This season is focusing on topics related to optimizing how we live, work, and play with science, real tips that you can practice daily, as well as ideas on how we can design a workplace culture that works for everyone, and is optimizing for the well being of ourselves, our co-workers, our communities and the planet. The topic of today’s solo episode is the powerful link between psychological safety, our stress response, telomeres, and workplace well being.
In this episode, I will share with you the links between psychological safety, our stress response, telomeres, attachment styles, and the opportunity to design for happy healthy teams and workplace well being. I will share the scientific literature that links all of these subjects together and have some specific calls to action and daily practices that you can implement to create and sustain greater performance, collaboration, resilience and confidence in the midst of stress and or a lack of psychological safety.
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The Imperfect Shownotes
0:01 Carley Hauck
Hi, welcome to the SHINE podcast. My name is Carley Hauck. I am your host, I am so happy you’re here.
This podcast focuses on the science spiritual perspective, an application of conscious, inclusive leadership, the recipe for high performing teams and awareness practices so that you can cultivate the skills on the inside to be the kind of leader our world needs now. I facilitate two to three episodes a month.
And before I tell you about our topic today, please go over to Apple podcasts, hit the subscribe button so you don’t miss any of our new incredible interviews. We are in season six of the SHINE podcast.
Wow-wee! It’s been a few years now. And we’re still going strong. And this season is focusing on topics related to optimizing how we live, work, and play with science, real tips that you can practice daily. And also ideas on how we can design a workplace culture that works for everyone, and is optimizing for the well being of ourselves, our co-workers, our communities and the planet.
Today’s episode is with me. And it is on the powerful link between psychological safety, our stress response, telomeres, and workplace well being.
Have you ever felt tormented about saying something to advocate for your feelings and needs, but you didn’t speak up, because you were afraid that this might create conflict?
This is normal.
And it’s frankly a big problem in our workplace and in the greater world due to many of us having negative experiences when we spoke up. And then it creates some kind of broken connection or conflict. In the past in our home life or at work with friends, this can often erode our sense of psychological safety, confidence. And thus diminish our greatest creative contributions to our teams in our life.
In this powerful episode, I will share with you the links between psychological safety,
our stress response, telomeres, attachment styles, and the opportunity to design for happy healthy teams and workplace well being. I will share some simple daily practices that give you a look at the scientific literature that links all of these subjects together and have some specific calls to action so that you can create and sustain greater performance, collaboration, resilience and confidence in the midst of stress and or a lack of psychological safety.
Carley Hauck 3:46
So I’ve broken this episode up into a couple parts. Let’s start off with stress resiliency, which is something I’ve been diving deeply into writing about facilitating doing research on so I have a lot to say.
Let’s begin with our perception of what is stressful or difficult. So bring to mind a situation that is quite challenging, and is ongoing in your life. When you think about dealing with the situation, do you feel a sense of hope and confidence? Or do you feel fear and anxiety? How much are you ruminating? And having repetitive thoughts about this situation in your life? On a daily basis?
How much do you avoid thinking about it or pushing away feelings associated with this situation? And how much does this situation negatively affect your self esteem? In other words, do you feel critical of yourself based on this experience? Is there shame or blame?
I asked these reflective questions to build your self awareness, but also to see that the way that we perceive stress really impacts the mind, the body, and thus, how we react or we respond.
This internal narrative about what or who is safe can either grow our resilience to stress, or it can diminish it. But first we need to understand how the mind, emotions and body are all connected. And I also want to talk about how our stress response and our nervous system relates to psychological safety at work.
So before I do that, for those folks who aren’t familiar with the term psychological safety, let me define it. psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished, criticized, excluded or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. It is interpersonal risk taking. It has been documented by the research literature to be the number one predictor of high performance, inclusion, innovation and trust at work.
Dr. Amy Edmondson, who I am honored to call a friend and mentor, is a distinguished professor at Harvard Business School, and is author of the fearless organization. She has spent over 25 years of her life researching the concept of psychological safety. And her servant leadership has helped leaders in business prioritize changing structures and systems to create spaces
where everyone can feel safe and bring their whole selves to work.
