When someone gets on your nerves, it’s a real thing. “Your nerves” send electricity to your cortisol, and that creates the feeling that your survival is threatened. To make matters worse, this activation connects your neurons so they release the stress chemicals even faster the next time. You can end up with a lot of co-worker stress, even though you don’t think this consciously. But you can recover quickly if you know these three facts about your brain chemistry:
1. Cortisol is excreted in about 2 hours
Your body metabolizes and eliminates stress chemicals, so you can be stress-free two hours from now – unless you trigger more. But we DO trigger more, because our brain is designed to look for threats when the cortisol is on. You’re skilled at finding a threat when you look, so it’s easy to end up in a stress loop. To stop it, distract yourself with something pleasant for a couple of hours. That’s hard to do, of course, because everything bugs you when cortisol is flowing. But if you plan ahead, you can have non-triggering activities to turn to while your cortisol is being eliminated. Think of tasks you can do when your patience is thin, and set them aside. When I’m triggered, I plan trips, do graphics, chop vegetables, and read mail from my readers. But sometimes I need to just stretch while watching an episode of Maron. (He’s tackling his anger management problems with hilarious honesty.)
2. Dopamine makes you feel good when you accomplish something, no matter how small
If a co-worker obstructs your path to accomplishment, your dopamine droops. Like a hungry lion who fails in pursuit of a gazelle, your dopamine droop creates a sense of urgent threat. Fortunately, the lion’s dopamine soars as soon as it targets another gazelle. So don’t let a co-worker steal your dopamine – just shift your sights to a new goal. Dopamine is the brain’s signal that your needs are about to be met. It makes life feel exciting. But the good feeling never lasts because our brain is designed to reward new steps. So stop worrying about your co-workers and start stepping! Fortunately, even small steps toward small rewards will trigger it.
3. Serotonin makes you feel good when you get respect, so focus on the respect you have instead of the respect you don’t have
No one likes to admit they care about approval, but our brain is inherited from social animals. It rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin when you get respect because higher-status mammals made more copies of their genes. Your brain keeps scanning for ways to get respect because serotonin makes it feel good. When you don’t get the respect you had hoped for, it feels like a survival threat to your mammal brain. To make matters worse, you often see a co-worker getting the respect you thought was coming your way. It’s not easy being a mammal! You are not consciously trying to spread your genes of course, but this brain we’ve inherited seeks social rewards as soon as its physical needs are met. Animals can’t save for a rainy day, so status-seeking is their way to invest today’s extra energy in tomorrow’s needs. It may be hard to accept the mammalian facts of life, but it helps you relax despite the ups and downs of working with a group of big-brained social animals. Your inner mammal will feel threatened by competitive co-workers, but you can train it to focus on the respect you already have.