Understanding the Brain Can Help Reduce Relocation Stress
  • Jonathan Harman, GMS
    Global Account Manager, CORTBrain Power

    About eight years ago, an Amazon algorithm analyzed my purchase history and recommended a book on neuroscience. More specifically, Spark by John Ratey, was about how exercise benefits the brain. I had never considered reading a book on the brain before, but the description and reviews were convincing, so I clicked "purchase." At the time, I had no idea that I had just steered down an intellectual detour that would keep me fascinated for years to come.

    Eight years later, I continue to enjoy reading about the brain. The more I read, the more I find that an understanding of the way the brain works sheds light on the underlying, often unconscious, causes of behaviors both in myself and in others. Every good story is a story about human behavior. Reading Neuroscience provides a glimpse, hardly a complete picture, but a useful peak into some of the drivers of that behavior. It is variety of "Oh! That explains it!" moments that make reading about brain function so satisfying.

    In all my reading, one Neuroscience model stood out to me as having practical applications in the world of relocation. In 2008's Your Brain at Work, author and executive coach Dr. David Rock introduced the SCARF™ model, which focuses on five domains of social interaction to which the brain is particularly responsive.

    The human brain has extensive wiring dedicated to social interaction. The thinking is that these robust neural networks for understanding others developed for survival reasons. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, getting along with peers was critical to survival. Being "out" of the group could mean isolation and almost certain death. In fact, brain imaging shows that social pain, while it may seem minor from a removed, rational perspective, can trigger life-or-death level alarm responses in the brain. The hunter/gatherer wiring that perceives social threats as critical to survival remains a part of our circuitry.

    Dr. Rock's model points to research showing that the brain is particularly attuned to potential rewards or threats in five social domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness--SCARF™. Too much threat or reward in these areas activates our emotional centers, essentially taking the prefrontal cortex offline. This tendency is significant because the prefrontal cortex is the center for most of our higher order thinking and, therefore, the brain region that most decision-making, problem-solving managers are paid to engage. This brain region is also the seat of our self-control.

    Ever sit at your desk, unable to work as you mull over the critical remarks a colleague directed at your project during a meeting? Status threat. Ever find it difficult to focus on the task at hand in the hours leading up to an important performance review? Status and Certainty threats. Ever have a friend plant herself in your office to vent for a half hour straight because a younger, less qualified peer was just given the promotion your friend had her heart set on? Fairness threat. In the statement, "I just can't work right now because I'm too bothered by _________" the blank space is likely to be filled in with an issue that threatens to our sense of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness or Fairness.

    Once we see how Dr. Rock's model applies to our day-today experience, it does not take a great leap of imagination to understand how these same threats to Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness, are almost certain to be activated during relocation. Will I get along with my new team? Status and Certainty. Will my spouse find work in the new location? Certainty. Why do I have to move anyway? Autonomy and Fairness. Who will my new friends be? Relatedness and Certainty. Will my kids hate me for taking them away from their friends? Relatedness, Certainty and Fairness. Why do I only get 30 days in temporary accommodation? Autonomy and Fairness.

    The list of potential SCARF™ related threats inherent to relocation is long--very long. This stress is compounded in a family setting where every family member will be, at times, dealing with one or more of these five social stressors. Spouses, partners, children (especially teens) are all subject to the same emotional derailment over a period of several months as a couple or family navigates the challenges of moving for work.

    For anyone going through a work related relocation, it is critical to keep in mind that the months before, during, and after the actual move are going to be stressful. Recognizing this fact, and discussing it with family members, is the first step to successfully coping with move related stress. Even those of us with the most exemplary self-control have our limits. If we can name the source of our stress, it helps to diminish its power.

    Second, we need to take very good care of ourselves. At a time when it might feel like we just are not able to exercise, or eat well, or spend time together as a family, it is even more important to make the effort. Arriving at the other side of the move as a healthy family unit requires that we do so.

    Finally, it is empowering to keep in mind that the brain responds strongly to perceived threats to our status, a lack of certainty, a lack of autonomy, challenges to our relatedness and situations that seem to be unfair. When a minor bump on the road to our relocation causes us to lose it, we can remind ourselves, "That's just my brain."

    While the brain is putting out a life-and-death level alarm, we can remind ourselves that the bad feeling is simply the product of an outdated bit of circuitry which may have been useful to a hunter-gatherer, but is not serving us particularly well in our current situation. We can say to ourselves, "Thank you, brain. I am glad you are looking out for me, but I'm just dealing with a bit of uncertainty, or a minor loss of autonomy. Things are not quite as bad as you are making them out to be." Understanding how our brain works, and in particular keeping in mind the SCARF™ model, can help us to maintain a more elevated, mindful perspective as we manage relocation related stress.

    To review: 1. Recognize that moving is a stressful. 2. Make time to take good care of yourself and your family. 3. Be mindful of the reality that strong emotional reactions are often disproportionate to the challenges we are actually facing and use that awareness to talk down the emotion.

    As a relocation professional, I find the SCARF™ model a useful pathway to empathy for an assignee's experience. I hope that if you are going through a move, you can apply the model in the same way and have a bit more empathy for yourself.

    Read more about Dr. David Rock's SCARF™ model here. Learn about his organization, the NeuroLeadership Institute, here. And don't forget his book, Your Brain at Work.

