We’ve all seen the satirizing of those surgery-room procedures where a comedian, dressed up like a surgeon, accidentally snips a vein (or whatever) and a whole fountain of blood comes rushing out of the unconscious patient. The comedian then usually tries to plug it up the wound with something like, I don’t know, the cork from a wine bottle. It’s funny and we laugh, and we give it five stars on our IMDB accounts. But some people actually have to contend with those fears in real life — people such as neurosurgeons. Every day, they make choices where the difference between the snip of a knife can be the saving of a life or the relegation of that life to a forever vegetative state. So, how do neurosurgeons deal with their exorbitantly stressful careers, of which the successes can be so life-affirming, but the mistakes so dire and depressing?
Stress is a major bummer (duh!)
We’ve all had to deal with stress. Not a single person alive has successfully and entirely immunized themselves from the havoc that it can wreak on them. Even Elon Musk recently admitted, in a tweet reported on by CNBC, that he faces “unrelenting stress.“ So there ya go. The inimitable Elon Musk cries in his shower while shaking back and forth in the fetal position sometimes (or, you know, whatever his stress-out session looks like). But Mark McLaughlin, a neurosurgeon at Princeton Brain and Spine Care, believes that stress isn’t truly the enemy. Even though it has spread like the bubonic plague throughout humanity ever since the dawn of time, it is a plague that we need not try to quarantine ourselves from, or so McLaughlin says.
Yep. It is true. No need to hide! McLaughlin notes that stress is only bad if you try to run from it. Kind of like a tiger or a bear. If you run away from the bear, you get mauled to death. But if you run at the bear, and puff up your chest, and act tough … you also get mauled to death. Just kidding. Studies show that this is, in fact, the appropriate way to deal with a life-or-death encounter with a bear when you are not armed and have no means to protect yourself. Similarly, McLaughlin says if you engage with your anxiety and stressors and say “I’m not afraid of you,” the stress just might abate or go away completely — like Alice in Wonderland did with the Queen of Hearts! Anybody? Anybody?.
Another approach you should take while engaging with your anxiety, and your stress is to not associate yourself with, or identify with the thoughts that you have. I know. Easier said than done. But you should try to remember that these thoughts are not facts (I know. It sounds like something a therapist would say because it probably is). Thoughts aren’t facts. It is true. They are just thoughts. You can close your eyes and picture yourself as an amphibious creature with waves washing over above — these waves are your thoughts. They pass, you can see them, hear what they are trying to convey, but, ultimately, you should understand that they are not a part of you — merely an extension of your psyche.
Stress can be beneficial
McLaughlin says that without stress, our very bones would soften from gravity. Without the stress of exercise, our muscles would atrophy, and without the stress of intellectual exercise, our minds would become weak, and we would be more susceptible to dementia. It is an interesting take on stress — if not stretching of the stress concept a bit — but the point he makes is well-taken. Stress can be beneficial to you just as it can be destructive. But how do we err on the beneficial side and avoid the destructive side?
How to stay on stress’ good side
When we are not exposed to stress, we are neither learning nor growing. By facing our fears, and allowing our stresses to develop without fighting them, that is when we truly make strides in our personal and professional lives. In other words — what you resist persists (I should patent that phrase). It is sort of like walking on hot coals (DISCLAIMER: Don’t walk on hot coals!): If you agonize and fear them, they will sting like no other. But if you don’t fear them, and make a fast passage over them, they will not sting you. It is a mind game. And you need to be the master of this game when it comes to your stress.
McLaughlin uses something he calls cognitive dominance, which has enhanced his situational awareness for making rapid and accurate decisions under stressful conditions while the clock is ticking. Now, the tools to accomplish said cognitive dominance are learned not inherited. And that’s good news. McLaughlin recommends a few strategies for combating our stressors and suggests we try them in both our personal and professional lives.
“Always place a drain”
What is that? It’s a rule that brain surgeons adhere to. Particularly when they are conducting surgery upon a patient with a brain tumor. Always place a drain means be pre-emptive. In this case, brain surgeons have a device in advance that relieves intracranial pressure should it build up. It is a plan-ahead action. And MacLaughlin urges us to ask ourselves the question: “What are our safety valves?” What sort of counter-measures can we put in place, ahead of time, to prepare for a storm that has yet to come? Think of it as the crazy dad who builds a bomb shelter with 300-pound bags of peanuts because he is convinced Armageddon is “a’comin’. ” Only, in this case, you wouldn’t be crazy to build your proverbial bomb shelter for when stress arrives.
One thing you can do is stay organized. For instance, don’t let your email box get cluttered so that it is always easy to find what you are looking for. In fact, you should stay organized online, electronically and in your real life. Those little moments of annoyance can turn into big nervous breakdowns over weeks, months or even years. You could try to do something pleasant first thing in the morning, too. Or pick up meditation. It’s the little things in life that allow you to remove burdens from your shoulders and make better, more level-headed decisions in all aspects of life.
“Never cut what you can’t see”
Another McLaughlinism — never cut what you can’t see — pertains to rashness of action. As in, don’t do anything before you understand both what you are doing and any repercussions that may be negative. This can help with stressful situations by making sure that they never occur in the first place. We should, McLaughlin says, shine a light on an issue first thing, studying the situation closely, and then determine its true nature and ultimate solution. Only then should action come.
Always look at an issue from multiple perspectives. Ask yourself, “Why am I so anxious about this upcoming business meeting?” or “What’s really making me clash with this particular team member?” Always try to shine a light on, magnify and dissect each problem thoroughly: The most important solution for the issue might be right in front of your face, and you just weren’t paying attention, McLaughlin said.
Ask a friend
Always get a second opinion when it comes to stressful situations, McLaughlin advised. Especially because these stressful situations can cause you not to think well. And so, even after using the methods described above, it is better to be safe than to be sorry. So “double-check your work” by running it by a friend, family member, or maybe a mentor. This will allow you to depersonalize the situation, removing emotion from the decision-making process. It will help you to make more intelligent decisions that are grounded in measured facts and an impartial perspective, and not your off-the-cuff emotions.
Stress is a performance-killer. Whether it is a date, a party, a job interview, or an everyday workplace situation. It is not only beneficial but absolutely vital, that we learn to deal with our stress if we want to excel — not only in our personal lives but in our professional lives as well.
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