Carley Hauck 7:04
Here’s the connection between stress and psychological safety. People experience stress in many different ways. And I will share some of the research that I was a part of around increasing our resilience to stress. While working as an organizational and leadership consultant, I had the wonderful opportunity and privilege to be a lead consultant for two NIH funded studies at UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.
These studies were looking at the long term benefits of mindfulness and meditation, contemplative practices, on our resilience to stress, emotional well being and the prevention of disease. I have been a long time meditator and was teaching on various forms of meditation and contemplative practices in community centers, with leaders and businesses as a way to enhance resiliency, distress, well being at work, empathy, emotional intelligence, and effective communication. And I was invited to bring this expertise to these studies. And one of these studies, ironically, was called shine, which is also the name of my new book. And I’ll speak to that a little bit later. But the shine study had the principal investigator of Dr. Elissa Epel. Elissa is one of the premier researchers on telomeres, and more on telomeres and just a little bit, but this context is relevant.
The brain scans for threats more than five times per second, and responds in about 15 milliseconds with a whole series of physiological changes. And when the stress response is on high alert, the body produces stress hormones called cortisol and epinephrine. The heart rate is faster, the blood pressure increases. The vagus nerve, which helps to modulate our response to stress, withdraws its activity. This is why it’s more challenging to breathe because our body is preparing to fight, to flee, to freeze, or to fawn in the presence of perceived danger.
This is also why it’s more difficult to believe that even though we’re just having a perceived difficult conversation with a coworker, our body is actually saying alert, alert, alert. It’s not safe. And when you suffer from chronic stress. These responses are on a low but constant alert keeping you in a state of physiological vigilance and hyper arousal.
So what does it feel like for different people when they’re under this level of stress?
Well, these are some responses I’ve heard. My heart feels like it’s going to come out of my chest, I can’t sit still, I want to run out of the room. I freeze and my hands get sweaty and I can’t take a deep breath. These examples are showcasing what happens in our physical bodies when we perceive an experience as stressful.
Carley Hauck 10:47
Let’s talk about telomeres. It’s been found that people that were exposed to more hardship trauma, prolonged stress at a young age, and or currently have had long exposures to stress have shorter telomeres or less telomere race. For example, caregivers have been found to have shorter telomeres due to the ongoing burden of stress in their lives. In addition to those that have had more trauma, they have also been associated with shortened telomeres.
So when we think about folks that have repeatedly felt excluded, and have been navigating, for example, systemic racism, they are likely carrying more trauma and have been under prolonged periods of stress.
And why does telomeres and our stress response matter?
Well, let’s think about workplace well being and having a flourishing happy life, which a lot of businesses are prioritizing more now than ever since the pandemic and the rise of mental health issues.
So a telomere and telomerase are most associated with cell renewal. Our cells are always renewing, and telomeres protect our chromosomes and our genetic DNA. A telomere protects the chromosome during the process of cell division. In other words, it absorbs the hardest blow when our cells divide. And this is important because as cells divide and renew, they need their chromosome cargos, which are essentially the genetic instruction manuals, or genes to be delivered intact. For example, how else would a child’s body know it was going to be tall and strong and specific to that child’s unique DNA if the telomeres didn’t keep the DNA protected.
As we get older, our telomeres shorten. And our cells experience more and more divisions. Folks who have longer telomeres are living longer into their 80s and 90s. And typically have the lowest risk of death from cancers, heart disease and other immune system related problems. Those folks who have shorter telomeres have weakened immune systems and are prone to more health problems in cancer.
Why this matters is that the more chronic stress burnout, toxic work environments, trauma, or even the environmental health problems that we’re all navigating due to a warming climate. This puts more stress on our bodies. And then we have the real or perceived narrative that ‘I am not safe’.
If there is, for example, a wildfire like many have experienced in places or a shortage of water in the world due to climate change. This is a real threat to our survival. But we can similarly feel the same bodily experiences of arousal when speaking to a challenging coworker or parent.
