Science tells us that a little stress can actually be helpful in our performance. But what happens when it gets to be too much?

I was doing some work with a senior leader in the Innovation area of a large technology organization. It was clear when the video chat started that she wasn’t her typical, bright self and she said as much, “Normally, I’m really positive and can bounce back. Day-to-day business stuff doesn’t bring me down. But lately, it’s harder to get back up. I’m not myself. It’s tough and I’m worried about how it’s affecting my team.’

Maybe that sounds familiar. In ‘regular’ times we work hard to balance the challenges of work objectives, office politics, team dynamics, family, and parental obligations, even trying to find time for a few days off. All of this can be draining and require a bucketload of resilience.

Add to that the strange new post-pandemic, hyper-polarized world we’re living in, and we have a potent recipe for high levels of stress; stress which feels different than what we’ve faced before .

Some stress can be good- when we stress a muscle within reasonable limits, we make it stronger. When we challenge people to be their best, we can raise their capabilities and their confidence.

The brain is constantly responding to stress. Extreme or chronic stress can have a negative effect. But moderate and short-lived stress—like an upcoming exam or preparing to deliver a speech in public—improves cognitive performance and memory.- Daniela Kaufer, UC Berkley

But stress, when it’s too severe or when it’s sustained over too long a time, can cause damage. It’s damaging to our health, to our sleep, to our decision making, our focus, and to our ability to effectively lead teams. This happens because, when we are under significant and prolonged stress, we tend to turn to protective behaviors we learned early on, behaviors that may not serve us today. In other words,

When we stress, we regress.

This all starts with the primary role of the brain: while our brains allow us to reason and sort things out in everyday life, a key function of the brain is to keep us safe.  The brain is constantly scanning the landscape for danger, so we’re actually predisposed toward looking for what’s wrong.

When we sense danger, our systems move away from creativity and resourcefulness and toward protection – this is the classic ‘fight or flight or freeze’ syndrome we hear about. And when we’re in this state, it’s terrifically challenging to be intentional, to be resourceful, to make calm, thoughtful decisions. We move from having unlimited options to a very binary way of looking at things (should I stay and defend myself or withdraw to fight another day?).

What can cause stress? Of course, we all have different things that feel stressful- some of us actually enjoy the adventure of not knowing what’s around the next curve; others become anxious if they don’t have the full and complete plan in front of them. It’s all on a continuum and no one approach is best.

It’s important to note that our biological systems don’t really differentiate between physical and psychological stress. Our brains react much the same in either case. So, stress can be driven by anything that threatens our physical safety but also anything that

·        threatens our psychological safety

·        comes as unexpected or throws off our identity

·        we’re unprepared for which has some importance to us

·        represents loss (or fear of loss) to us

You see this demonstrated in lots of ways, from a simple sense of overwhelm to micromanaging to arguments to physical violence.

Our default in these situations is to act reflexively; to act out of instinct rather than thought. The classic fight or flight syndrome works great in a truly dangerous situation but likely won’t be welcomed in most corporate environments.

I often talk to leaders about the ideal of showing up responsive rather than reactive. Responsive is thoughtful and considered and open to ideas; reactive is binary and operating from fear.

What do we do about it?

Step one is to be aware when we’re feeling stress. Pay attention to the thoughts that creep in and the physical sensation in your body when you feel stressed. Many people report a knot in their gut, a tightness in the chest, tension in the neck or a sudden headache. When we recognize what is happening, we have far better capability to control it.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.- Viktor E. Frankl

Here’s a link to a short, fun and enlightening video from the Conscious Leadership Group which talks about what can happen and how to recognize it: Above the Line/Below the Line.

What Do I Do About It?

Many people in corporate leadership roles have a background in hyper-stressful situations so there’s a tendency to assume you can handle it. And that can be true until you’re in a new environment (like suddenly leading a remote team or or home-schooling your kids or worrying about the health of your aging parents) and feeling challenged in ways you aren’t used to (like a Board meeting, an important strategy discussion, an abrasive new colleague or high-stakes presentation).

Further, as our post- Covid, new normal, hybrid-and-remote teams experience progresses, almost all of us will find ourselves in new, challenging, possibly frightening situations.

The key is to find ways to stay present and resourceful; we want to lower the limbic response, stay aware of our options, remind ourselves of the control we have.

Below are five steps you can take in the moment to return to a calmer, more centered place when stressed:

1.     Breathe- yes, deep breathing can have remarkable impact. Here’s a link to a technique called Box Breathing- it takes about 30 seconds, it’s easy, and no one in the room needs to know you’re doing it: Box Breathing to reduce stress

2.     Remind yourself of your strengths and your experience. When have you moved through challenging times in the past? And what within you allowed you to succeed in those situations?

3.     Bring yourself back to the moment. Fear can be described as ‘energy focused on things in the future we cannot control’.So, one technique is to refocus your thoughts on what is right in front of you.  Consider: Why am I feeling this way right now? How can I return to calm? What is one small step I can take right now to help resolve the situation? 

Thinking doesn’t resolve fear, but action can.

Fear tends to freeze us so getting into positive action can be helpful. Oftentimes, stress is created when we feel we’ve lost control. A simple strategy is to remind yourself what you have control over. A technique: make a list, on paper if possible, but even in your head, of the things you have control over, the areas where you have the ability to make decisions and have authority over your life. By re-directing your energy toward what you can control vs. everything in the world you cannot, you often can get back on track.

4.     Look for a way to help someone else, even for a short time. By focusing outward on the welfare of others, we can often change how we’re perceiving our own situation.

5.     Self-compassion- this sounds squishy, I know. But give yourself a break. We all feel stress and we all stress about different things. So, let go of the self-talk that says you’re weak if you are having a hard time focusing; that’s just a story and it isn’t helpful. In fact, you’re being human.

The Leadership Part of This

As a leader, one danger appears when you do not recognize that you can influence and alleviate the stress of others. This can happen when you don’t recognize how your actions and directions are boosting the stress in others. When you don’t recognize that it’s been a prolonged time without rest. When you don’t recognize that it’s an expected outcome of the environment that you create and allow. The simple equation is this: the decision you make next can either increase or decrease the level of stress for your team.

But the biggest villain in this may not be the stress itself; it’s our desire to ignore it when things feel wrong. When we learn how to avoid being triggered, when we’re able to stay calm in new and challenging situations, when we stay quick in our thinking, When we see others struggling and we are present for them, even if we cannot solve the issue for them.  THEN we are growing as human beings and able to lead from a more powerful and authentic and inspiring place.

Have your own ways of dealing with stress and stressful situations? Let’s hear from you on what works by posting a comments.


Using Neuroscience to stay calm under pressure

Book: Success under stress- a science driven approach to excelling under pressure

Video from Conscious Leadership Group: Above the Line/Below the Line

Article: Help your overwhelmed, stressed out team (HBR)