Stress is part of our everyday lives. We can either control it or let it control us. The difference between those two situations is how we manage our “alarm” and our reactions to the daily stressors we face.
As the global head of sales hit the stage, he cracked. He looked out at the audience of colleagues and saw nothing but failure in his people. All his brain could focus on was their missed opportunities, laziness, and a collective bad year. Without thinking he said, “You are simply the worst team I have every worked with.”
For more than fifteen minutes he continued ranting before transitioning into an update of the quarter’s results. No one stopped him. When the CEO assessed the damage after the meeting, he fired his sales chief. At the exit interview, the head of sales didn’t even realize he had done something wrong. I wish it weren’t, but this is a true story.
When stress hijacks your brain, we get stuck on the short loop. The alarm, the tiny region called the amygdala which keeps us alert and out of danger, can misfire after exposure to too much stress. You lead. You manage. You innovate. You solve people problems. You save the day. To say you are exposed to stress is like saying London or Seattle get some rain.
Some days, you crash. Other days, your people call you a grumpy bear. Occasionally, after months of deadlines, events, and emergencies you melt down. Hopefully we don’t melt down on stage or in front of our teams, but it happens and we are not, in fact, crazy when we do.
The answer to stress at work is not actually as complicated as it might seem. While our brains still have some of the same regions as the dinosaurs, we also have evolved to the level of mental capacity where we can intentionally change the way we manage complex and complicated stimuli.
Stress is actually not a bad thing. When treated as a sign that something needs our attention, it can be monitored the way we measure marketing leads or key performance indicators. It can keep us sharp and teach us what we really care about. But to most of us, it feels bad. We avoid stress. We ignore stress. That’s when it bites us.
The first step is to making friends with your “alarm” is to recognize that we are always experiencing some level of stress. When you are sleeping, your alarm is still on. That’s why you wake up before your clock rings. When you get excited and feel jazzed, that’s still stress; it’s just pleasurable stress. When you stop suddenly, avoiding a biker you almost hit with your car, that’s your alarm keeping you out of trouble.
Second, separate the areas of your life where you feel stressed and those where you feel relaxed. To truly make stress valuable, we have to differentiate when it is running the show rather than our clear thinking determining how we behave. A simple exercise to do this is to measure your stress level during transitions of your day. Ten is the highest stress you ever feel, like when your child is hurt or you get rear ended. One is what it feels like to wake up from a good nap. You can’t have no stress because then you would be dead. Keep a simple list of the time and your stress level in the notes section of your phone. You will observe where and when you feel stress and that awareness is priceless.
Finally, with an acceptance that stress is a good thing and a record of stress in our lives, we can start to plan our days based on what we care about most. At work, to prevent melt downs, you have to have casual time to reflect or get to know colleagues. You have to have breaks in between meetings. If everything is pressure, eventually your brain will let you know it needs a break. Developing a rhythm at work where stress is always valuable takes time and perhaps a change of mindset, but I promise it is the core of what makes great work possible.
A quick concluding story to make the point. Three years ago I was traveling around the country speaking and coaching. I worked every day. I logged 40,000 miles a year on my car. I started measuring my stress and planning the amount of stress I would take on each day, and I am now 40 pounds lighter. I work harder than ever, but in a way that takes care of my brain and body as I do. We can all learn to make friends with stress; and, we are all capable of new levels of health and happiness at work.
– Jon Wortmann is an expert in the areas of communication, leadership, and stress reduction. He’s the author of multiple books including Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence, The Three Commitments of Leadership: How Clarity, Stability, and Rhythm Create Great Leaders, and Hijacked by Your Brain: Discovering the Path to Freedom From Stress.
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