If we are aware of a state of fear, when our autonomic nervous system is threatened, we really struggle to access our creativity, innovation or focus to be inclusive, collaborative or high performing.
I myself have had long periods of chronic stress as an entrepreneur because there’s just so much up and down risk taking the first couple years in a startup or a new business. You’re working insane numbers of hours. And on top of that my childhood was also very challenging, and it didn’t feel psychologically safe.
So, at an early age, I had the wisdom to get into my body to start learning ways to regulate my response to stress. I began a yoga practice at 17. And I began meditating at 19. And this was all through just reading books because yoga and meditation where I lived was not the norm.
This was a healthy adaptation to stress, and it did support greater resiliency in my mind, in my body, but also recovering telomere length.
Carley Hauck 15:54
There are many research proven practices that I will share, to support you to create greater resilience and well being in your teams and workplaces. And these skills have everything to do with bringing our best and wholesales to work, leading consciously building trust, and high performing healthy and happy teams. I will get to these skills soon. For now I want to geek out a bit on the neurobiology of stress and our nervous system. I’m going to share the three parts of the nervous system. And the third part is often not talked about, but it has everything to do with psychological safety at work.
The central nervous system, this nervous system relays our sense of safety. It is like the main switchboard of our body. The nervous system is the command center of all our other systems, our digestion, or circulatory system, etc. It gives us information about what to move towards and away from through sensation, nerve activation, neurotransmitters and other signals. It transmits and relays our sense of safety of our own body and externally to other bodies, and other human nervous systems. It’s also bi directional, breathing, awareness, healthy diet, self regulation, movement, sleep, these can all influence the way our nervous system responds.
For example, caffeine, too much technology, not enough sleep will heighten our levels of sympathetic nervous system arousal. Well, drinking chamomile, practicing meditation, deep breathing, gratitude or loving kindness practice may ramp it down.
The polyvagal theory speaks to the brain, the throat, the face, the heart and the abdomen.
And it has a much more critical place in the nervous system than originally thought.
Most of us have heard of the autonomic nervous system as being two branches, which is the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. But there is another nervous system which I will speak to.
The sympathetic nervous system under stress has a fight, flight freeze, fawn response, and the parasympathetic nervous system at ease has a rest and digest response. At ease, the parasympathetic nervous system drives us to move and act and we need this energy to wake up to have focus. And it allows us to slow down, rest, sleep and digest when it is at ease. You can think of the sympathetic nervous system as what it takes to get up the hill if we were in a car. And the parasympathetic nervous system is what takes us down the hill. When we move towards the threat response, this is known as the fight response. And the moving away from the threat is the flight response.
If for any reason our system feels overwhelmed to navigate the situation in front of us, our parasympathetic nervous system will go into a low level freeze response. And the freeze response can manifest as an inability to move to speak or to act. We become the deer in the headlights and we can even collapse, dissociate, get dizzy, some people even lose their ability to control their bowels.
Talking about our nervous system makes me feel like I want to take a deep breath with everyone. Let’s just pause, take a deep breath in, let the belly rise and take a deep breath out letting it fall, two more times, breathing in, breathing out, breathing in and out.
What I’m about to highlight is very important.
The threat that people experience in their nervous system is not proportional to the actual threat. From the outside, you can’t accurately assess the threat that an individual is experiencing. For example, if I was bitten by a German Shepherd as a kid, and my body is holding the implicit and explicit memory of this trauma, and I see a German Shepherd on a walk, who may be showcasing calmness, friendliness, he’s not the least bit aggressive. But my body on the inside is responding on high alert, because of my past experience. And that is now impacting my current experience, even though it’s not logical in the current moment.
This is why the perception of what we believe is a stressor is so important, and so unique to each of us. Essentially, our cells are talking to our nervous system. So when your system is under stress, you don’t decide how to react, your body is automatically reacting to the stressor. And its response, to fight to flee, to freeze, or to fawn is a response in the moment based on past conditions and experiences. What was modeled to you as a child, what you have tried that worked or didn’t work, and where you’ve gotten stuck.
There is nothing wrong with your reaction.
