Achimedes said ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.’
I’m the co-founder of a data analytics start-up, where we build machine learning tools and use massive supercomputing clusters to process terabytes of data to inform better outcomes in architecture and city design.
So, in my world, good data is the fulcrum point for better decisions.
I’ve spent most of my career working to help individuals, organisations and cities to more effectively prepare, respond and adapt to the rapid disruptions of advanced technology, so I’m pretty well equipped to cope with change.
Or so I thought.
A few years ago, I was working a big, high impact job, mum to a young child, settling back into Australia after living abroad for almost a decade, renovating a house, trying (unsuccessfully) to have another baby, and managing a couple of side hustles. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, and could have got to the gym more, but you know – I was keeping my head above water, pushing through, soldiering on.
Until one night, I felt a sharp pain in my chest, tingling up and down my right arm, and for a moment, I couldn’t breathe or move. Shortly after, I was admitted to the emergency room with a suspected heart attack.
I was hooked up to a cardiogram for eight hours, and had multiple chest x-rays and blood tests. I lay there in the dark, terrified, thinking about my son, my husband, all the things I wanted to do with my life. Finally, the doctor came back and kindly told me it wasn’t a heart attack.
It was stress.
Hans Selye, a Hungarian endocrinologist who studied the impact of stress on human biology, defined resilience as “the ability to recover quickly from acute shocks and withstand long term strain from various stressors”. At the core of his work is the finding that stress can lead to significant health problems, but how we individually respond to that stress makes all the difference.
It’s not the stress itself that does the damage, it’s how we respond to it.
To be resilient is to have the ability to take the external stress that we are facing, and acknowledge it without embodying it, or even transmute it into energy that can power us forward. In order to power my recovery, and learn how to stop embodying the stressors in my life, I decided to start with the tools I knew best — accessing good data.
My research led me deep into the fields of endocrinology, neuroscience and behavioural psychology in an attempt to build up a solid, data-driven fact base to build my recovery on. That process helped me to develop a decent working understanding of how our physiological responses to stress impact how we think, feel and act.
Because it turns out, prolonged stress fundamentally changes how our bodies and brains function.
Underneath the “fight or flight” stress response that we’re all familiar with is a cascade of hormonal responses that trigger our hearts to beat faster – pulling blood from our core internal organs and brain, and pushing it out to our arms and legs to allow us to fight or run. Adrenaline and cortisol production ramps up, acting as a pain blocker, making you less aware of your body and quickening reaction time, enabling snap decision making.
All of which sounds pretty valuable to a human when they’re trying to outrun a lion, but while it might be called the survival instinct, it doesn’t have a long term plan – it burns fast to escape the immediate threat, at the direct cost of longer term health.
More than 30 minutes in an acute stress response can cause long term damage. It’s estimated that many of us are sitting in a low to medium stress response all of the time. Not only is that bad for long-term health, it also has a significant impact on cognitive ability and decision making processes.
When your body is flooded with cortisol, and your heart is pushing blood to your extremities, your brain is starved of oxygen-rich blood, and you’re much more likely to make snap decisions, prone to aggressive, selfish behaviour and black and white thinking.
You become less flexible, more compulsive.
Chronic stress changes our brains, it shifts how we learn, forming a preference for “habit-based learning”, which means we’re much less likely to take on or adopt new things. It can result in decreased task flexibility and lower spatial working memory, which means that stress makes us more reactive, aggressive, rigid, uncompromising.
In these times that call for greater collaboration, responsiveness and innovation, does that sound like a great place to be making important, complex decisions from?
That said, it’s not the stress that does the damage, it’s how we respond to it. It is possible to cultivate the skills to actively prevent ourselves from internalising the stress, to overcome our biology and build new pathways to better data-driven decision making.
To do that effectively, I learned a process that can be best characterised in the following steps:
Cultivate an awareness of what’s actually going on by asking the right questions. There are no fancy tricks here: just take a moment to pause , take a breath or anything that breaks through your automatic reactions. Try to distance yourself briefly from the situation and assess things with fresh eyes.
Capture and use real quantifiable data to understand why it’s happening and why you are responding the way you are. Check in with your body, use it as a tool for data collection. How fast is your heart beating? What is your body temperature like? How shallow are your breaths? How animated are your gestures? This is all valuable data to help you assess and take stock of what’s really going on.
Now pause. Take a moment (again, it can be just another breath) for critical thinking and assessment. Analyse your data. What is happening that is causing you to react in this way? Why is this situation producing these results? Come to a conclusion, based on your data, before making a decision
Then take intentional action. Choose how you respond. Don’t be controlled by chemically-triggered reactions. Reclaim agency from your biology. Act with intention, or, often more powerfully, don’t act.
Try to monitor and learn from the results. This process sounds super simple, but it’s really hard to do. You need to practice it daily to disrupt the neural pathways that are pre-conditioned to tip you into reactive decision making. Celebrate when you manage to achieve it, and be gentle with yourself when you fail (because you will fail – and often), but try to remember that you’re fighting millions of years of biological evolution! And always try again.
On reflection, that night I landed in the ER, I had been experiencing extreme levels of stress for a long time, and I just hadn’t been aware (or – if i’m really honest – had actively ignored) how much that was wearing down my resilience.
In these strange days we find ourselves in, “moving the world” or making meaningful change in it can feel increasingly difficult. But to ignore the stress is to undermine our ability to find leverage to address the challenges we’re facing.
Because it’s not the stress that does the damage, it’s how we respond to it.
As the world around us feels unnervingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, it can be hard to plan what to do for dinner, let alone make decisions of real importance and impact. But given the state of things, we have to take action, and if we’re going to make meaningful impact, we must make better, more accurate decisions faster, with greater assurance that they are the right ones.
We can’t afford to innovate around the edges of the same old problems. We need to address the core challenges we’re facing as a civilisation, which must start with a clear-eyed understanding of how we, personally, are responding.
Since that night in the ER, I have dedicated myself to recovering, and then optimising my health to enable me to be present for my community, my family and friends, my new baby (it finally happened!), my new company.
Along the way I retrained as a human potential coach, specialising in bio-hacking, to help teach others how to use their own data to improve their stress management. Because we all need to be better at managing ourselves, to be in the right biological frame of mind to make the best decisions we can.
And from there, we might each pick up a lever, and with good data as our fulcrum, reshape the world in ways that will deliver the most benefit to people and the planet, and secure a more resilient future for us all.