S-T-R-E-T-C-H: The Neuroscience of Excellence!


“A man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes. We all know upside of stretching or pushing one’s limits. The problem happens when we overdo it – when we stretch something to its breaking point!

 

The pressure cooker builds up steam for faster cooking, but it also has a safety valve that helps it to release steam when it is overheated. Sometimes when that valve malfunctions, the pressure build-up causes it to burst. So it is with the human mind. If we don’t release the excessive pressure or deal with our stress, it destroys us.

 

Stress today has become the number one killer. Yet paradoxically it is also the reality of our living. We want to improve so we stretch to perform better. Very soon, it has become Stress and started affecting the quality of our lives, our work, our relationships. From Stretch to Stress is sometimes a fatal journey. The tragedy is that we often fail to detect when it happened and why?

 

                                            Stretch  ->  Stress 

                                        Ease -> Disease -> Cease

 

We all intuitively know that stretch is good; it may be termed EUSTRESS. Some recent studies have demonstrated that physical stretching even helps the brain to function better. Suzanne Martin, a physiotherapist, says that stretching improves neurological functions and can elevate our mood. According to Heather Snyder of the Alzheimer’s Association, stretching could help the brain’s hippocampi to grow in size, protecting long term memory and hence reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Release of endorphins during stretching even makes you happier.

 

Richard Restak, author of “Think Smart …..,” says that the brain benefits from “stretching and challenging exercises,” at every stage of life. Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of stretching mental capacity in performance at the workplace. Graeme Deans recommends Stretch as a powerful tool for growing and transforming your business in good and bad times.

 

It is only when we over-stretch beyond our capacity that we experience Distress. This affects us negatively at all levels, particularly health. Stretch creates a positive arousal within the amygdala of our brain’s limbic system, that improves performance. It’s when the limbic system gets overloaded that we feel stressed and stop thinking. Our performance deteriorates instead of improving.

 

This relationship between Stretch and Stress can be illustrated by the inverted U curve. Performance improves with challenges, but beyond a point it deteriorates. The benefits of Stretch give way to Stress. Limbic arousal, beyond a point leads to limbic overload and paralysis.

Stretch vs Stress

Let’s look at a typical situation at work. An employee is close to achieving his target. His boss can do one of two things:

 

  • Increase his target by x thinking that the earlier target was not challenging enough as well as threaten punitive consequences if the new target is not met; or
  • Challenge the employee to raise his target, in an attitude of let’s try and see what happens; it should be fun.

 

Which attitude, do you think, will get better results?

 

Let’s also look at the possible reactions of the employee at being challenged to raise his target. He could:

 

  • Feel it was a mistake to reach his target so soon, he should have taken it easy, so he refuses to raise his target; or
  • Raises his target a little at a time trying to push it without taking any stress.

 

Which response do you think will improve performance?

 

There is another interesting link between Stretch, Happiness and Success. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has spent many years researching Optimal Experience or Flow. Studies show that experiencing 10,000 hours of Flow experiences makes you a master in that field which leads to happiness and success. Interestingly, Flow occurs when your ability is a little less than the required ability thus when you are required to Stretch not Stress.

 

Today there is no dearth of evidence to demonstrate that Stretch either physically or mentally creates growth and happiness. On the other hand, pushing yourself too far creates disastrous effects at multiple levels, as the dreams of success you are chasing can come crashing down. We all understand this. We are just unable to step out of our comfort zone and cruise down the path of least resistance. “A comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there.” Another option is to drain ourselves out on the treadmill of Stress, running to catch up but getting further behind. According to Richard Carlson, “stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.” An illness that is not only encouraged but glorified.

 

Sometimes we need a little push in the right direction. There are Yoga Instructors and Gym Coaches to help us shape up physically. Similarly, to help us get on to the fast track of happiness, we have Life Coaches and Executive Coaches, who are trained to encourage us to search for worthwhile goals that stretch our capability and help us grow. Through their skills of listening and questioning they stimulate us to think through our dysfunctional behaviours and encourage us to seek challenges that Stretch us but do not add Stress. As they say, “Don’t limit your Challenges, challenge your Limits,” but don’t kill yourself doing it.

 

Gitanjali specializes in creating harmony and equilibrium. She is a life-coach par excellence and has extensive experience in coaching and corporate training. An alumnus of St Xaviers, College and IIM Calcutta, she continues to be a student of life!

 

Book a free coaching session to benefit from the power of stretching…





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