How To Spring Forward From Chaos & Existential Burnout.

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Spring is in the air… Can you feel it?

 Yeah, me too, but you know what else I feel?

 Exhaustion, brain fog, anxiety, compassion fatigue, existential burnout!

We’ve been through A LOT over the last couple of years, and it’s normal to lose our sense of balance and not feel in our right mind.

 And although there is a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, the endless problems on our laps still feel overwhelming; a new COVID variant lurks in the background, of ongoing signs of dis-ease, violence, war, a shaky economy, polarity between us, social injustice, climate change…I could go on and on.

 Now, every one of us needs to show up as the best version of ourselves to contribute to solving these problems and create a better “new norm” and a more sustainable reality.

 The catch-22 is that we cannot solve any of our problems with our brains stuck in stress mode!

 But you may wonder: how can it relieve our overwhelmed brain from stress when life’s challenges and demands have increased our stress to toxic levels?

 Well, here’s the thing: I’m a toxicologist and a stress resilience speaker & coach on a mission to change minds, brains, and lives by taking the stress out of them.

 And in honor of stress awareness month, I’m here to tell you this:

 It IS possible to not burn out during these stressful times and even spring forward to a better “new norm” and reality ahead:

If we’re willing to challenge the conventional ways of thinking and take back control of the one thing that is 100% within our control and the one thing that can effectively lower our stress level:

 How we relate to stressors!

But before we explore what changing how we relate to stressors is all about, let me tell you a little story of how I discovered what *REALLY* gets in the way of our ability to solve our problems and spring forward…

“We can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein

 A few years ago, before a global pandemic turned the world upside down for all of us, I faced a personal crisis that changed my life as I knew it: I burnt out and severely injured my spine.

The irony of my story is that I was the last person one would expect to burn out.

 I spent a decade studying toxicology, learning all about the human body, the conditions required for its optimal performance & researching ways to overcome and prevent conditions that harm its optimal functioning.

I then used all this knowledge to synthesize cancer drugs in the lab and build a 20-year successful career in corporate healthcare.

 I did everything I was told I needed to do to feel good enough, and at that, I’ve done enough to finally relax & enjoy my life. But instead of fulfillment, at the peak of my outward success and youth, I burnt out!

 What happened to me is a well-documented consequence of chronic uncontrolled stress in the scientific literature (Allostasis, McEwen & Stellar 1994).

But from a different perspective, if I were to summarize all the lessons I learned in my healing journey from burnout, my formal scientific education, and my experience as a stress resilience coach, it would be this:

 The reason why I burnt out is that I was looking in the wrong direction!

 I disproportionately relied on things I could not control to reduce my stress. (My boss, the economy, external approval, my workload, what others were doing…).

 I believed that the only way to take control of my stress was to get all my ducks in a row in my environment.

 Now don’t take me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with healthy aspiration and material accomplishments.

The problem is, when we disproportionately rely on things we can’t control to feel & function well, we also give them the power to stress us out!

 Besides, when things we can’t control determine our stress level, we’re not able to address how our relationship with stress becomes toxic; But we’re cut off from the very resources we need to deal with the challenges we face.

When life gives you lemons, you can do more than make lemonade!

 Can you imagine what your life would be like if you lost everything in one fell swoop?

That’s what burnout did to me. I lost everything overnight: my physical strength, financial security, and a successful career I’d built over my entire life.

Since then, you could say that I have a personal vendetta against stress!

But at the depths of my despair, I remembered something that a fellow Greek (Epictetus) said,

 “It’s not what happens that matters but how you respond”!

 So how could I respond to a debilitating & painful health condition instead of curling up in a ball on pain killers and anti-depressants?

 I decided I would respond by launching my revolution & taking my power back from stress!

I was determined to get to the bottom of how could something like that happen to a top performer like me, how I could bounce back from it and how I could prevent it from ever happening again!

 And it all began by reframing this unfortunate life situation by asking myself a few simple questions (inspired by another Greek named Socrates).