You aren’t stronger or weaker based on how you react to stress. Your nervous system is healthy. And you have the ability to learn, adapt and become more resilient to stress, which is what we will continue to speak to. So both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system are imperative to our flourishing and both are needed.
But as I’ve been referring to there is one nervous system that has been left out. The social nervous system is the most modern part of the nervous system and it influences the autonomic nervous system. The social nervous system is specific to mammals, you and me, this new realization came about from the polyvagal theory. Our first level of detection of safety comes from the social nervous system, because we look to other people to know if we are safe or not safe. We’re often scanning facial responses of people to know if they are safe.
And during the pandemic, most of our faces in public have been covered with masks. So it’s made it even more challenging to understand who is safe, and who can we move towards. Our biological imperative is togetherness and physical proximity, not social distancing. Our autonomic nervous system responses include fight, flee, freeze, but in our social nervous system, we have the other F, which is known as fitting in or fawning, where we may overly please overly help so that we can feel included and are not excluded and our sense of safety remains intact.
Carley Hauck 24:37
Our social nervous system is here to help us create a sense of safety and belonging. It evolved because mothers needed to take care of their young by way of facial responses and appropriate actions to meet the baby’s needs. And this would allow more loyalty from the mother to child and thus the baby’s survival. It was really imperative to our flourishing. The social nervous system is primed first through the mother or the person who fed us but then to the rest of the family.
The social nervous system holds the primary signal. Is it safe, do we belong? Do we not belong? It also influences a person’s experience of trust. The bond between the mother and child in a secure and safe way in the early years is so vital to the integration of the nervous system. The assessment of safety will look different for each individual and is determined by inner factors and outward factors, like your gender and race. Psychological and physical safety is not just perceptual, but actually different depending on these unique factors.
So are you following me so far? We began with talking about our perception of stress, and how our bodies can adapt in a healthy way, or an unhealthy way, which in the research I was part of showcased more chronic illness, shortened telomeres, and a lowered immune response. I’ve also gone over the three different nervous systems, and how this impacts our ability to feel psychologically safe.
But there’s another component, which is also really important. And it refers to our attachment system. Our attachment system and style impacts our experience of psychological safety, and how we interact and relate in our adult relationships, including intimate partnerships, work relationships, and parenting caregiving dynamics. And for those of you that have listened to the podcast before, because I’m always talking about how we bring our whole selves to work, and home to work. This is important.
My master’s degree was in Organizational Psychology, but I also worked as a therapist. And I have been serving individuals and teams as an executive coach for over a decade while working in leadership and organizational development. Due to my interest in trying to understand what supports thriving workplaces, leaders and teams, and my own interest in how I connect, or feel disconnected to the people in my life, I have dived deep into the science, and topic of attachment styles and theory.
Carley Hauck 27:53
This field is intrinsically tied to the social nervous system and how we relate to one another. My colleagues and fellow Sounds True authors like myself, Dr. Steven Taktin, and Dr. Diane Poole Heller, have contributed greatly to my knowledge of this subject, how it relates to relationship building. And guess what business is all about the relationship. I will be having another podcast episode to go more deeply into the attachment styles and its relationship to psychological safety. But for today, I wanted to just give you a quick overview.
So again, our attachment style influences how we form relationships, how we communicate, and how we express and respond to caring behaviors. Unfortunately, attachment styles may also generate an assortment of unhealthy habits and behaviors that impede our ability to lead our teams well, feel safe, connected, valued and joyful.
So our attachment system is an innate behavioral system that influences and even dictates how we bond with others. from infancy or even in utero, we depend on our caregivers to respond to our connection cues. Again, this relates to the social nervous system that I spoke about earlier. If for example, an infant cries out and a caregiver responds to his, her or their needs reliably and consistently, they will feel safe, cared for and wanted and they will likely approach the world primed for secure, healthy attachment. When we develop secure attachment in this way, we grew up believing the world is generally a safe place, and that others can and will be there for us, but when our needs at this vital and young part of our lives are not met, or we get inconsistent, confusing or even frightening responses from our caregivers, we may respond by adapting with insecure styles of attachment.
