Rene has a high pressure job managing the staff of an outpatient cancer treatment center. The COO frequently asks her to be in charge of big projects.
On the one hand, Rene likes being seen as someone who can handle important assignments. But on the other hand, Rene feels like she lives in a pressure cooker. Deadlines loom. The pressure builds as a project stumbles along from one problem to another. Employees make excuses. Anxiety mounts as the fear of failing to meet expectations becomes a very real possibility.
Rene doesn’t sleep well during those times. She wakes up with a feeling of dread as she anticipates dealing with another day of demands. She just about took her husband’s head off one morning when he innocently asked her what time she thought she’d be home that night.
The other day Rene was in the middle of a meeting when the alarm on her smartphone went off signaling that it was time for her to leave to take her daughter to a doctor’s appointment. She could feel her heart pounding as she stifled the voice within her that wanted to scream, “STOP! Just stop and let me get away from all of this for a while.”
The problem with Rene’s approach is that it’s an outmoded method of dealing with stress. She tells herself that her stress is a bad thing that’s impairing her performance, happiness and health. Like most people, Rene believes that experiencing stress and anxiety is bad for her body, and is responsible for making her miserable, ruining her relationships, and draining her spirit.
However, recent research has shown that not everyone suffers adverse effects from stressful situations. In fact, people who perform extraordinarily well have the same physiological responses as those whose performance declines under stress. Their bodies are actually healthier than most, as are their relationships. Their motivation levels are much higher than people who have debilitating stress reactions.
What sets high performers apart is a different mindset – one that enables them to recognize stress sensations as a sign that they have abundant energy available to help them do extremely well.
What about all those studies showing that stress causes our blood pressure to rise, our mind to flood with anxiety, and our immune system to be compromised leaving us vulnerable to everything from colds to cancer? Those outcomes are only true for people who try to suppress their stress reactions, which only locks them into battling their physical and emotional arousal.
People who learn to direct the energy generated by stress reactions are able to release it productively by doing something about their challenging situation. Stress occurs when we’re facing important goals. Stress gives us the energy we need to summon our courage, develop connections with our allies, and learn new skills necessary to overcome emerging challenges.
So when you feel your body getting tense, your breath quickening, or your palms sweating, recognize that your body is mobilizing to take action. Ask yourself what the most effective response will be. Do you need to fight or flee? Probably not. Do you need to engage, connect, and grow in order to overcome the challenge you’re facing? Most often.
Focus on how you want to respond going forward, not how you’ve reacted in the past. What would it look like to stand up for yourself? To ask for help? To practice a new behavior to attain a different result?
Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has recently released a groundbreaking book summarizing her stress research. In The Upside of Stress: why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it she explains that resilience is the courage to grow from stress. While we can’t control the challenges that occur in our lives, we can choose our relationship to the stress we experience.
Dr. McGonigal has found that individuals who thrive in stressful conditions embrace stress as “an act of bravery, one that requires choosing meaning over avoiding discomfort. This is what it means to be good at stress. It’s not about being untouched by adversity or unruffled by difficulties. It’s about allowing stress to awaken in you those core human strengths of courage, connection and growth.”
Start developing a new mindset about stress. Be aware of when your body is being affected. Welcome the sensations as a response to a situation you care about. Ask yourself what you could do to use the energy that’s being aroused to take action toward achieving a positive outcome.