 What’s a different way to look at this unfortunate turn of events?

What can I learn from this?

How do I want to respond?

 I delved back into science, got up to speed with the latest mind-body research, got certified in integrative wellness, and systematically organized everything I learned in a small unconventional stress management organization called myndzen.

 I wish I could tell you that I discovered that there’s a “magic pill” (like the cancer drugs I synthesized in the lab) that can instantly restore our relationship with stress to defeat burnout.

But there was no road map to burnout recovery or prevention.

I found an overwhelming amount of mind-blowing scientific research with no instructions or a framework for applying it in my life.

 So, I decided to create one!

 A roadmap informed by science, fully customizable to our unique circumstances, and guides us step by step to create our unique survival tool kit against the extreme stress of our time.

 But just in case you’re struggling to find a way to make lemonade out of lemons in your life, I want to offer you some guideposts from my work, so you can begin building your unique life jacket to avoid getting tumbled up as we’re going through these tumultuous times.

 And first and foremost, I need to tell you…

 The real reason we get stuck & can’t find our way out.

 When things go off the rails, it’s natural to blame our dysregulated internal state on what’s happening externally.

Because when we’re facing change & challenges in life, naturally, our brain will activate our stress response for our survival.

After all, stress is how our energy is used to support us in dealing with the demands of life and staying safe from threats. And part of that involves shutting down our brilliant high-energy functions to prep us to fight, flee or freeze in the face of a threat.

As much of a bad rap as stress gets, it’s an invaluable survival mechanism that has kept us alive for millions of years!

 The caveat is that we’re only physiologically designed to operate under our stress response periodically. (When we face an imminent threat like when a big truck cuts us off on the freeway or encounters a predator during a hike in Yosemite).

 But when “the threat” is our fears and worries about uncertainty or our futile efforts to predict and forecast future catastrophes, the response becomes maladaptive.

Our brain gets stuck in a perpetual lockdown of our stress response (where, for our survival), we’re physically, emotionally, cognitively, and perceptually impaired.

 And that’s why we get stuck, have a hard time focusing, find creative solutions to our problems, can’t sleep at night, turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, or snap at people we love.

 See, the real problem is not stress, the stressful circumstances of our life, and it certainly is NOT you!

 The real problem is that our brain has been wired to default to our stress response every time things don’t go according to plan, which means that we use our stress response to the point that it becomes toxic!

 The great news: Neuroplasticity! The most significant neuroscience discovery of the last 150 years has proved that we can change our brain’s default setting from fight or flight back to its calm, responsive state and rewire it for resilience.

And the best part is that you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to change your brain and life for the better!

You can train your brain to work for you one breath, one thought, one practice, and one day at a time, as you’re living your life without moving to the Himalayas!

 You are the solution to every single one of your problems! 

Okay, now that you know the real problem is NOT the stressors we may face, but how by default, they make themselves at home in our body and mind messing with how we feel and function, you may be able to see the way out of the chaos and existential burnout.

 But perhaps you’re wondering, how can I get in the way of the default reflexive reactivity of my brain when I have no idea how stressors fill my mind and body with tension and stress?

 Well, let me tell you how: the way stress builds up to toxic levels in our body happens systematically, opening up three possible intervention points.

 When a trigger activates our stress response, the way we stay stuck under its spell is this:

What we think

                >determines how we feel

                                            >which determines what we do

                                                                        > which determines our stress level.

 So, as you can see, an effective way to take control of our stress involves a few tangible interventions:

 1. Recognize the predominant avenue an external stressor is messing with you. Is it keeping you up at night with worrisome thoughts? Is it generating stifling or overwhelming emotions? Does it fill your body with anxiety and tension?

2. Expand the space between a trigger and your reaction so you can choose a wiser way to respond than your stress response.

3. Experiment with offering your mind, body, or emotions something else to replace what our brain’s evolution and past have trained them to do.

 The best part of this story is that five decades of research have substantiated many great ways to respond more wisely to challenges than our stress response!

