Turning Stress From a Negative Into a Positive With Dr. Deborah Gilboa
We often see stress as a negative and do everything in our power to get rid of it. We vilify the people who cause us stress, and this puts leaders in a bad spot. Why? Because you cannot lead without using stress as one of your tools.
When your employees become stressed and start feeling loss, distrust, or discomfort, what can you do to curb their fears and help them navigate stress effectively? Resilience expert Dr. G says one of the best things you can do is have empathy, stand to the side, and let the stress reflex happen.
Think about it this way: if a doctor is standing right in front of a child and tapping their knee, the doctor will get kicked upon the child’s reflex. The same goes for you and your employees. When change and stress arise in the workplace, it’s human nature to have a negative reflex. You can’t stop these reflexes, but you can stand to the side, let the reaction occur, and help your employees navigate the change smoothly.
Dr. G breaks the process down into three steps. First, employees have to recognize the stressors in their environment. Next, they have to interrogate the stress: is it avoidable or unavoidable? Is it useful or not useful? And finally, employees must remember that they have different strategies, choices, and options to deal with stress.
When you help employees work through these three steps with intention and purpose, your workplace will become a happier, healthier place to build a career. Nobody can completely avoid stress, but we can reframe our perceptions and use stress for positive change.
Listen to this episode of The Judd Shaw Way Podcast with Judd Shaw featuring Deborah Gilboa, aka “Dr. G,” a board-certified family physician and resilience expert. Dr. G explains the three components of stress management, how to build resilience, and why it’s essential for leaders to have empathy when initiating change in the workplace.
In this episode:
- [0:36] Judd Shaw welcomes his guest, Deborah Gilboa (aka “Dr. G”)
- [2:12] Dr. G explains how she became a physician — and why she began studying stress
- [4:31] What is patient resilience?
- [6:38] Dr. G shares the steps everyone should take when confronted with stress
- [9:26] Why leaders encounter change resistance from employees — and how to work through it
- [16:14] The skills that can help you navigate change with intention and purpose
- [20:07] The three components of stress management: recognition, interrogation, and remembering that you have choices
- [26:00] What mistakes do most leaders make when initiating change?
Hello everybody, welcome to the show. I’m your host, Judd Shaw. Today on the show I have Deborah Gilboa. Most people know her by Dr. G, and so that’s what I’m going to call her as well. Dr. G is a resilient expert. And Doctor, let me get right to it. I was stressed out this morning getting ready for this podcast. But then the more I research about you, the more I learn that’s not such a bad thing, is it?
It is not such a bad thing. And you know Judd, leaders who are listening might recognize that this thing has happened in the last 10, 15 years where we vilify people who say things that cause us stress. This idea that if somebody’s causing you stress, they’re the villain, and they’re toxic and you should get away from them. And this puts leaders in a really bad spot, because you cannot lead without using stress as one of your tools.
By way of background, you are an MD, family practice, right? Uniquely, you have an incredible theater and arts background as well, coming right out of the famous Second City. You have an awesome Ted Talk, Doing Too Much is Good for You. How did you get into the world of stress?
I haven’t met anybody who isn’t in it, have you?
Well, I haven’t researched it the way you have. But I will tell you the only thing from my background that I joined you in, was while you did the anatomy of a feral pig, I remember when I was in high school and we had the frogs. And that was when I knew that MD, doctor was not in my future.
That’s totally what I thought too. When I was a little kid, people would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Which is by the way, a useless question. Please don’t ask people that. But in the meantime, I would say, “I want to be a pediatric neurosurgeon,” because I liked the reaction that I got. But it stuck. I was like, I could do that. Sounds cool. And then I got to freshman year biology, and we had to dissect something and I was totally grossed out. And I was like, well, that’s off the… In 30 seconds I was like, oh, I feel sick. I’m not doing that. Totally changed my whole path.
