The Sacrifice Syndrome: The Neuropsychology of Power Stress and Renewal*

Leadership requires the exercise of influence or power. It requires having an impact on others, making things happen and taking responsibility for the organization. The higher a person is elevated within an organization, the more “power” is involved in his or her role. Because power and the exercise of it are central to their role, we can say that leaders experience a great deal of stress. As a result, leaders experience a form of stress called “power stress.”

Power stress is part of the experience that results from the exercise of influence and sense of responsibility felt in leadership positions. In addition, leadership effectiveness requires the regular exercise of self-control: placing the good of the organization above personal impulses and needs. Whether or not influence is exercised at the same time, the exercise of self-control in itself is stressful. Click here for more information on our Renewal Programs for Leaders.

The Neurology of Power Stress

Power stress arouses the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which initiates the classic fight or flight physical response. Arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) results in increased secretion of multiple neurotransmitters including epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are associated with activation of the body through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (H-P-A) and the sympathetic-adrenal medullary axis. Individuals experience an increase in systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Blood flow is redirected to the large muscle groups.

Meanwhile, even neural circuitry is reallocated, in the sense that the brain appears to focus on those circuits deemed necessary to survival and there is activation of the right prefrontal cortex (RPFC) more so than on those in the left prefrontal cortex (LPFC). Cortisol is secreted from the adrenal gland and causes dysregulation of inflammation in part by decreasing the body’s ability to fight infection by suppressing cell-mediated immunity. Cortisol has the additional impact of overexciting neurons and inhibiting the potential growth of neural tissue through normal neurogenesis.

This arousal of the SNS and greater activation of the RFPC have been shown to be related to specific emotions, such as fear and disgust. Other negative effects, such as feeling depressed or anxious and “unpleasant engagement with the environment,” have been related to such neural circuits as well.

It is believed that many common human diseases are attributed in part to overactivation of the SNS and heavy allostatic load, including hypertension, myocardial infarction, chronic infections, peptic ulcer disease, autoimmune disorders, obesity, cardiac arrhythmias, heart failure, diabetes, and susceptibility to cancer.

Extensive studies of stress have shown that the body’s reaction involves more than the stimulation of the SNS; it involves the abatement of the parasympathetic nervous systems (PSNS). While the SNS is responsible for the body’s ability to react quickly and effectively to physical or emotional provocation, the PSNS is responsible for recovery from such excitement and for keeping the body functioning at basal levels (i.e., at rest).

The arousal of stress prepares individuals to deal with crisis in the short run. With chronic or repeated activation in the long run, it makes the body susceptible to gastrointestinal distress, infection, and myocardial events, and as well as disturbing sleep patterns and other normal human functions. Prolonged exposure to stress and arousal of the SNS does harm to the body, in effect draining one’s energy and capability to function and innovate. But the negative effects of chronic power stress, as that from being in a leadership role, have not been explored in this context.

The Cycle of Renewal: Hope, Mindfulness and Compassion

Renewal can come from several sources. Hope, the experience of compassion, and the practice of meditation leading to mindfulness, evoke responses within the human body that arouse the PSNS, reversing the effects of the stress response and arousal of the SNS. This can operate like an antidote to stress, called The Cycle of Renewal.

Caring relationships are the key to arousal of the PSNS. In studies, caring relationships have been associated with lower blood pressure, enhanced immunity, and overall better health. Social networks and social capital have both been found to decrease mortality rates in human population—based studies. In primate studies it has been found that nurturing bonds between parents and their offspring increases the length of survival of the parent—both for males and females. Cardiac patients with pets to care for have greater survival rates and lower morbidity profiles than those without pets because of the decreased frequency of SNS activation.

It is believed that during the experience of compassion, as well as hope and mindfulness, a person will more likely have a greater amount of neural activity through the LPFC than through the RPFC. This activity comes from neural circuits that have been shown to relate to emotions such as happiness and amusement, and people experiencing such neural activity report feeling excited, enthusiastic, and interested— best characterized as sense of elation.

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you're likely to be living in the zone of "sacrifice syndrome." Am I:

  • Working harder with less result? Getting home later or leaving home earlier each day?
  • Feeling tired, even after sleeping? Having trouble sleeping?
  • Finding less time for things that used to be enjoyable? Rarely relaxed?
  • Sometimes feel numb or react to situations with inappropriately strong emotions?
  • I don't care what I eat or whether I eat too much or too little?
  • I don't exercise as much as I used to?
  • I frequently think about how to "escape" my current situation?

Do I:

  • Have frequent headaches, backaches or pain?
  • Routinely take over-the-counter antacids or painkillers?
  • Feel as if no one can understand how much work I have or what’s on my shoulders?
  • Sometimes feel numb or react to situation with inappropriate strong emotions?
  • Feel too overwhelmed to seek out new experiences, ideas or ways of doing things?
  • Frequently think about how to “escape” my current situation?

Have I noticed changes in myself or my relationships?

  • Can I no longer confide in my spouse or close friends?
  • I can’t remember the last time I have a meaningful conversation with a trusted friend or family member
  • My children have stopped asking me to talk or to attend games or functions?
  • I don’t smile and laugh with people like I used to
  • I no longer attend my place of worship or find time for quiet contemplation.

*Adapted from Boyatzis, Richard and Annie McKee Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion. Harvard Business School Press. Boston. 2005.

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