 Some of them require you to be willing to learn new skills.

 For example, we can replace:

  • Worrying with mindfulness.
  • Self-judgment with self-compassion
  • Perfectionism with acceptance & awareness.
  •  Tension and anxiety with a breathing technique.

 But many practices are straightforward and intuitive and require no skill or training.

 Such as reframing, journaling, mind mapping…

 The key is your willingness to:

✅ become a scientist in your own life,

✅ experiment with different ways of responding to challenges (that replace our default fight, flee, or free reactions) 

✅ and cherry-pick the ones that work for you to create your unique stress survival toolkit.

Taking back control of regulating your internal state by working with your body, mind, and emotions will NOT remove our challenges.

And it’s not about ignoring or denying the difficulties we face.

It’s about restoring your strengths by unlocking your evolved brain when it’s hijacked by stress so you can deal with the challenging parts with confidence and ease and not the sense that you’re falling off a cliff.

 And every time we interrupt the pattern of reacting to challenges with a wiser way of responding, millions of neurons fire and wire together, unlocking fresh perspectives and ways of thinking and being.

 And then and only then, we can not only deal with our common humanity problems with more ease,  but we can be the change we want to see in the world & spring forward to a better “new norm” and reality… one thought, one breath, one practice and one day at a time.

Performance Excellence and Frazzle

Have you ever had a day like this?

  • You are working hard, yet you cannot complete tasks effectively.
  • You forget what you were doing a minute ago.
  • You have difficulty concentrating, and—as much as you try to—you cannot keep your mind on one task.

If you have days like these, you are not alone. Many of us feel frazzled (hopefully, only occasionally) when stress becomes so great that it starts interfering with our performance.

Contrary to popular belief, stress is not all bad. In fact, stress can be a positive, motivational force that gives us the ability to sharpen our performance and rise to a challenging occasion. However, the relationship between stress and performance follows a predictable bell-shaped curve, where optimal performance deteriorates as stress increases (1908, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson).


What is frazzle?

Frazzle is the performance zone associated with what we know as distress. It is the part of the Yerkes Dodson bell-shaped curve just beyond optimal performance, where stress increases to a point that results in deterioration of performance. When in frazzle mode, the quantity of hormones released by our stress response lead to a cascade of events, which have the ability to interfere with our ability to learn, innovate, be creative, or even effectively manage our time. Furthermore, if we hang out in frazzle mode for too long, our body systems start malfunctioning, making us susceptible to illness and potential long-term damage to organs and bodily functions.

A different perspective on why employees don’t do what they are supposed to do

When I was first nominated to enter management development, I was expected to read a dozen best-selling leadership books as part of my mandatory training. As much as I enjoyed learning from this incredible list of experts, I noticed something interesting: Every single one of them looked at employees a bit like they were “problems” that managers had to “solve” in order to achieve individual and organizational performance excellence.

The truth is, most of the time the real culprit causing poor performance is not bad employees but negative, physiological consequences, which take place when we humans are stretched too thin without adequate time in between to reset.

We are not machines, but beautifully complex body systems requiring ample time to rest and digest experiences in between jumping over hurdles. Research has proven that performance is negatively affected when the demands of work and life become greater than our ability to bounce back to our calm, balanced state, known as homeostasis. When we are in our neutral state, our heart is beating at the correct rate (80-100 beats per minute), our temperature is just right (97-98 degrees Fahrenheit), we have access to the executive part of our brain, and our immune and digestive systems are working well. Every demand we place on an organism produces stress—a temporary state where our body goes off-balance to meet a demand.

When we are burning the candle at both ends—going to work early and then working late at night to meet yet another work deadline—we don’t consciously think how, in order to meet that deadline, we are actually taking our body off-balance temporarily. For example, whether we are an Olympian running to win a Gold Medal, or a mere, corporate executive giving a presentation to our peers and boss, our heart rate and body temperature will increase above and beyond our normal, balanced states to meet that demand. If we keep this up for too long, we spend less and less time at an optimal heart rate or temperature level.

