Tips from a Pansy: Three Ways Your Brain Wilts

by | Apr 24, 2016

4-25The morning was a bit cool for April as we finished our run. Trees were flowering white and pink like cotton and cotton candy. Yards popped with vibrant yellow and purple pansies. It looked beautiful and happy.

If you aren’t a gardener you may not know that pansies can be planted in the fall; they survive the cold of winter; and bounce to life in the spring. “Why?” one of my running girlfriends asked. “Do we say, ‘don’t be a pansy’ when they live through the winter?” Good question. I have never thought of it like that. “Well,” remarked another tired runner, “they can’t stand the heat. They wilt.” Ah-ha. It’s great having smart friends.

It made me think about when we as leaders tend to wilt under the heat. In this case, “wilting” is when the cognitive part of the brain is exhausted and no longer functions properly. This, the prefrontal cortex, is a highly energy intensive part of the brain and it tires under a heavy or constant load. When it tires, the brain defaults to habit behaviors that take less energy. For good or bad, this is where you go when you wilt.

The default behavior might be fine but then again, it might not. In default mode self-control may be lacking and filters are not applied. You stand a bigger chance of saying something you’ll regret. Consequently, it’s best to know when your brain has wilted so that you refrain from highly intense situations or big decisions until the brain perks up again. Sadly, with age, our brains decline and at times develop diseases and conditions that require the expert care of a neurosurgeon. Nonetheless, our brains are extremely intelligent even if they are susceptible to a little wilting every now and again.

Here are three times when your brain wilts.

  • Tired. When you are physically tired, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t have enough energy. It’s like a big city with no electricity. The lights won’t go on. Learn to notice your physical state. Lack of sleep will cause your brain to go dark. You won’t be able to muster the mental acuity to make a tough decision or arbitrate an emotionally charged encounter.
  • Over-whelmed. The to-do list contains two-days’ worth of activities but you only have a day. Where to start? It’s impossible and you feel frantic. The heart races, palms sweat and you want to curl up in a corner. Again, your thinking brain is over-loaded and you are more likely to say or do something ill-advised. The next time you feel over-whelmed, take a short break. Even 5 to 10 minutes of sitting quietly with closed eyes will refresh your brain.
  • Triggered. There’s always a person or situation that pushes your hot buttons. You know who they are and what the situation is. A triggering event is like the sun beating down relentlessly on the pansies. The brain’s threat response (fight or flight) is activated and that over-rides the prefrontal cortex. You literally can’t think straight. When you are skilled in recognizing this state you can slow it and manage it.

The bottom line is that you need to recognize when you feel the heat before your brain wilts. Diagnose the situation, take extra care to not engage in tough conversations, and don’t make charged decisions. Give yourself some space for the brain to recharge- like a cool spring breeze to the pansies. If you manage the heat well, you’ll bloom again another day.


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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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