Mindfulness and Sabre-toothed Tigers

KarenClient Success, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Learning

I was being interviewed by a prospective client recently and, as always, I asked about her desired outcome for the coaching. Her response? “Help me find my 7.”

She explained. She was either operating at full speed, or hitting a wall and crashing. Nothing in between. She felt she had to be at top speed most of the time, but knew – could increasingly feel – that being at maximum capacity so much comes at a price. What she wanted was to be able to consciously calibrate her intensity such that she had fewer extremes – fewer “10’s” and “1’s” and more levels through the middle of the spectrum – more “7’s.”

While her way of describing her situation was unique, she certainly wasn’t the first person I’ve spoken to who described being in “emergency” mode much of the time at work. And let’s be clear – while what these people do is important, none of them are curing cancer. Or, as one lawyer client’s husband said as she worked feverishly on her handheld device while sitting by the pool on the family vacation, “Nobody’s bleeding out on the table here.”

The level of intense stress driving most people inside organizations these days is truly frightening to me. These are good people who’ve chosen to be part of something, who’ve agreed to trade their talents for a paycheque. Yet they are being challenged to “do more with less,” their attention is constantly diluted and distracted, their ability to trust their leaders is low, and they live in fear that less than 100% success will be accompanied by loss, failure, and humiliation. So they drive themselves to extremes every day, in hopes that doing more, being more available and staying a millimetre ahead will be enough to keep them safe. They rely on their adrenal system to give them energy when logic says they should be tapped out.

Our adrenal glands are designed to help us respond to a crisis – a real crisis, which a few million years ago (when our response systems were designed) meant something like a sabre-toothed tiger. Not too many of those around these days. The fact is, while our external lives have changed quite a lot since our cave-person days, our internal workings have not. So if we tell ourselves something is a crisis, our bodies go into full-on, ten out of ten, tiger-fighting crisis mode. The problem is that back then tigers didn’t come along every day, whereas for many the definition of crisis is now, well, everything. Everything at work, anyways. And if we’re in tiger-fighting mode all day every day at work, it becomes our default, making it very hard to switch off at home and exhausting our body’s natural response system that was designed to be used only in infrequent emergencies.

All of which is pretty extreme for people who’ve got enough to eat and for whom real danger more likely involves being distracted while driving than confronting a flesh-eating beast.

More conscious calibration is something that must be achieved if we’re going to live long, healthy lives without burning out our adrenal glands and giving ourselves myriad other stress-related conditions. But how?


Yes, the ages-old practice is more important than ever. Particularly for people who’ve gotten to the point where they can’t discern a real crisis from a fabricated one.

And don’t switch off here with a dismissive “I know, I know, I’ve got the apps on my phone.” If you’re not practising mindfulness regularly, keep reading.

I can’t begin to cite all of the research behind the “why” mindfulness practice works to solve what’s wrong here, but here are some links to important studies and articles. There is abundant proof of our ability to increase focus, manage energy and ensure long term brain health through mindfulness practice. Which makes us better able to discern real crisis and to manage attention and response accordingly. Mindfulness helps us operate less from our “lizard brain” and more from our pre-frontal cortex, so we’re operating less from emotion and more from conscious choice – all of which makes us better contributors, managers and colleagues.

Mindfulness practice can take many forms, and can accrue benefits based on a surprisingly short daily practice. Consistency is the key.

I practice. Or, more accurately, I know I need to practice every day, and I haven’t YET locked that in as much as I know I need to. That’s why they call it a practice.

But I KNOW it’s important, and I’m committed to continuing to work on it.

Don’t live as if there’s a tiger outside your front door.