The sum total of all the adjustments an organism has to make to return the body to its’ balanced state in the face of stressors is called allostatic load (McEwan and Stellar, 1993). The higher the allostatic load, the more our performance deteriorates and the higher the probability is that we will experience functional organ and body damage.

How do we incorporate all the insights that science has lent us regarding the impact of stress to increase individual and organizational health and optimal performance? Here are the most valuable lessons I learned from the team of eight people I had the privilege of leading in my very first job as a manager.

  1. We need to start living our values outside of employee handbooks. Are we really supporting work-life balance if we are expected to give up our lunch to meet yet another deadline, or to take a Sunday night red-eye flight to be at a noon meeting across the country? Work-life balance initiatives sound great inside the pages of our employee manuals, but they actually lead to peak performance when these values are supported by actions.


  1. We need to invest in building a culture of community at the workplace. When life’s demands become too high, we humans tend to find comfort in the support kindly offered to us by people who care about us and show up at times of stress. Beyond revenues and corporate objectives, one effective antidote to frazzle is to create time and space to connect with employees as humans, above and beyond corporate meetings and performance metrics. Let’s face it, we all spend a significant amount of our life at work. It is unlikely that we will go the extra mile for a boss or a company that does not really care about us as human beings.


  1. We need to start talking about stress openly. We cannot possibly eliminate stress in life, but we can increase our stress resilience. How can we build stress resilience though, if we turn a blind eye to the hidden, negative impact of stress? What if our annual business plans included SMART (specific, measurable, action-oriented, results-oriented, and time-specific) goals around stress resilience?  We need to stop seeing stress as a sign of weakness in employees, but as a larger problem and a significant health and safety issue in the workplace.


  1. We need to put down the stick and give more carrots. Despite the robust evidence that behaviorism does not work, fear-based leadership still appears to be the king. In fact, carrot and stick leadership is wreaking havoc in corporate America, costing a staggering amount of dollars in lost productivity and health issues. It’s time to truly see employees as valuable assets. After all, nobody wakes up in the morning thinking, “Today is a great day for me to be a low performer.” Isn’t it time we see with eyes wide open how much a threatened brain hampers performance?


  1. Happy employees really do make productive employees. When we review the philosophy and strategies of the companies that continually make the list of the best companies to work for, we can clearly see that these companies provide their employees with unconventional perks that go beyond additional pay. These perks can include on-site gyms or childcare, flex-time options, or even providing employees with designated time to meditate or get massages at work. The common thread amongst these exemplary organizations is that they realize the importance of providing the time and space for their people to rest and regroup in order for them to do amazing things for their companies in return. And they often do!


I was extremely frazzled and stressed out when I was given the honor and responsibility to lead a team for the first time in my career a little over a decade ago.

As it turned out though, my people shone for me, and in nine months our team moved from ranking at the bottom of our company to being the number one performing team in the nation! Although I was somewhat unconventional in my leadership approach (I cooked Greek food for my team at my home and even succeeded in changing company policies a couple of times to support my teams’ needs) it was not really me, but my people who actually realized this great accomplishment.

Every organization in any industry needs to perform well in order to remain profitable and survive against market variables. That means we all have to stretch ourselves to meet performance expectations.

But if we wish to see exceptional performance then active steps—such as the five steps listed above—need to be implemented to neutralize the negative impact of frazzle and stress.

And, if we are truly serious about performance excellence, here’s the most potent thing we can do to launch our employees’ superhero: We need to actively reflect that we “have their back!”

How to effectively respond to a “jerk”!

Once upon a time, I met a very special person. He was so intelligent, loving and kind. He would show up time after time, expressed his fondness and admiration often and much, went out of his way to be supportive in good times and bad, was accountable for his own actions and made promises he would be here for me in this life and the next.

Except, when he experienced negative emotions: The story would suddenly change, as did his behavior!

