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How to Handle Stress


This article was originally published by Brien Dunphy on LinkedIn.


As an Executive Coach I am intimately familiar with stress – both my own and that of many of my clients. The pandemic has certainly heightened the amount of stress in our lives, adding to the everyday work, family, and interpersonal load that we carry. Recently, a client came to me stressed and overwhelmed, she was running on empty, having little energy for the demands of work and life. As an incredibly successful professional, she knew there was more she could be doing but she was spending her day running from crisis to crisis with little left to give her team, her family, or even herself. Stress is inevitable, but there are ways to minimize its effects. Here are three practices that have helped my clients mitigate the effects of stress.

1.Work to Maintain a Positive Story


It is important to keep a full perspective and work to maintain a positive story. Slow down and quiet yourself to hear the story you are telling in your own head. Focus on the positive aspects of your situation and find some part of your story to appreciate. Many of us jump right to the negative when we encounter stress. We replay the situation in our minds over and over, seeing only the negative and minimizing the positive. We think we are strategizing but in actuality we are catastrophizing.

There is a distinct difference between strategizing and catastrophizing. People mistake one for the other. Working out unwanted scenarios is part of strategizing; assuming worst scenarios are inevitable is catastrophizing.

Strategizing has a solution-focused, hopeful outlook where you look to maximize resources to overcome obstacles. Catastrophizing is a problem-focused, despairing outlook with little belief success is possible. This is important to look out for because it often is sadly disguised or received as being prudent or wise.

To accurately assess your situation, practice “Thinking Fast and Slow.” When you practice this type of thinking you are considering a situation from two viewpoints: an intuitive viewpoint and a careful, considered viewpoint.

“Thinking Fast” is an automatic, intuitive way of thinking. “Thinking Slow” is deliberate and active. Listen to your intuition and then slow down to look at the situation from every angle. Focus on thinking deliberately about a situation, keeping perspective, and considering your options and only then making complex decisions.

A useful question to guide your thinking is: What is perfect about this situation?

2. Practice Mindfulness


Start your day intentionally settling and organizing your mind. Take time to be still and breathe. When under stress our brains reactively speed up. It is at precisely this moment that you must intentionally slow it down. While this can be accomplished through simple interventions such as briefly stepping away to go for a walk or taking a drink of water, engaging in controlled breathing or mindfulness techniques also facilitates this goal.

Mindfulness helps to eliminate the noise our brains are riddled with. While our brains work to “make sense” of our world, they do not instinctually pursue objective reality, that is something we need to do intentionally. Deliberately and carefully separating noise from signal, and eliminating that noise, will result in better decision making under stress.

Mindfulness exercises not only help you eliminate the noise, but they also help slow your mental pace, creating positive momentum internally and externally. Practicing mindfulness triggers your Parasympathetic Nervous System to help you relax, making you feel more peaceful and able to see with more clarity. Seeing more clearly, you are now able to recognize externally where you have momentum from which to launch your next best decision.

One method of practicing mindfulness is what I call “the 55-minute hour.” Leaders tend to rush from meeting to meeting and crisis to crisis. Instead of scrambling to the next appointment, take each one-hour appointment and reduce it to 55 minutes. Take those extra 5 minutes and make it a mindfulness break. Shut your eyes and settle your breath. This simple exercise of self-care will help you to focus, concentrate, and come in sharp for the next meeting. You will show up as your best self instead of scrambling in preparation. Your body keeps score and rushing into the next meeting creates incremental stress. Being incredibly present with yourself will help minimize the stress and set you up for success.

3. Carve Out Time for Deep Thinking


Block time on your calendar for “Deep Thinking.” As a leader, your main asset is your intellectual and thought contribution. There is an old story that illustrates this point. Henry Ford the famed industrialist, once hired an efficiency expert to find inefficiencies at his company and root out unproductive employees. As the expert walked around the office every day, he saw the same employee sitting with his feet on his desk doing nothing. Since this expert was hired to find inefficiencies, he quickly suggested that Ford fire this employee. Ford was curious about who this “unproductive” employee was that would sit there blatantly doing nothing. But upon further inspection and learning who the expert was describing, Ford’s immediate response was “That guy! I can’t fire him. I pay him to think!”

As leaders we are paid to think and often hear the adage “work on your business not in your business.” Deep thinking time allows for this to emerge. The best creativity happens when we put ourselves in a position to be creative. Set aside time for quiet, protracted, deliberate thinking time. Just you, your mind and a white board or blank pad. Eliminate all distractions. Turn off all alerts on your phone and email. When you answer that one call or hear that one alert your brain shifts gears, and it takes time to get back on task. Giving yourself time for deep thinking will enable you to find the most elegant and creative solutions. Practice deep thinking and your stress will diminish as you will be more aligned with your purpose. Many professionals know that they have greater potential that they are not tapping into. They know they have more under the hood, and they can’t throttle the engine while moving from crisis to crisis.

Working hard to maintain a positive story, practicing mindfulness, and taking time for deep thinking are ways to mitigate the stress leaders face day in and day out. While these practices seem simple, they are counterintuitive and are immensely effective in alleviating the stress leaders must contend with on a daily basis.

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