We all face varying degrees of stress from different sources in our daily lives.

As much as we try, we are not always able to prevent the stress in our personal life from affecting our professional life, and vice versa. As you move up in your career into senior management and executive leadership, you may feel added pressures in your role, and the way you deal with stress can have a wider impact on the people around you.


Stress Triggers Can Come In Many Forms

Stress is a sudden state of overwhelm, sadness, anxiety or panic. It can cause feelings of being devalued, dis-empowered or disgraced. It may seem like your energy has been drained, and you may feel powerless, stuck, confused or disoriented, frustrated or angry or generally not good enough.

Stress triggers are unique to each person because stress comes from life events that we perceive as negative for us. We all have a lot to juggle. Something that might not have been a big deal last week could become the straw that breaks the camel’s back today. Stress-inducing events may include:

• Receiving difficult news

• An increased sense of responsibility or pressure

• Feeling burned out and overworked and being asked to take on more

• Comments or experiences where we feel judged

• Conflict with someone

• Feeling emotionally or physically unsafe

• Experiencing change and/or uncertainty


How Stress Affects Our Behaviour

When our bodies feel stress, we typically react in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze. This is because we can’t physically think in these moments, as our limbic brain, also referred to as the lizard brain, takes over and priorities all functions to our survival.

Our behaviours toward other people are also deeply affected in times of stress. Dr. Linda Hartling adapted research from psychoanalyst Karen Horney and expanded on these three responses to stress, indicating that our behavioural responses fall into one of three patterns:

  1. protect (move away),

  2. comply (move toward/people please) and

  3. control (move against).

When we are triggered by stress, we ultimately try to create safety for ourselves by doubling down on our strengths that normally create success, using them in unhealthy ways.

When we protect (1), we may shut down and become unable to interact with others. We may even become critical, or use cynicism and sarcasm. We lob subtle attacks from a distance.

When we comply (2), we become overly people-pleasing to the point that we compromise on our own beliefs and feelings just to end the conflict, including getting overly focused on rules, and become overly passive or passive-aggressive.

When we control (3), we may lash out and say something we later regret, verbally attack or get physically violent.

While all three responses create short-term safety for us, they ultimately erode our relationships with others. Afterwards, we may feel guilt or shame about how we reacted to the conflict. It’s important to remember that these responses come from the limbic brain making quick and impulsive decisions, as opposed to the rational brain.


We Can’t Avoid Stress, But We Can Reduce Our Resulting Behaviours

It is difficult to respond to stressful situations when you are already stressed, which is why it is important to look back on how you ended up in the situation. Reflect on your behaviours. Get to know how you typically respond to stress, then work backward to understand some of the moments that occurred just before the behaviour. What happened? What did you or someone else say? What were you thinking and feeling? What were you feeling in your body? Did your breathing change? Did you tense up? Experience tunnel vision? Did your chest get tight or your throat constrict?

You can’t avoid getting triggered, but you can avoid falling down a slippery slope. Watch for early warning signs. Without awareness, you can’t identify the tools you need to address your triggers.

First, take deep breaths — counting helps you use your rational brain. Focus on something small. When going into a meeting where you might receive difficult news, prepare yourself. When you see early warning signs, take a break. Remember that you can always leave a conversation and come back when you’ve had a chance to process your thoughts and feelings. You can ask for a moment to regroup, but don’t walk away completely from the situation. Just know that if you are the one to leave, the accountability is on you to return. When you come back, your ability to reengage is improved with a more rational, prepared mind.

Dealing With Stress Starts With Taking Care Of You

You’re not fit for optimal human interaction when you’re stressed. To lessen the burden in your life and prevent overwhelm, you must do things that help you recharge. Talk with someone about your feelings — a loved one, a close friend or colleague or a coach or therapist. Undertake activities to recharge, like meditation, exercise, rest, journaling, listening to music and so on.

For example, I work with one client who needs a meaningful goal in place to give him purpose and direction in order to manage work and life stress effectively. He found himself unable to get motivated for triathlon training when his races got cancelled. So we worked together to re-frame how he could find something he could control and set an attainable goal to motivate him. He spoke with his triathlon coach, who helped him organise ways to beat his own records (by achieving a personal best) and compete with others (by sharing their training times).

The most important way to take care of yourself and manage stress is to practice self-compassion. Treat yourself the way you would treat a friend under stress. Instead of dwelling on how you responded to a stressful situation, be kind to yourself and reserve judgement. We can’t always change the past, but we can try to control how we respond in the future.


Article by Jenn Lofgren via the FORBES website. Original article found here




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