No matter if you run your own business or if you are working on climbing the ladder to corporate success, stress is something that tends to be an issue for most people—and for high achievers, it can definitely be worse if it goes unmanaged. It is necessary to develop stress management skills.
Life teaches you that you must manage stress loads in a way that resembles putting weights on a scale. If you overload yourself, personally and professionally, you’ll be stressed out and you won’t have the time to do anything (at least in a positive fashion). However, it’s much more effective to view the two sides of the scale as: Demands/Challenges on one side; coping strategies on the other. The goal here is not to erase stress—the goal is to have commensurate coping mechanisms to match the amount of demands/challenges/stress that you are faced with.
Think about it this way. Successful people usually do have plenty of stress in their lives—that’s something that comes with the territory. However, these individuals have been able to find a balance that allows them to take pressures or stress-fueled feelings and turn them into energy that propels them toward achievement. They know how to cope, and in turn their ability to manage their stress leads them to utilizing their time in a positive way.
When Stress Becomes a Crisis
Everyone defines stress differently. Everyone manages stress differently. I know some people who absolutely thrive on having a lot going on, and who actually become more anxious when their schedules aren’t jam packed and rife with commitments. I also am connected with some people—also extraordinary performers —who are high functioning and capable, but who come unglued when they have just one more thing added to their daily plate of responsibilities. Their equilibrium is affected, which causes misalignment, and it’s here where stress becomes a crisis.
When a person’s stress propels them into crisis mode, it can take a physical toll on the body—mentally and physically. I’m sure you’ve heard of the flight-fight response to stress. This “Universal Stress Mechanism” was built into our bodies thousands of years ago when we were faced with physical dangers. After all, when you are faced with a fight with a lion, you need to be primed and ready to give it your all. The mechanism works like this: With the sight or sound of the lion, a message goes to the hypothamulas, which I like to refer to as the Grand Central Station of the brain. Messages then get sent to the rest of your body. For example, your senses get more acute, your heart-rate increases to allow more blood flow to your brain, and your muscles tense up. The problem is that we are now responding to non-physical stress (e.g. missed deadline, poor presentation, argument) in a physical way. And if you keep evoking this stress response, eventually your body says “enough,” and then come the chronic headaches, backaches, ulcers…
Stress and Coping
Appreciating that “stress is everywhere” and “is killing us,” I’ve long been interested and researched what successful people do to cope. In one study, I explored the Buffer Hypothesis – which theorizes that “social support” can buffer the impact of stress on physical and mental health.
Social support systems include both the “structure” of the people in your life, and the “function” they provide for you. To measure “structure,” consider: Your marital status? Who is in your family? Do you have friends? How many? How often do you see them? And to determine the “function” they provide, consider the type of resources the person has to offer. This could come via emotional support, i.e., a shoulder to cry on; tangible support, i.e., having someone available to care for you when you’re sick or borrow money from; or informational support, i.e., guidance from a mentor or availability of information in the completion of a task.
It could be reasoned that a person who has more social support will be better able to manage stress and will therefore have a better quality of life—they will simply be able to cope on a higher level because of the “buffer” they have created around themselves that insulates them from a stressful situation. And it makes sense. A person who has a friend who can make them laugh or “talk them down from a ledge” in a tough time will be better able to think about a stressor in a positive light as opposed to a person who has to face their fears, worries, and problems alone. A person with a neighbor to let their dog out when they have to work late will be less stressed during busy times at work. A child with friends to play with is happier than one who is alone. Does it now make sense why your parents want you to visit them more?
Always interested in the intersection between home and work, I wanted to test this hypothesis and see if there was a difference between social supports at home compared to social support at work. My overall finding was yes, the more support we have in our lives, the better our general well-being. Yet, what was more interesting was that people felt physically and mentally better when they had social support at work. In other words, someone’s general well-being was highest when they had good work relationships as opposed to bad or non-existent ones. Reflect on how you’ve felt working on a great team and with a terrific boss. Now compare that to a challenging work environment. How did you feel at each job?
One of my recommendations: Be nice to your co-workers…
Building Your Tool Box
Of course, the makeup of a social support system varies on a person-by-person basis, and depending on what yours looks like, there could be some development work involved. It might provide a long-term strategy, but if you are trying to handle stress you are facing right now, I do have some practical tips that can be used in the short-term. Having a diverse quantity of coping mechanisms on both sides of the spectrum is a positive thing.
- Sit down and develop a plan for structuring your day. Prioritize what needs to be done ASAP.
- Finish the hardest tasks or the things you are dreading the most, first. Getting those things off your plate will help alleviate stress as your day progresses. If your most stressful tasks happen to be scheduled for a time later in the day, focus your morning around tasks you enjoy and things that offer more freedom and control.
- Take breaks. Clear your head by going for a walk, reading a book for pleasure, or picking up the phone and calling a friend.
- Feed yourself. Eat foods that promote clear and healthy thinking—avoid food that will sit like a rock in your stomach or trigger your acid reflux.
- Don’t scatter meetings, no matter if they are conference calls or in person. Get all meetings done in batches. This will help you better organize your time and you won’t have to jump from one project to another.
- Say “no.” This is so important. When you are already pressed for time, build a barrier that prevents you from adding more into your day. Say no unapologetically.
- Workout before you go to work. I know many people who make sure they hit the gym or go for a run prior to starting their day. Yes, you have to time manage this, but making this a priority will not only allow for better health, it will also get the creative juices and positive endorphins flowing.
- And Breathe. Again. I’m serious. Close your eyes and do this—and repeat as needed until you feel yourself calm down.
- When you end your day, shut off—your phone, your computer, all of it. And have a drink if that’s something that helps you unwind.
These short-term ideas can help you get through the day. But as you slow down, take a moment to get organized so you have better coping mechanisms that will aid you in the long-term. This could be something as simple as making sure your office isn’t a mess and knowing where all your files are, or it might be something more developed, like connecting with an old friend who always makes you laugh or creating a network of colleagues who might be able to provide some help when you are faced with a crisis.
Additionally, I invite you to review the following activities. Some are effective for short-term stress and not in the long-term stress management, and vice-versa. Circle the activities you currently engage in. Are they effective for you? What would add to the lists?
What are the things you do to manage stress?
Me personally? I power walk with friends around the lake I live on. Exercise, socializing, therapy, and coaching all in one activity. Done in 60 minutes—it’s not only an efficient hour, but a delightful one as well. I’d highly recommend it.
The larger your toolbox, the better you will feel. What’s in your box?
Contact Julie Kantor at firstname.lastname@example.org.