What I didn’t know actually, is that when you’re in puberty, you’re much more affected by smells and you’re much more easily grossed out than you are as an adult. But in any case, the real meat of the question is as a doctor, and I went to medical school in my late twenties, so I brought my walker and my Depends along with me. I was definitely much older than most of my classmates. But what I heard from my professors was, “Stress is the new smoking. Tell your patients to avoid it at all costs.” Now that’s what we heard during class. At the end of class, they made announcements. And the announcements said, “Be sure to join three extracurricular groups, get involved in a research project, run every day. We’re having a fundraising marathon at the end of the semester.” And they just piled on, and piled on. And I thought, if stress is the new smoking, they are clearly trying to kill us.
And then I watched, when I was in my clinical time as a third year and a fourth year medical student, I watched nurses and physicians and patients, and everybody, families navigate tremendous amounts of stress. And it was not the indicator of how they were doing. I read a study somewhere in my fourth year of medical school, explaining that they gave doctors charts of patients that they would never meet, describing all of their medical issues. And then ask the doctors to rate the quality of life of each of the patients. And they were profoundly wrong in almost every instance. We are not the sum of our stresses. There’s something else.
Fast forward, I went through residency, which is 110 hour work week, so I really wasn’t thinking anything beyond survival of me and my patients at that point. And I finished my training, I’d been an attending for a few years, which means just a doctor out in the community practicing. And what I discovered was that this difference, meaning how people handle their lives as opposed to what their lives have handed them, was crucial. Really incredibly prognostic for not just my patients’ survival, but their happiness. I discovered that there was a gap between helping people recover from illness and injury, which I had been trained to do, and helping them be well. When I looked at the medical literature, it called that gap patient resilience.
Right, I heard about that. And that was mostly with veterans or emotional wellness.
Well, when I went to look and see what is resilience, like okay, if that’s true, how do I give them that? How do I write a prescription for patient resilience? And all the research at the time was, as you’re saying, done mostly on folks with PTSD, combat veterans and like that, or folks with severe mental illness. Which is really interesting and useful, but wasn’t applicable to most of my patients. And so, I was trying to figure out what is this thing that we call resilience? What’s it made of? First of all, is it just something you’re born with? Is it like your genetics, and then all I can do is notice it in my patients, and be like, “Oh, good news,” or, “Too bad for you”? Or is there something that we do that affects it? And that’s what caused me to dive headlong into research on the intersection of stress, and mental health and resilience.
I understand that you can be born with a higher stress tolerance than other people. You can be more naturally resilient. Part of how you’re raised either creates an ability to live within stress, some people, fight or flight is a comfortable place. But how do we start talking to people that they stop looking at… “Oh, you’re stressing me out. It’s giving me stress, I’m stressed. That’s going to cause stress.” And start to look at that as not a negative, right? It’s not a bad word.
The first thing we have to do, and I know you’ve spoken about this on your podcast a lot. The first thing we have to do when someone tells us that they’re stressed, is have empathy, is just believe them. We have to start with empathy. Because if we don’t, then what we’re saying is, “Oh no, those feelings are stupid. Have different ones.” And that works on no one ever. The first thing we do when someone tells us that they’re stressed is we believe them. And when they say they are stressed, what they’re saying is they’re feeling pressed, they’re feeling pressure. And that’s an uncomfortable feeling.
But what you’re talking about so wisely, Judd, is how do we get people to interrogate their stress and figure out two things: is it avoidable or unavoidable, is it useful or useless? If it’s avoidable and useless, I’m the first one to say, walk away from that bad boy. Not your circus, not your monkeys. But if it is unavoidable, and examples of unavoidable stress are everything from a parking ticket, to a cancer diagnosis, to a merger and acquisition. Examples of useful stress is any stress that is helping you get towards a change you want. Because all change is stressful. And that’s where medical training in the late 1990s really fell apart on this issue. You can’t avoid stress, because our brains interpret all change, even the stuff we want, even the good stuff, as stressful.
Isn’t that incredible? I can have team members who I sit down, and I remember this conversation I had. A young girl who really was wanting professional growth. She wanted to develop in the company, she wanted to grow in the company. She has a role, and then somebody leaves a role that I perceive as moving up, we offered her the position. And it was like we told her she was getting fired. It was overwhelming, there were actual tears. She had an emotional, negative emotional response to it. And when we prodded and poked a little bit, because what did we do wrong? Did we miss something? She’s getting more money-
Right, more opportunity.
