Yeah, If You Could Go Ahead and Manage Your Stress, That’d Be Greaaat

7 minute read

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Here we are in February, and we’re finally far enough past the holidays that things are back to normal. The decorations are stowed for the year, and New Year’s resolutions are well underway (or gone by the wayside). Companies that have a calendar fiscal year now have their year-end results and the post-mortem process has begun. For the most part, people are up and running on their new budget year and their new challenges and initiatives.  

Yet we’ve been noticing what seems like an uptick in stress levels among clients lately. Granted, there can still be a lot of cold and inclement weather to deal with that makes life harder, as well as the illnesses that commonly go around this time of year. There are also recent and current goings-on in Washington, D.C. that are stressing many people out. And then there is the general malaise of over-worked, high-pressure life that plagues the workplace culture here in the U.S. All of these add up to clients presenting with a great deal of stress-induced negative outcomes that must be addressed to help them move forward.

I am certified in, and several of my client companies use, a suite of personality assessments called the Hogan Report. The Hogan generates three important types of information: it identifies what motivates a person (their needs in life), it identifies to what extent they do or don’t use particular behaviors in pursuit of what motivates them, and it identifies the extent to which the person does or doesn’t use particular behaviors in pursuit of those motives when they’re stressed.

There’s also been significant advancements in the last twenty-five years related to helping people increase their emotional intelligence, which is the ability to be mindful of when we’re stressed and to manage that stress skillfully, as well as the ability to know when others are stressed and navigate that skillfully, too.

The Hogan Report and emotional intelligence assessments give us the opportunity to ask our clients: how do you manage your stress? What tools are at your disposal? Do you have intentional strategies you put into action when you’re stressed or anticipate being stressed?

You may recall our past discussions of the human biological fight or flight response that is at the crux of stress. “Fight or flight” evolved when humanity was very young and the number one priority was ensuring the survival of the species. Back then, the early human brain—which is commonly called the reptile or lizard brain—was on constant guard for threats, such as a saber-toothed tiger at the mouth of our cave, or a warring tribe coming up the hill to attack us and steal our resources. And when these threats were anticipated, there were two primary options: stay and fight to the death if necessary, or run for one’s life. In preparation for either of these extremely demanding physical tasks, our reptile brains would signal our bodies to get ready by raising pulse and respiration rates, flooding the bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisol, and concentrating circulation on major muscle groups to enable either fighting the threat or running away from it.

Fast forward millennia, and that reptile brain is now the oldest part of the modern human brain; it still serves as our threat assessment center. Except today, instead of a saber-toothed tiger raising the threat alarms, it’s Bob from Accounting, who’s telling us we’ve got to cut our budget another 15%.

Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

Our minds immediately calculate the risks, and as we play the scenarios out, we’re unable to meet the budget…we lose our jobs…and we wind up living in a box under the bridge! In other words, we experience the budget request as a threat to our perceived competence by those who determine our reputation, and thus as a threat to our ability to provide for ourselves and our families—in short, a threat to our ability to survive.

And consequently, our stress response is in full force, and we may wind up telling Bob ‘what he can go and do’ or something else unskillful that harms our career and others’ perceptions of us far more than the actual proposed budget cut would have.

So how do you get your modern and lizard brains to distinguish Bob from the saber-toothed tiger? Here are some strategies we coach our executives to use when they are experiencing a stress response:

  • Take three long, very slow, very deep breaths. Hold the breath for about 5 seconds before letting it out slowly, and then hold the emptiness for about 5 seconds before taking the next deep breath. Each one of these deep breath and exhalation cycles should take at least 30 seconds. This exercise activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which releases chemicals to counteract the adrenaline and cortisol that are triggering the fight or flight response.
  • If at all possible, never initiate a conversation when you realize you’re stressed, and never remain in a conversation that someone else initiated when you’re feeling stressed. Excuse yourself from the meeting and go walk around the building, or go sit in a toilet stall and breathe deeply for 5 minutes.
  • In cases when the 5-minute break is not going to be enough, we recommend saying something to the effect of: “I recognize this is a stressful conversation for me/you. Let’s hit the pause button and resume after lunch/tomorrow/next week, etc.”
  • When you’re not directly involved in dialogue/conflict with someone, turn on your silent “life narrator.” For example, say to yourself: “I am sitting in this meeting, and I am taking notes, and I am drinking coffee, and I am watching Tom talk, and I am talking to myself, and I am going to be OK.”  Narrating your current surroundings serves as something of a Jedi mind-trick to steer us away from catastrophizing that our world is about to come to an end.

It’s important to remember that when fight or flight is triggered, the body is working furiously to get adequate blood flow to fuel our major muscle groups to quickly enable us to fight or flee, so it sends less blood to the prefrontal cortex, where reason and judgement are located. That’s why when we’re triggered, we tend to say and do career-limiting things.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Also, we shouldn’t wait for triggering moments to practice engaging broader, more holistic stress-management and self-care tactics:

  • Prioritize getting plenty of rest—both in terms of actual sleep and in terms of time away from work.
  • Be sure you’re getting adequate exercise, and not just a stroll around the block, but exercise that challenges you aerobically and/or metabolically.
  • Feed yourself proper nutrition, especially a diet that supports healthy cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
  • Take breaks from your phone—we regularly encourage clients to turn it off by 9pm, or at least leave it in the other room with notifications turned off after 9pm. I’ve yet to work with an executive or CEO that expected their people to answer emails at midnight or 4am. No one expects you to be on-call 24/7 (if they do, it’s time for a new job).

Finally, let’s talk for a minute about our roles as leaders. Are you aware of when your people are stressed? Do you talk with them about their stress?

You might be thinking, why should I talk to them about their stress? Isn’t that their responsibility?

Our answer is simple: when do you think your people are doing their best work? When they’re feeling engaged, healthy, and clear minded, or when adrenaline and cortisol are surging through their bodies, they’re fearful of how they’re being perceived, and the blood flow to their prefrontal cortexes have been greatly reduced?

When you do think they get their best ideas? When do you think they do the best job supervising those under them?

A large part of the role of an effective servant-leader is to acknowledge the mental and emotional state of those we would lead, and to help ensure their health, happiness, and engagement.

For this week: Conduct a stress inventory for yourself and take charge of managing your stress levels. If your stress is well-managed, consider your team members’ stress levels. You might start out by talking with your team about the things you are doing to manage your stress and encourage them to take tangible steps toward managing their own. February is a great occasion to do this because it’s American Heart Month. Your team’s culture will shift to include wellness and stress management when it’s apparent that you’re walking your talk.

If you found this helpful, imagine what one-on-one coaching with Dan could do! If you are interested in growing your 21st Century Leadership skills, executive presence, and visibility in today’s business world, consider this your personal invitation to connect. We look forward to supporting YOUR success!