This means that our brains develop as a way of coping with less than ideal circumstances to help us survive. This is really important to remember, most people who exhibit insecure attachment patterns did not grow up in a supportive, validating or consistent environment. And these adaptations only developed to keep us safe and alive.
Carley Hauck 30:55
This can help you have self compassion and forgiveness for yourself. If you yourself came from one of those home environments, or if you discover that some of your colleagues or teammates, or friends or community have also. You see, our attachment system is our original blueprint for how we perceive and relate to others in the world around us. It colors many of our current interactions, often unconsciously. When we have developed insecure adaptations, it can make it difficult to feel safe to trust and to feel like we can get our physical and emotional needs met. And this has everything to do with psychological safety at work.
But the good news is we are all wired for secure attachment; we are biologically predisposed to be securely attached to caregivers, and later to loved ones, friends, colleagues and community.
But I do want to talk a little bit about trauma and attachment. Because trauma has been acknowledged more and more in our world in our workplace since the pandemic, which I experience as an opportunity for learning and growth and healing. It may seem surprising that attachment and trauma would be interconnected. But once we understand more about the attachment system, it makes perfect sense.
Attachment trauma can be thought of as a broken connection with someone. In a previous podcast I interviewed a mentor and friend Dr. Susan Campbell on her recent book, and we speak a lot about attachment trauma, and how it impacts a high trust culture. The link is in the show notes if you want to listen.
We all have attachment trauma. Trauma can overload the nervous system making it more difficult to stay regulated. emotional regulation is the ability to stay present and connected even in the face of hard feelings, experiences or triggers. It also helps us cope with the difficulties and the joys of life. Emotional regulation is a skill that is taught, learned and practiced. And people with secure attachment learned this skill through their early interactions with their caregivers.
There was a self regulation and a co-regulation that was wired into the brain as a natural response to stress and trauma because they felt safe and secure with this caregiver. In insecure attachment, children experience overwhelm and lack of safety with others and they struggle to self and CO regulate their nervous systems, which creates a state of high alert hyper arousal or shut down hypo arousal in the brain and the nervous system.
When we experience a situation which could be perceived as trauma, stress, or a trigger that reminds us of an earlier experience in life. The brain and body default to a fight flight freeze fawn pattern of arousal, making emotional regulation more difficult. And then imagine how easily we can erode high performance inclusion, innovation and effective communication normally goes out the window.
Carley Hauck 34:55
So, just briefly, I will talk about the five attachment styles. And I invite you to listen to a future episode that I will be recording On the subject of attachment style and its relationship to psychological safety, but for right now, I’d love to just give you the five names and you can investigate on your own. If you feel more intrigued on this topic.
Secure, avoidant, anxious, ambivalent, and disorganized.
So now I’ve unpacked the connection and link between our stress response, our nervous system, how it impacts our immune system, our well being, attachment style, trauma, and psychological safety. There are six inner game skills that I have done a lot of research on and application with hundreds of leaders and many organizations in the last 10 years and I write extensively about in my new book Shine: Ignite Your Inner Game to Lead Consciously at Work and In the World.
I have seen again and again that the integration of these skills are essential for creating happy healthy teams, psychological safety at work, inclusion, innovation, and high performance.
Self awareness is number one, get to know your thoughts, your feelings, motivations, physical sensations, arising and passing in the body. Meditation has been found to be one of the most effective ways to increase your self awareness. It is also associated with increased telomere length, lower rates of depression, long term reduction of body fat because we’re lowering our arousal. When we have heightened arousal, we have more cortisol, cortisol tends to have us retain belly fat. And there are just so many incredible health and mind and heart benefits to meditation.
There are a couple practices in chapter one of my book on starting a meditation practice, but also on the important practice of unity tasking.
Number two, emotional intelligence. This includes self awareness, self regulation, which leads to social awareness, what’s happening for the other person right now? What are they feeling in meeting and relationship mastery, a practice that is imperative towards creating more psychological safety and trust is understanding your triggers. Right?
