When I first start executive coaching work with clients, I ask them to do various assessments to expand in their self-awareness. One critical one we focus on measures how energized they are. It’s very hard for us to exercise leadership or be willing to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones to learn new behaviors if we are stressed. Our 24/7 corporate Stairmaster climbing often has us experiencing Time Deficit Disorder (TDD), trying to stuff 48 hours into 24. Chronic stress leads to cardiovascular disease (#1 killer of women in the U.S. at 24%) and a little diagnosed but widely experienced disease called LDD (Leadership Deficit Disorder) – a disease that kills career potential.
Each of us has different stress triggers and behaviors and with the chronic stress we face, we don’t even realize we are in “high-stress” mode until we take a step back to do a self-diagnosis. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a personalized five-step prescription to diagnose and reduce stress? Glad you asked.
Your Brain On Stress
Stress is often caused by situations that are demanding but where we don’t feel much control over how to handle the demands. This leaves us feeling inadequate and threatened. Our brain evolved to handle threats (mostly physical threats) by activating fight or flight parts of the brain. When this part of the brain is activated, it takes away resources from the rational parts of the brain needed for problem solving or perspective taking. Chronic stress has also been shown to reduce brain cells involved in memory and focus as well as negatively impact our immune system.
How Stress Affects Leadership
- Emotional intelligence – Emotional intelligence is our ability to know and manage ourselves and others. Our emotional intelligence is not a fixed number (unlike our IQ). It can grow as we learn. It can also diminish in moments when stress levels trigger behaviors our rational brain later regrets.
- Creativity – Stress increases blood flow to the muscles (for fight or flight), taking away from problem-solving and creativity.
- Productivity – Under stress we are less able to focus, less able to be energized, and that affects productivity.
- Learning – Stress blocks chemical reactions in the brain that are necessary for learning.
- Ability to Meet Goals – High levels of stress can cause us to give up in the face of setbacks.
Your Personalized Five Step Plan
If you could take 20 minutes from your day right now and develop a plan that would lower your personal stress, would you do it?
Take out a piece of paper (yes, right now – I’m watching you) and start by thinking about three times when you were under chronic stress. I know it makes us break out in hives just even thinking about it, but trust me, this has a happy ending. I’m not talking about when you lost your car keys running late for work. I’m talking about several days or weeks where you experienced more than “normal for you” stress.
1. Discover Your Stress Symptoms – Most of us are under such chronic stress conditions that we may not even notice our symptoms or see them as abnormal signs of stress. Some common symptoms are lack of sleep, feelings of tiredness. But each of us also experiences our very own unique symptoms. During chronic stress times:
- What physical symptoms did I experience that were not normal? (broke out in hives, kept getting up in the middle of the night)
- What emotional symptoms? (e.g. withdrawn or lack of energy, or emotional swings, or grumpiness, or urges to go postal)
- What mental symptoms (e.g. quick to blame others, quick to feel like a victim, quick to feel superior, quick to be defensive)
For example, I definitely know my stress levels are high when I wake up several times at night, when I’m more even more impatient than usual, when I have an even greater affinity for french fries and chocolate. Our bodies are very good gauge for stress. My skin tends to develop a rash in a specific spot in the back of the neck when I am under chronic stress. I realize I’m sharing my deepest darkest secrets, but I want you to get really specific here for yourself.
2. Discover Your Stress Triggers – Generally our stress hormones are triggered when we experience a threat. Each one of us is triggered by different circumstances.
- What are some common themes among my high stress times above?
- What were fears I was experiencing? What were the threats?
- What other feelings did I have? What caused these feelings?
The cause of stress is a threat we perceive or a loss of something we value. For example, I tend to get stressed out when I experience fear of failure (loss of self-esteem). For me, this is mostly related to work situations because I base so much of my self-worth around my work. This is an example of an internal stress trigger. When our self-worth or identity is threatened, it is a great source of stress.
3. Discover Your Stress Derailer Behaviors – When we are under stress it impacts our leadership in different ways, depending on our “leadership comfort zone”. We respond by doing more of what feels safe for us. They may be the opposite of what is needed in the situation, but under stress we unconsciously go back to our embedded patterns of behavior.
- During the times I have been most stressed, what do I notice myself doing even more of?
- What leadership beliefs or mindsets does this reflect?
- How does this behavior and mindset serve me? How does it derail me?
For example, I tend to be a pretty independent person in my thinking. Under stressful situations when I really would want the advice of others, I can tend to isolate myself pretty quickly. Several leadership assessments can be used to get this information as well.
4. Discover The Circuit Breakers That Work For You – What are the mindsets or actions that allow you to move from high to lower stress levels? Since most stress has to do with perceived threats, we can often take action to remove ourselves from situations that cause stress (e.g. a stressful commute), to reframe the situation in our own minds so it is not as threatening (“this lay-off is a great opportunity for me to find a job with a growing company”), or to seek others’ help and support. UCLA research shows that women in particular have a “tend and befriend” response to stress. Where men might “go into their cave”, women will “nurture their young” or connect with loved ones to lower stress levels. This is the happy part of the exercise. Think back to situations where you’ve been able to successfully manage your stress to get yourself from high stress to lower stress.
- What actions did I take to sustainably lower my stress levels? (eating chocolate doesn’t count!)
- How did I reframe the situation to lower my real or perceived loss or threat?
- Who could I count on for support?
We are mostly in control of the stress we experience because most of the stress we experience is our personal response to external circumstances. The above are great questions to ask ourselves every time we are faced with stress. When I find myself in chronic stress mode I get back to my zumba classes. I use journaling and my meditation work to reframe the situation I am dealing with.
5. Create Your “Stress Buster Action Plan” We may not be able to eliminate stress but we can definitely develop muscles to insulate ourselves. It starts by being aware of the above and then creating a maintenance plan:
- When I’m fully energized and feeling good, what do I do (physically, mentally, emotionally, creatively, and spiritually)?
- What is the schedule that I can maintain that will allow me to do the above? (then put it on your calendar)
- What are some mindset shifts or leadership practices to help me manage stress?
- What are energy busters that I need to stay vigilant about?
For example, I like to go to at least 3 zumba classes a week, journaling or meditation 4-5 times a week (it takes 20 mins), and regular writing. Time with friends and listening to my favorite classical music is also a treat. I note my “Stress Buster Plan” on my calendar. Other practices that really work for me are practicing gratitude, self-compassion, and “saying a guilt-free no” to tasks and people who drain my energy. Being an introvert, too many large meetings are an energy buster for me, so I have learned how to manage my calendar for these.
Keep your “Personalized Stress Buster Plan” on your calendar, on your fridge, or wherever it’s going to be visible. Share with others so they can hold you accountable for it. Work with a group of friends who will support each other in managing stress.
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Breathe, Meditate, Lead – Ways mindfulness can make us better leaders
Rick Hanson’s “Stress Proof Your Brain” – It’s fantastic. I recommend this to my clients