Was she just had settled into this role, and it was this change, that my role will change. But did not look at it as if my role is changing, which means I’m professionally growing.
Because we make an assumption that discomfort is dangerous. And occasionally discomfort is dangerous. If you are leaning out over a beautiful overlook and you’re uncomfortable because the guardrail is starting to give, that’s dangerous. But most of the time, discomfort is just super uncomfortable. It’s not actually dangerous. One of the places that leaders encounter a great deal of change resistance, is when they’re working with people who haven’t yet learned the skill… And it’s simply a skill, it’s not a referendum on their character, of interrogating their stress to figure out is it useful?
We have a myth in our society that you should go with your gut, always trust your gut. And first of all, it’s not your gut, your stomach digests food, it’s your brain. And second of all, this is a reflex. So Judd, have you ever taken a kid to the doctor for a well child check?
Okay, so if you brought your child to see me, because I’m a family doctor, and this is one of the things I do, I’d sit them up on the table or you would. The three of us would talk, I’d listen with my stethoscope, I’d let them listen with my stethoscope, and then at some point I’d take my reflex hammer and I would tap their knee. Now, if I did that standing right directly in front of your child and tapped their knee, what would happen to me?
They’d kick it.
They’d kick me, I’d get kicked. But you wouldn’t chastise your kid for kicking me. It’s a reflex. As a matter of fact, you’d think to yourself, well, she’s dumber than she looks. Why did she stand right in front of my kid?
And yet leaders stand right in front of people, announce change, and then we get really upset when we get kicked. There are three reflexes that our brains have, simply to protect us, just to keep us alive, even with good change. And those reflexes are loss, distrust and discomfort. So, do what I do when I do a well child check, stand to the side. Let the reflex happen, expect that it will. You can even say to yourself, yep, healthy brain. And then you can help them navigate it. You can learn the skills as a leader that will help your staff, your team, learn the skills they need to navigate change more smoothly. But you cannot stop those reflexes any more than you could tell your child, “The doctor’s going to tap your knee, but don’t kick.” It’s a deep tendon reflex, that’s we call it in our expressions in English, we call it a knee jerk reaction. You can’t help it.
And beyond with patients, you do speaking, you work with teams, you work with corporations, companies, in helping teams increase their stress tolerance or the way they look at stress. How are some of the ways you do that?
Some of it is a little bit of context setting. There are some things that are really valuable for leaders to know. Because what I just talked about standing in front of our teams and getting kicked, here’s what happens. And I want you to tell me if you disagree, but when leaders announce a change… And by the way, we don’t really need leaders when there is no change. If everything’s going to stay exactly the same, leaders can go to Belize on vacation for a week. But when leaders explore a change or announce a change, and they get caught in the splash zone of people’s loss or distrust or discomfort, like you got caught in the splash zone with that associate that you wanted to promote, they think either, “Don’t you trust me? Haven’t I proven that I have our mission in mind, that I have your best interests in mind, that I’m good at my job?” Or, “What is wrong with you? Are you obstinate? Are you close-minded? Are you lazy?”
We see this reflex as a referendum either on our own leadership, or on the character of the people that we’ve hired, and it’s neither one. It is first useful to have that reframe. That’s not the bulk of the work that I do with corporations, but it is a reframe I’d like our listeners to really think about. Because if you announce a change, or explore a change, and there’s a splash of loss, distrust and discomfort, nobody’s doing anything wrong, not you and not your team. What happens next is really useful. So understanding what is resilience? Which by the way, resilience is the ability to navigate change with intention and purpose. Not just adversity, not just struggle, not just setbacks, but all change, like the possible promotion. Learning the skills that make up resilience doesn’t just help people recover from a difficult change, it helps them to be strengthened for all the upcoming change.
So, I help people change their communication around stress. The language that they use, the way that they measure it, the metrics that they consider about it. And to vet it differently, to interrogate it differently like we mentioned, unavoidable or avoidable, useful or useless, and then what to do with that information. But the most valuable thing I do is I help people understand the evidence-based strategies that get other people through change more smoothly. Because almost every business is responsible for helping customers, clients, in your business, judges and juries sometimes, through change, through stress.
