Efforts to promote gender equity in medicine focus on training women in leadership and assertiveness skills. Once that inspiring conference ends and women return to the workplace, many of them experience a stress response and feel too uncomfortable to use the techniques they’ve learned.
One of the problems with the current approach to leadership training is that no one discusses how a person’s ability to regulate her autonomic nervous system can play a role in her ability to lead. But, this skill is every bit as important as understanding the basics of being a good leader.
How do we decide who is a leader? Confidence and clarity in thought, and communication are social identifiers that mark a leader. These features make us feel safe — whether a leader is truly competent or not. And more than anything, we accept leaders because of the way they make us feel.
Research studies have provided evidence that both men and women possess an unconscious bias against assertive women (Madsen & Andrade, 2018). That experience of discrimination (Hill, 2017; Oliver, 2017)feels like a threat and activates (Rozenman, 2016) the sympathetic nervous system (an unconscious process (Escalante, 2020) that results in predictable physiologic changes).
Sympathetic activation turns the brain toward a particular type of thinking and impairs higher level cognition. Thinking becomes more rigid, lacking clarity and creativity. The stress response also changes our social signaling. Voices and facial expressions become flatter and eyes stare intensely.
Research studies have also provided evidence that human nervous systems co-regulate (EurekAlert! 2020) That means stress is contagious; other people feel it and do not feel safe.
The consequence is this: an excellent leader may not appear so to others because the social identifiers of leadership are inhibited by stress. Our brains only have access to that effortless confidence and clarity of thought when the social nervous system is dominant (Porges, 2006). That system is activated by the vagus nerve, which puts us in an open and connected state of regulation very different from the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nerve.
Even under stress, there are ways that we can access that vagal activation. But, we have to recognize what is happening to us. Once we stimulate the social nervous system, our voices become musical, our demeanor engaging, our thinking clear, and our leadership shows.
To activate the social nervous system under pressure, try the following strategies:
- Engage with allies whenever possible. Make eye contact and amplify each other’s opinions. Friendly eye contact and feeling social connection with an ally both activate the vagus nerve.
- Use deep pressure to stimulate the vagus nerve (Reynolds, 2015). For example, squeeze the fleshy part of your hand or tap on your thigh under the table. Or for more sustained regulation, wear a deep pressure therapy vest under your clothing.
- Breathe deeply and intentionally to make your voice more musical. Long slow outbreaths are a quick way to activate the vagus nerve. Many methods emphasize counting as you breath, but it is how we breath out that sends a message of safety or danger to the autonomic nervous system. And not having to worry about counting keeps you focused on the meeting.
- Participate in activities that decrease sympathetic arousal. For example, yoga, meditation, and interacting with friends all promoted flexibility in the autonomic response. Everything gets easier with practice, and working on autonomic flexibility when not under pressure comes in handy when we are.
Readers may be concerned that this discussion implies that it’s women who need to do the changing. Yet these skills will help individual women’s leadership shine, even as they continued to advocate for broader equity in the workplace.
Dr. Escalante is a board-certified pediatrician, an Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at Rush University, a TEDx speaker, and a contributor to Forbes and Psychology Today. Learn more at AlisonEscalante.com.
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Escalante, A. (2020 April 01) Fear Clouds Doctors’ Thinking. One Remedy Is As Old As Medicine Itself. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisonescalante/2020/04/01/fear-clouds-doctors-thinking-one-remedy-is-as-old-as-medicine-itself/#56d96631e926
EurekAlert! (2020 April 28) Two-person-together MRI scans on couples investigates how touching is perceived in the brain. EurekAlert!. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-04/au-2ms042320.php
Hill, L.K., Hoggard, L.S., Richmond, A.S., Gray, D.L., Williams, D.P., & Thayer, J.F. (2017). Examining the association between perceived discrimination and heart rate variability in African Americans. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 23(1). https://doi.org/10.1037/cdp0000076
Madsen, S.R. & Andrade, M.S. (2018). Unconscious Gender Bias: Implications for Women's Leadership Development. Journal of Leadership Studies, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/jls.21566
Oliver, M.D., Datta, S. & Baldwin, D.R. (2017) A sympathetic nervous system evaluation of obesity stigma. PLOS ONE, 12(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185703
Porges, S.W., (2006) The polyvagal perspective. Biological Psychology, 74(2). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.06.009
Reynolds, S., Lane, S.J. & Mullen, B. (2015) Effects of deep pressure stimulation on physiological arousal. dAmerican Journal of Occupational Therapy, 69. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2015.015560
Rozenman M., Vreeland, A. & Piacentini, J. (2016) Thinking anxious, feeling anxious, or both? Cognitive bias moderates the relationship between anxiety disorder status and sympathetic arousal in youth. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2016.11.004