©2019 by David Westerlund. Photo credits: Ramona Laird, Alvin Shim, and David Westerlund.

An Artificial Sense of Constant Crisis




Good communication is central to having a high-functioning organization.


Today I want to look at our cultural habit around email overload. We often don't look closely at it, because it seems like an inevitability.


But are we truly aware of the cost of our constant emailing and texting way of life as a culture? And can we really afford the costs of our current email/text overload?


A study done at the University of London found that constant e-mailing and text messaging reduces mental capacity …similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis. ‘Always on’ may not be the most productive way to work…the brain is being forced to be on ‘alert’ far too much. This increases what is known as your allostatic load, which is a reading of stress hormones and other factors relating to a sense of threat. The wear and tear from this has an impact. As Linda Stone says, ‘This always on, anytime, anyplace era has created an artificial sense of constant crisis. What happens to mammals in a state of constant crisis is the adrenalized fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in. It’s great when tigers are chasing us. How many of those five hundred emails a day is a tiger?’”*

When our adrenals kick in they send out stress hormones in the body that build up over time and lead to a host of minor and major health problems. Not only that, but also when we are in the amygdala-driven fight-flight state, we see things in black and white terms, we aren't able to be present.


It’s vital that we come up with creative ways to reduce our allostatic load. This is vital at least in part, because the more resilient we become, the more we will be ready to face real crisis when they come our way.


A central shift that can take place for us is to first realize that we indeed have agency. Shifting from ''I have to'' to ''I choose to'' can make a world of difference. We can develop muscles of filtering, inhibiting, and self-control, that will become stronger with greater use.


Additionally, we need ways to collectively de-stress and connect as a team. This is the power of applied improvisation. I can't tell you how many times I've led workshops and people say things like. "I'm a worrier. But for the last hour-and-a-half I haven't thought about any of those things. It's like they all floated away. It felt great!'' Participants find that they feel more bonded with their team members as well. And when we have the felt experience of being a part of a team, the burdens of life and work aren't so heavy on our shoulders. Moving from alone and overwhelmed to cohesive, supported, and resilient is a fundamental shift that is needed with our organizations.


When we viscerally experience it in the microcosm of a workshop, we taste it's goodness and we hunger for more. We know it's possible. And we can begin to imagine the possibility of a different way of being together.



*Rock, David. Your Brain at Work, pg. 36.

**Here's an article by Arriana Huffington on tech boundaries. She's talking here about phone boundaries more than email issues, yet it's all connected.

#allostaticload #communication #emailoverload #adrenalstress