One of the most destructive relational patterns of behavior involves behaving in an incongruent manner, changing our stance towards another from one moment to the next.

The psychology dictionary, defines incongruence as an inconsistent state of behavior, described as inconsistency between the goals, values, and attitudes projected and the actual behavior observed.

We tend to define someone who behaves in an inconsistent manner as a “jerk”!

Have you considered that anyone who employs unhealthy relational patterns just does not know how to regulate their emotions and simply has been accustomed to blaming (or punishing) others for their very own negative feelings?

A person who contradicts themselves, by their words and actions probably has significant attachment injuries. They most likely have a hard time letting go of the past and do not have experiences that involve the beauty of healthy relational patterns, or know how to soothe themselves in a healthy way when fears show up internally.

If you too have someone in your life that tells you one moment that you are the most important person in their life and then (when they are upset about something) they exclaim that your relationship has no value to them, do not despair!

Although the obvious stance against unhealthy behaviors is to walk away, there are circumstances where you may not have a choice.

Here are the most effective ways I have been able to effectively address another’s inability to relate to me in a healthy way, when they are incongruent with me:

  1. Ask powerful questions

Point out the inconsistency head on. If someone tells you how much they value you and then you find out you were excluded from an important event in their life, simply point out the contradiction and ask them to tell you more about it. Don’t allow your self to get emotionally involved or take the contradiction personally. New insights from neuroscience, reveal that people that were raised by parents that were not attuned to them, (or even worst, were raised by parents with mental illness or substance abuse), have significant issues with nervous system regulation and deficits in parts of their brain that are associated with relational abilities.

Therefore when our fellow human beings bearing attachment injuries feel the sweetness of connection and intimacy, often times without cognitive awareness they will employ “deactivating strategies” to rupture connection.

Asking questions, without being emotionally charged, breaks the spell of a deactivating strategy and may be the only way to awaken someone from a state, that quite frankly although has become automated, causes them a lot of trouble.

  1. Seek first to understand and then to be understood

Power is the ability to do something effectively.

As describe in Stephen Coveys “7 habits of highly effective people”, seeking to understand and be understood is a fail proof strategy, even if you are dealing with someone that has not yet learned how to be effective.

Explaining with love and kindness the tremendous energy drain that any nervous system uses up to reconcile differences in reality, may be a perspective that they have not come across before. Let’s face it, if someone frequently employs contradictory behaviors as a way of relating to others, not many will stay by their side, let alone invest any energy to understand a behavior that hurts. If anything can provide compelling evidence of the power we all have for positive change, this is it!

  1. Role model emotional intelligence.

It’s very easy to simply get mad at someone who makes the most wonderful promises and when we challenge them for not delivering, they say: “I don’t know what you a re talking about”. Speaking emotional language with someone and the impact their actions have on us, can often times trigger feelings of empathy even in people with reported structural deficits in the anterior insula region of their brain. (Brain region involved in healthy development of empathy.)

After all, emotional intelligence is nothing other than making intelligence use of our emotions.

By role modeling emotional intelligence, we have a much better chance of getting through to someone, but even if we don’t succeed, at least we maintain our internal balance and prevent our selves from getting out of our zen!

  1. Set and enforce healthy boundaries.

We can be kind and loving to all life, but first and foremost we have to be kind and loving toward our self!

Brene Brown, Ph.D., best selling author of a number of books on the power of vulnerability, defines betrayal as “choosing not to connect to someone when the opportunity is there”.

We have to face our fears and practice being assertive, speaking clearly of what we are willing to tolerate and what we will not.

We can work with our internal resources to maintain our inner balance in the face of someone who does not have the ability to relate to us in a healthy way. We can even have empathy for their condition and understand that their behavior reveals that they have established intimacy and vulnerability as a threatening situation and that it’s nothing personal.

But at the end of the day, if we employ all the skillful and effective techniques and we are still not able to see accountability from the person that confuses us with contradictions, we may not have many options left.

The healthiest and most effective approach may be to love them and leave them.