So if there is an experience that keeps happening, for example, in your team, or this one person does or says something that you just react in this more heightened or agitated way, this is an opportunity for you to look at that. Is this something in my past that is impacting this current experience? Or what responsibility can I take to calm down to pause so that I can come from a wise and loving place, not a reactive place. There is a lot of support in chapter two of my book on practices related to triggers. And I give trainings on these subjects all the time for teams, and in larger leadership programs. So reach out if you’d like more support. I’ve also written a couple free articles and there is a free practice on my website, in the resources section on a trigger practice.
Number three, resilience. Resilience is determined by your thoughts, your ability to self regulate your emotions, how you are taking care of this body. And what has been found to really increase your resilience to stress is what you’re thinking about the stressor. If you can orient towards a growth mindset, which might sound something like this-
Well, this really stinks. But how can I see this as a challenge as something for me versus against me?
If you can change your mind to see even the most difficult things in your life is a challenge you will be more resilient. And so will your telomeres. Research is found. There are many practices in chapter three of my book on growing your resilience.
Number four, well being. How are you taking care of your body? Are you making time for breaks, movement, nature time yoga, healthy plant based diet, sleep? Well, if not, it’s time my friend. Prioritize it. Because the more balanced and healthy your body is, the more healthy coping mechanisms you will have for the ups and downs of life.
Carley Hauck 41:01
Number five, leading from love. Are you leading yourself from love, compassion, forgiveness. If not, this is going to make such a difference in how people perceive you and connect to you.
The more you can turn these qualities of love, compassion and forgiveness towards yourself, the more loving and forgiving you can be towards everybody else, and their experience.
It’s hard to be human. We all have such sensitive nervous systems as you’ve learned. And we’re constantly navigating complex changes that we often don’t have any control over. So be kind to yourself, be kind to others.
And number six, authenticity. This is about knowing yourself, being aware of your feelings, your sensations, your motivations, your needs, and, most importantly, your boundaries. When you can communicate from a clear indirect way, your authentic truth that’s direct yet caring, you can build bridges versus break them down. This is the opposite of the fight flight freeze or fawn response under stress. And there’s a lot of tools in chapter six of my book as well.
Lastly, I’d love to give you high performers, one bonus skill, conscientiousness. When we have a greater sense of concern for others, and a deeper purpose in our lives to be in service of the greatest good. There has been a lot of scientific literature that says this increases our longevity and stress response. If you want some role models of conscientious, conscious, inclusive leaders that are rocking it for people and planet, this is in chapter eight of my book.
I know that this was a lot to unpack, but I feel so passionate about all of these subjects. And because I’m a systems thinker, I look at the systems that inherently are intersectional and intrinsically influencing one another.
Carley Hauck 43:20
If this podcast interview resonated for you, I would love to support you. Book a free consultation with me to assess the psychological safety in your culture, leadership or your team. I walk through what the process looks like in my learning and development page. The link is in the show notes.
Sign up for my free gift, which highlights psychological safety daily practices for individuals, teams and leaders, go to leadfromlight.com. And when you sign up, you’ll also be alerted to the latest podcasts of SHINE, or book me as a speaker to create a customized workshop for your team or your entire organization to create happy, healthy teams and build psychological safety at work.
I feel delighted that I was able to give a large talk to many Capital One employees on building trust and psychological safety at work a few weeks ago, and it was very well received.
Thank you so much for your attention, your time. The SHINE podcast has been self sponsored since May 2019. It is freely offered for my heartfelt desire to be in service in support of a workplace in a world that works for everyone and is living in greater harmony with the planet. I would love and appreciate your support so that I can continue to foster wonderful interviews with inspiring leaders bringing the science tips and evidence base to these important skills and practices. You can donate and support me by going to my Patreon page at www.patreon.com/carleyhauck, the link is in the show notes. Your generosity helps so much.
If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with friends, family or colleagues. We’re all in this together and sharing is caring. If you have questions, comments or topics you would like to address on the podcast, email me at email@example.com. I would love to hear from you. I have many more incredible interviews coming this season and ongoing. So until we meet again, be the light and shine the light my friend.