioral patterns have become part of our subconscious programming, which cognitive neuroscientists suggest runs 95% of our daily decisions and behaviors.  Nonetheless, no matter how deeply our beliefs are buried in our subconscious, they drive most of our actions and decisions, which in turn determine our results and experiences. So, if you believe that you can’t experience a healthy work-life balance or maintain a balance between living into your purpose through your work and living a joyful life at the same time, you won’t.  And as a result you’re likely to burn yourself out sooner or later. You may be seeing the impacts already, on your health, your relationships, your energy levels, and your work satisfaction.

So, I want to invite you to take some time to reflect on the following questions:

  • What beliefs drive your current behaviors in your work?
  • What type of work experience would allow you to balance living into your purpose while also experiencing a life full of joy and frequent moments of rejuvenation?
  • What new beliefs would you need to adopt to support your ideal work-life balance?
  • What new behaviors would you need to develop to match your new beliefs?

And then start living into your new beliefs by implementing small but consistent changes.

3)  How to shift from a reactive to a creative mode

If we keep directing all of our energy toward identifying potential threats in our environment and then defending ourselves from those threats, we give up a lot of our own power — our power to create the experiences we truly want to have.  If we can’t pursue our vision and goals from a deep sense of purpose and inspiration, we can’t really live into our full potential and create the greatest possible impact.

In other words, creating from a place of vision, possibility and opportunity cannot happen when we’re in survival mode or when we experience everything around us as one emergency after another.  So, in order to shift to a creative mode, we have to activate our parasympathetic nervous system to signal our bodies that everything is ok and that there is no imminent threat or danger to respond to.  This then allows us to shift from a stress behavior to a state of calm. And that’s the state from which we can be most powerful, creative and impactful. This shift can only happen if we focus our attention inwardly.  So, focus your attention on your breathing and take several deep breaths whenever you notice any stress trigger symptoms arising.  You can also verbalize what’s going on in the moment, either out loud or quietly in your mind. If you can just describe what you’re experiencing in moments of stress, you’ll automatically create some distance between you and the stress trigger.  And then it instantly loses its power and control over you.

You can also use a trigger word or phrase, such as “change” or “I’m in charge”, or whatever would work for you.  This trigger word or phrase can help to activate a different automatic response that’s based on what you actually want to experience in those moments.

The next step is creating a routine to help you recondition your brain and body to be more relaxed and present with increased frequency.  Examples are any form of meditation, taking walks, mindfulness practice, Yoga, making art, playing an instrument — or whatever else allows you to access a deep state of relaxation and disconnect from your external environment.  This will then allow you greater and more consistent access to the creative, thinking and problem-solving part of your brain. The key is to make it a priority and to create space for yourself regularly, if not daily, to allow your body and energy systems to restore and rebalance. If you continue to recondition your brain and body, you will eventually create new neural networks.  And then, when threats and attacks come toward you from your outer environment, instead of allowing your automatic default defensive behavior to take over, you will step back and maintain your ability to make conscious and creative choices in those moments.

I want to also really encourage you to start becoming more aware of your stress triggers and how they’re impacting your ability to show up as a powerful leader.  Growing awareness is key, because it helps you to create a distance between you and your stress behavior. And in this space of distance, you can step into the power of choice and decide how you want to show up and respond.

4)  How to strengthen the connection to your bigger vision

While being caught up in constant stress behavior and survival mode prevents us from living from a place of vision and possibility, one of the main reasons we get caught up in a reactive mode in the first place is often a lack of vision.  We’re so focused on creating strategies to defend ourselves and to fend off attacks that we don’t have any space or energy left to focus on what we actually want to create. In other words, focusing mostly and what we don’t want prevents us from focusing on what we do want.

So, the first step is to make time and space available to reconnect with or create an empowering and inspiring vision for yourself and your work.  Reflect on questions, such as:

  • What’s the world I want to live in?
  • What kind of world do I want to help create?
  • What experiences do I want to have and create?
  • What is the impact I want to have?
  • How will I know that I’m having the impact I want to have?  What would be different?
  • What will change in the world as a result of my impact?
  • Why is this vision of mine important to me?  What’s the deeper purpose behind my vision?
  • How do I need to show up as a leader to make my vision become a reality?
  • What do I need to start doing differently so that I can show up even more powerfully?
  • What do I need to start doing to double my influence and impact as a leader?

If we don’t know what exactly it is that we want and the vision we want to work toward, how can we know what action steps to take and what strategies to employ?  Having a powerful vision will help you to solicit the support of your brain’s goal-achievement mechanism so that it can make you aware of opportunities and resources you wouldn’t be aware of otherwise.  Your brain lets you become aware only of the kind of information it thinks you want to be aware of. So, if you’re not clear about your vision, your brain is running on default programs, and you’re likely missing out on great opportunities to create impact.  However, once you have a clear vision and strategies that will help you to move toward that vision, your vision will start pulling you toward itself through its gravitational pull. This means you will be able to start building positive forward momentum, which will keep becoming increasingly stronger as long as you keep nurturing it.

To sum it up, being the most powerful and impactful leader you can be, directly correlates with your ability to care for yourself and to keep nurturing your creative abilities.  This takes conscious effort and mental discipline. However, building your capacity to act more from a place of vision and possibility rather than defensiveness is crucial for your ability to live into your true potential as a leader.  So, I want to invite you to embrace these ideas and concepts as an opportunity to grow and to take your leadership to the next level.

The world needs your leadership and your vision.  And it needs your leadership coming from an open heart and mind, because that’s the real power of lasting change and transformation.  Be the light of inspiration to others, so that they can know what’s truly possible when they see you wielding your power of transformation.