Understanding the Brain Can Help Reduce Relocation Stress
  • Jonathan Harman, GMS
    Global Account Manager, CORTBrain Power

    About eight years ago, an Amazon algorithm analyzed my purchase history and recommended a book on neuroscience. More specifically, Spark by John Ratey, was about how exercise benefits the brain. I had never considered reading a book on the brain before, but the description and reviews were convincing, so I clicked "purchase." At the time, I had no idea that I had just steered down an intellectual detour that would keep me fascinated for years to come.

    Eight years later, I continue to enjoy reading about the brain. The more I read, the more I find that an understanding of the way the brain works sheds light on the underlying, often unconscious, causes of behaviors both in myself and in others. Every good story is a story about human behavior. Reading Neuroscience provides a glimpse, hardly a complete picture, but a useful peak into some of the drivers of that behavior. It is variety of "Oh! That explains it!" moments that make reading about brain function so satisfying.

    In all my reading, one Neuroscience model stood out to me as having practical applications in the world of relocation. In 2008's Your Brain at Work, author and executive coach Dr. David Rock introduced the SCARF™ model, which focuses on five domains of social interaction to which the brain is particularly responsive.

    The human brain has extensive wiring dedicated to social interaction. The thinking is that these robust neural networks for understanding others developed for survival reasons. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, getting along with peers was critical to survival. Being "out" of the group could mean isolation and almost certain death. In fact, brain imaging shows that social pain, while it may seem minor from a removed, rational perspective, can trigger life-or-death level alarm responses in the brain. The hunter/gatherer wiring that perceives social threats as critical to survival remains a part of our circuitry.

    Dr. Rock's model points to research showing that the brain is particularly attuned to potential rewards or threats in five social domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness--SCARF™. Too much threat or reward in these areas activates our emotional centers, essentially taking the prefrontal cortex offline. This tendency is significant because the prefrontal cortex is the center for most of our higher order thinking and, therefore, the brain region that most decision-making, problem-solving managers are paid to engage. This brain region is also the seat of our self-control.

    Ever sit at your desk, unable to work as you mull over the critical remarks a colleague directed at your project during a meeting? Status threat. Ever find it difficult to focus on the task at hand in the hours leading up to an important performance review? Status and Certainty threats. Ever have a friend plant herself in your office to vent for a half hour straight because a younger, less qualified peer was just given the promotion your friend had her heart set on? Fairness threat. In the statement, "I just can't work right now because I'm too bothered by _________" the blank space is likely to be filled in with an issue that threatens to our sense of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness or Fairness.

    Once we see how Dr. Rock's model applies to our day-today experience, it does not take a great leap of imagination to understand how these same threats to Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness, are almost certain to be activated during relocation. Will I get along with my new team? Status and Certainty. Will my spouse find work in the new location? Certainty. Why do I have to move anyway? Autonomy and Fairness. Who will my new friends be? Relatedness and Certainty. Will my kids hate me for taking them away from their friends? Relatedness, Certainty and Fairness. Why do I only get 30 days in temporary accommodation? Autonomy and Fairness.

    The list of potential SCARF™ related threats inherent to relocation is long--very long. This stress is compounded in a family setting where every family member will be, at times, dealing with one or more of these five social stressors. Spouses, partners, children (especially teens) are all subject to the same emotional derailment over a period of several months as a couple or family navigates the challenges of moving for work.

    For anyone going through a work related relocation, it is critical to keep in mind that the months before, during, and after the actual move are going to be stressful. Recognizing this fact, and discussing it with family members, is the first step to successfully coping with move related stress. Even those of us with the most exemplary self-control have our limits. If we can name the source of our stress, it helps to diminish its power.

    Second, we need to take very good care of ourselves. At a time when it might feel like we just are not able to exercise, or eat well, or spend time together as a family, it is even more important to make the effort. Arriving at the other side of the move as a healthy family unit requires that we do so.

    Finally, it is empowering to keep in mind that the brain responds strongly to perceived threats to our status, a lack of certainty, a lack of autonomy, challenges to our relatedness and situations that seem to be unfair. When a minor bump on the road to our relocation causes us to lose it, we can remind ourselves, "That's just my brain."

    While the brain is putting out a life-and-death level alarm, we can remind ourselves that the bad feeling is simply the product of an outdated bit of circuitry which may have been useful to a hunter-gatherer, but is not serving us particularly well in our current situation. We can say to ourselves, "Thank you, brain. I am glad you are looking out for me, but I'm just dealing with a bit of uncertainty, or a minor loss of autonomy. Things are not quite as bad as you are making them out to be." Understanding how our brain works, and in particular keeping in mind the SCARF™ model, can help us to maintain a more elevated, mindful perspective as we manage relocation related stress.

    To review: 1. Recognize that moving is a stressful. 2. Make time to take good care of yourself and your family. 3. Be mindful of the reality that strong emotional reactions are often disproportionate to the challenges we are actually facing and use that awareness to talk down the emotion.

    As a relocation professional, I find the SCARF™ model a useful pathway to empathy for an assignee's experience. I hope that if you are going through a move, you can apply the model in the same way and have a bit more empathy for yourself.

    Read more about Dr. David Rock's SCARF™ model here. Learn about his organization, the NeuroLeadership Institute, here. And don't forget his book, Your Brain at Work.