I want to challenge stress here and now, on the idea that there are these stress markers. And I want to ask your thoughts on it and I’ll be transparent and vulnerable. Divorce, Covid, corporate financial stress and real problems, HR issues, I moved. I think they give you the markers. These are the six, five-
And don’t forget all the good changes you’ve been through. The growth that you’ve had in your business, the opportunities you’ve had, those are all stressors also.
And so they say, well, if you move, if you get divorced, if you have financial problems-
Lose someone in your family, yeah.
So, why has all those things happened in my life recently, and yet I can tell you I’m almost at the happiest I’ve ever been?
We have another myth in our society, we like to say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. For most people, what doesn’t kill you makes you miserable. And just waiting for hard things to magically make you stronger, is a little bit like me saying, well, I’m going to run that marathon but I’m only going to train for it by forgetting where I parked in the parking lot and wandering around looking for my car. That’ll probably be enough, right?
When you have encountered these difficult things, they happened, but you haven’t decided to continue carrying them, oppressing you. This idea of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Judd, I won’t ask you who, but do you know someone in your life who no matter how many bad things happen to them, it just keeps being awful? It never gets any easier?
A thousand percent.
If it were true that just going through hard things built our resilience, none of us would know adults like that. We’d get that out of the way in childhood. It would be like learning to read, like okay, I know how to read. And almost everyone, luckily in our society, learns to read. But it’s not that simple.
What we learned in our research is there are some traits that influence how we deal with stress, there are some formative experiences that influence how we deal with stress, but I’m not interested in those because we can’t affect those now. Those are all set. What’s really useful to know is that there are eight skills that each improve how we navigate change and how we handle stress. And every person listening has some, has a little bit to a lot of each of those eight skills. But just like… I’m lucky enough in some of my work to work with Olympic athletes, and no matter how amazing they are at their skills, they all seem to feel like if they work a little harder they can get even better. And like with any skill, you can keep polishing it. Even if one of those eight skills, just for example Judd, one of those eight skills is building connections. And I would bet that in a secret envelope anonymous survey, you’d rate yourself pretty highly in your ability to build connections. Yeah?
Yes, for sure.
But you’d probably also recognize that you might be able to get even better at it. You could go from amazing to rockstar.
And of those eight skills, you might look at one of those and say, “Hey, I’m not great at that.” And I’ll take one that a lot of entrepreneurs name themselves as not being great at. I don’t know you well enough to know if it’s true for you, and that’s setting boundaries.
A lot of entrepreneurs say they’re bad at setting boundaries. And we like to credit that with some of our success. If we’d set boundaries, we might not have said yes to as many things. But setting boundaries isn’t actually about saying no, setting boundaries… And I’m going to tell you this and you’re going to be like, “Oh, I’m better at that than I thought,” setting boundaries is about aligning your choices to your actual priorities. That’s what setting boundaries means. And I bet you recognize that there are times where you would have an easier time of navigating change later, if you polished up that skill of setting boundaries now.
These eight skills, independently in no particular order, and different ones are useful in different changes, help us navigate that change with intention and purpose. Basically, they help us get the life we want.
Someone told me about these cold dunks. And so for the last six months, every night I fill this glass bowl. I don’t do the shower one, that’s too torturous. But I do this big bowl and I put the water in the fridge overnight, and in the morning I fill it with ice. And after usually, I shave, including this morning, I dunked my face in this ice cold water for 30 seconds. I come up, my heart is really beating, I’m taking a deep breath, I’m wiping the water through my hair. What is that doing?
Have you ever seen on a TV show, when somebody’s heart stops and they say, “Clear,” and they defibrillate their heart?
Yes, of course.
You’re basically doing that to your vagal nerve. You’re basically clearing your brain entirely. You’re briefly convincing your brain that you’re about to die, and it reenters all of its efforts. It really shifts, and reprioritizes and shuffles things incredibly quickly. And what’s strange about this is no matter how many times you do that, it’s a little bit like… And this is going to date me, taking the Etch A Sketch, and turning it upside down and shaking it so it clears the screen.
