Lean into stress. Not succumb to it.

Now-a-days, we are constantly invited to push our limits, go out of our comfort zone, and take risks. It’s a romanticized notion, but it does cause stress. Because we are challenged to unlearn and relearn. A promotion, a job shift, management changes, or long hours – any of these occurrences trigger stress.

Thus, it’s not surprising that 84% leaders reported experiencing stress regularly, in a survey of 740. More than half of the 84% said stress negatively impacted their effectiveness or business results. However, the remaining (45%) reported that stress either had no impact on their leadership or had a positive effect. More than 25% said stress actually improved their effectiveness. How did that happen?

Heeding to the cues. Our responses are usually governed by evolutionary mechanisms of dealing with threats – fight, flight or freeze. But threats take highly complex forms today. We need emotional, mental and social flexibility to manage them. And that looks different for each one of us. The signs of stress are evident – sleepless nights, headaches, breathlessness, constant anxiety, forgetfulness, irritability, blood pressure fluctuations and what not. Do we pay heed and intervene? Or do we just push through?

Jim Daniell, COO Oxfam America, shares, “When you’re stressed and frustrated it’s much harder to see the state of mind you are in. Unless you have clear strategies to be aware of it and then shift it, you more than likely will cause serious harm to yourself and your organization.”

Shifting the stress. Don’t stress about being stressed. Just breathe through it. Conscious, slow breathing helps us achieve balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Stress puts our sympathetic nervous system on an over-drive, causing a range of symptoms. Deep, intentional breathing activates the parasympathetic system, which slows this process down.

This balance helps us experience coherence, a state of emotional stability and increased access to the prefrontal cortex, which promotes mental clarity, focus, and concentration.

Relating to it differently. Author and researcher Shawn Anchor conducted a study in UBS, in the midst of the banking crisis. He asked managers to watch one of two videos, the first depicting stress as harmful to performance, and the second showing how stress enhances the human brain and body. Six weeks later it was found that individuals who had viewed the ‘enhancing’ video, experienced a significant drop in health problems and a sharp increase in happiness at work.

Anchor recommends making a list of things we can control (project tasks), and a list of things we can’t (global economy). Choose one stress that you can control and come up with small, concrete steps you can take to reduce it. This way your brain will learn to navigate through stress, positively. It’s like building a new habit.

A bit of self-awareness, combined with a commitment to action, can stop stress in its tracks. Will you take it on?

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