Literally Headless


I read a great story by Doug Shaw yesterday ( which really resonated with me.

The last few weeks have been really busy. Preparing to handover my old job, getting ready for new life, attending a couple of fantastic coaching courses, organising the kids’ birthday parties, the usual household stuff, oh, and the draw of the phone, as Doug so poignantly wrote about, constantly there with the many channels and so much great content to read!

The result has been a bit of headless chicken; doing lots of things, none of them especially well. So I was glad to learn on my Postgrad coaching course that this headless chicken activity is actually a commonly female trait when feeling a bit stressed. Men, on the other hand, will focus on one thing badly – like repeatedly looking (ineffectively) for those lost keys in the same place over and over again!

When we feel like this, our prefrontal cortex is hi-jacked, we go into survival mode, we lose our sense of humour, our memory suffers, we withdraw, we struggle to see the point of view of others and we struggle to care for them. We also stop being able to reflect, plan, imagine. And, as Christopher Demers wrote (, reflecting is a helpful activity to maintain our mindfulness to the impact we’re having on the world.

Some of this physiological reaction is very familiar from the last few weeks. Not all the time, but in bouts. And I’ve tried hard, in amongst a rotten cold, to keep exercising – because I know that’s one of the key ways to keep the prefrontal cortex feeling happy and not hi-jacked. Even just 20 minutes of exercise will settle our stress response – after that, there’s no major benefit, so why do more!

So it was fantastic yesterday, on our first day of holiday, to sit outside in the peaceful Northumbrian countryside, before the kids appeared, just soaking up the surroundings, thinking about breathing well (btw did you know that smokers actually aid their sense of calm just because they have a longer exhale than inhale breath when smoking – of course, there are some downsides to this activity so try to breathe like you’re smoking – but without the cig!).

Then later, we went for a walk at Cragside where the kids didn’t even moan once about the hike up the steep steps to the top! Both activities involved no phone checking – the first because I made myself not do it. The second because there was no signal! But both worth it to make me enjoy the moment, and stop being distracted or rushing ahead to the future. I could feel my thoughts calming and my mind becoming more free. My stress-induced Type A personality giving way to my, much preferred, Type B.

But to get to this place took some effort. It required me to recognise how I was feeling, to get some of the turbulent thoughts out of my head and onto a bit of paper, to literally force myself not to check my phone (my husband thinks I’m addicted!), to step off the treadmill, to make the choice to get fresh air, exercise and relaxation.

How many people do you see rushing around in headless chicken mode? How many do you see doing the same piece of work to death, making no progress with it? Some maybe because they’re so busy, some maybe because they’re not being stretched enough and they fear life is passing them by.

These people need some help to step off, to slow down, to alleviate their stress response so they can THINK differently and creatively, opening up different possibilities of actions they can take to get different results.

But they don’t need hep with your solutions – rescuing someone with your solutions will reinforce their belief that they can’t cope, that they’re incapable of finding their own solutions, that their value in the world is low.

What’s fantastic, and as you’d expect from someone that’s been learning a load about coaching in the last month(!), is that coaching is an amazing and powerful way to do this.

Once the person can be brought back to a place where their prefrontal cortex is operating in its human mode again, they can be coached to resolve their own challenges, to find their own solutions.

And the empowerment they feel from this will help them grow with a different mindset so that next time a similar situation occurs, they’re a little bit better able to self-solve.

So next time you’ve got your head buried in a smart device, just lift it for a moment to notice who you can spot that needs some help to help themselves.

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