And you just start it again, you’re not getting used to it in other words.
Wow, that’s amazing. It sounds like from even researching, coming into this podcast and learning about the things you’re studying and you’re doing, there is ways for stress tolerance, or reducing stress, certain stress. And there’s other ways of increasing the tolerance to it, or the ability to see it. There are two parts to it, right?
I actually would go out on a limb and say there are three. First, there’s the ability to recognize, okay, all change is stressful. So I’m going to have empathy for myself, this is hard. Even if it’s just a parking ticket, it’s a change. I wasn’t expecting it. It feels like a stressor. And I’ll have empathy for myself. It’s not that I’m not a strong person, it’s not that I’m not a resilient person. It’s just like, yeah, okay. That’s upsetting. That’s the first piece.
The second piece is the interrogation of it. Is this avoidable or unavoidable, useless or useful? If it’s avoidable and useless, am I willing to walk away? If it’s unavoidable, or useful, or both, then how do I navigate it? One of the eight resilient skills is the ability to manage discomfort. I talked to you about those three reflexes, loss, distrust and discomfort. When I first got into learning about this and researching this, my team and I, we argued about where would people get stuck? This is a cycle. You hear about a change, you learn about it, you decide on it, someone tells you, whatever. And your brain says, what could I lose? Do I trust this? Is it true? Is it reliable? Will it really happen? Do I have to? And then what’s going to be uncomfortable about it?
The next step is remembering… And all that happens in the amygdala in the center of the brain. The next step is really simple. It’s remembering that you have choices, strategies, options. Don’t even have to know what they are. You don’t have to list your choices. If you simply say to yourself, “I have choices in how I handle this, and what I do, and what I think and what I say,” just that turns on your ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which quiets, it doesn’t turn off, your safety mechanisms. You will still feel loss, distrust and discomfort, but it turns them from a 10, down to a seven, or a five or a three.
But in there, if you can remember how to get to choice, even while you’re still feeling some of those other things, you will be successful in navigating that change. We argued about where do you think people get stuck? And I thought having recently at the time lost my mom, I thought I think people are going to get stuck in loss most often. Grief is so unpredictable, it comes in these crazy waves, it hits you when you least expect it. It just swamps you sometimes. And this is my observation of people as well as my own experience, so I thought it’s got to be loss.
And I have to say, during the pandemic, I got an email from someone on my team who said, “I’m watching what’s happening in this country and I just think we got to look into this more. I think people get stuck in distrust. Distrust is crippling.” And so, we did the research and here’s what we found: it’s discomfort. That’s where people get stuck the most, in discomfort. Loss can come back, and grab them and pull them backwards a little bit sometimes, and distrust is a real obstacle, but most people get stuck in discomfort because they use negative coping mechanisms to handle that discomfort. They use substances, they use conflict, they use violence, they use isolation, they use mind numbing… Not just a season of a show on Netflix, but a series of a show on Netflix to totally withdraw. And it’s those negative coping mechanisms that really get in the way of your team, your individual team member’s ability to get to the next step.
So, most of our research about strategies have centered around how do we honor where people are, and move them towards choice, engagement and reunification, which are the three steps of that cycle on the way back up.
And I find that so interesting, because as you’re saying that and the experience with my team, I find that the team members that are early on, your first 90 days or definitely within their first year, are more susceptible to change. I think they’re still in a setting of uneasiness, they’re still trying to learn a role. And if you move them around a little, it’s not as… You take someone, at least my experience in my company, who has a couple years and then you ask them to start to… That’s where the stress of those team members, to me really interestingly, higher than somebody who is still just learning Jimmy’s name next door in the cubicle.
And that person has the ability to move around easier than somebody who’s been in the company. And perhaps sometimes… And listen, for sure I made a lot of mistakes, I make more mistakes than I get it right at the company. But I think that sometimes, now hearing you, some of those team members are like, “Yeah, I’ve heard this, I’ve seen this. This is not going to…” They’re the naysayers, but it’s the stress and the change that drives the nay-say.
