Stress is defined as the “physical and psychological response to a pressure or threat”. Sometimes that pressure is real, when we have a deadline to meet, and other times the pressure is imagined, when we assume that we are the only ones struggling and that we have no support around us, or that if we make a mistake the outcome will be catastrophic. It is when we believe that we don’t have the capacity or support to cope with the pressure, that this pressure leads to adverse reactions. This is commonly what people know as “stress” and often includes physical symptoms (heart-rate increase, shaking, pain, shortness of breath or a tight stomach) as well as cognitive symptoms (sense of overwhelm, lack of focus, mood swings or being defensive). This “fight-or-flight” response can last anything from several minutes to many hours. If it doesn’t subside, it can lead to a chronic response that results in weight gain, high blood pressure, insomnia, and inhibited immune function. The difficulty is that when we notice those initial physical symptoms, most of us think these are bad as we have been told for so many years that ‘stress is bad’. This belief triggers neurological and chemical changes in the brain which lead to us feeling even more overwhelmed and to be more alert to stress, threats, risks and problems which, in turn, stimulates that stress response further. It is a downward spiral. What’s more, over time, we start to get used to this state, so that we actually find it uncomfortable to not feel under pressure or stressed and we find it harder and harder to switch off. Can you associate with that feeling? I know I can and so can most of the leaders I work with.
Well, don’t lose hope. The good news is that stress is not actually bad for us after all. Recent studies have shown that it is not the pressure that we are under or the “stress” that we feel that leads to long term health problems, it is in fact the BELIEF that stress is bad, largely because of the cycle detailed above.
So, if we can interpret those physical reactions a little differently, we can totally change the consequences and turn these moments into times that we have increased focus, improved performance and enjoy health benefits as a result. They can be the catalysts that enable us to reach a flow state or “peak performance”. In this state we notice that we have an increased capacity for problem-solving, creative thinking and learning. We also find that connecting with and working with others in these times builds stronger relationships and shared trust so it can support our social health too. The key is to know that those physiological reactions are your body preparing for action, activating your internal resources (chemical and neurological) to cope with the challenge. Knowing this enables you to use these resources as it the rational thinking and problem-solving parts of the brain to function more effectively.
So, to start putting this knowledge to good use, try these three simple steps:
When you first notice those physical signs of challenge, the heart rate increasing, breath shortening or temperature changes, take a moment to acknowledge them and remind yourself that this is the body is preparing you for optimal performance.
Imagine the best possible outcome that could come from this situation, reminding yourself that you have the resources to thrive in this situation.
Reach out to someone else and speak to them, that could be to delegate, ask for help or talk through the task ahead. Doing this releases a chemical called oxytocin which triggers a de-stress response which supports our capacity to cope as well as being anti-inflammatory for the body, helping muscles stay relaxed and keeping the heart strong.
Practicing this habit will improve your performance and turn that negative “stress” into EU-stress (good stress). Of course, every time you then do overcome challenges you will increase your resilience as well as getting a huge sense of satisfaction.
To learn more, watch this short TED talk by Dr Kelly McGonigal.
Have a go and let me know how you get on.