It absolutely is. And some of it has to do with how tied their identity is to the role, or the fact you’re asking them to change about them. So if I’ve just started with you, then my identity isn’t… It might be starting to be tied to working with you, but it’s not strongly tied to where I sit at the conference table and how often I get called in on a weekend, and when my ideas are listened to or not.
Right, there lies the discomfort.
Yeah, yeah. And the loss.
Right, that’s a good point.
Imposter Syndrome plays a role in this. Where I usually intersect with a company for the second time, the first time is when one of the leaders who’s a real lateral thinker hears me speak at a conference or on a podcast and they say, “Oh, we’ve been struggling with some change,” or, “We have a big expensive change coming up and we want to be able to navigate it more smoothly, so we’ll work with her,” so that’s the first time. But the second time when I get to interact with the team, usually we do something that I call a change resistance exam. And it’s very much like going to the doctor in that context, where you say, “Hey, here’s the change that we want to be able to navigate more easily.” And I ask a lot of questions, to try and figure out what’s already going well, because let’s not fix things that are already going well, and where the friction points are. Where does it hurt?
If you go to the doctor because your elbow’s been bothering you, they don’t tell you, “Oh, it’s this.” They say, “Well, what makes it worse and what makes it better? And when do you notice it, and when isn’t it around? And what have you tried already that didn’t work? And have you ever experienced this before, and what did work?” Lots of questions in that, history and physical. As I think of it, one of the things that I have found is that leaders know exactly how the changes that they’re implementing tie to their mission. And they have so much empathy for the struggle they’re putting their people through by announcing another change, because that’s their job, that’s what leaders do, that they hesitate to show real genuine empathy for what people are going through. Because they think, isn’t that disingenuous? I’m the one who brought this up in the first place. And they’re not, it’s disingenuous at all, but they think it is.
And they don’t mention how it’s tied to mission, because of how they’re worried that will be perceived. But actually the things that drive internal motivation in adult professionals, one of those is purpose. And understanding, and I would recommend, and this is something I do with every client that I work with, look at what you are asking at reviews. Quarterly, yearly, whatever they are, reviews of your employees. Make sure you have an understanding of their purpose, and help them see how their personal purpose is aligned to the mission of your company. Because that will help them be more resilient to navigate change with intention and purpose.
Wow. That energy between that passion and purpose is really powerful. Doctor, you are doing incredible stuff. I firmly believe leading a company, that emotional intelligence, and resilience and stress tolerance, are the most important subjects we could be teaching in the workplace. This is the time, this is the age to do it. The employee pool has changed, times have changed, and these are really important subjects. How do the listeners get in touch with you, Doctor, if that want to be able to work with you?
Oh, thank you. The easiest way is my website, which is askdrg.com.
Great videos there too, I’ve seen them. And Doctor, I love what you’re doing. I can’t thank you enough for coming on. What a great topic. Thanks so much.
I really appreciate it, thanks Judd.
🎙️ Meet Your Host 🎙️
Name: Judd B. Shaw
What he does: Judd founded Judd Shaw Injury Law (JSIL) and serves as the firm’s Brand Chief. He founded the firm on the premise that clients come first. Over the years, the success he attained for his clients helped JSIL grow significantly. Judd’s clients are not just another number to him or his law firm.
Company: Judd Shaw Injury Law
Words of wisdom: “At Judd Shaw Injury Law, it’s all about high-quality representation and excellence in client service. Our clients are counting on us to win and the stakes are high. Our endless pursuit for awesomeness through our core values, the ability to WOW our clients, is in our DNA.”
🎙️ Featured Guest 🎙️
Name: Deborah Gilboa, MD (aka “Dr. G”)
Short Bio: Deborah, also known as “Dr. G,” is a board-certified family physician and resilience expert who works with families, educators, executives, and businesses to identify the mindset and strategies to turn stress into an advantage. She is a speaker and leading media personality seen regularly on TODAY, Good Morning America, and The Doctors. Dr. G is also featured frequently in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Huffington Post, and other outlets where she teaches others how to be resilient and “do stress better.”
🔑 Relevant Resources 🔑
- “Doing Too Much is Good For You”
- From Stressed to Resilient: The Guide To Handle More and Feel It Less by Deborah Gilboa, MD
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