We all have our good days and our bad days. Everyone has those days when they feel some anxiety and maybe a little fear and days when they just feel overall stress.
The brain is a fascinating organ. Five times a second, your brain scans the environment around you, asking, “Is it safe here? Is this a place of risk or reward?”
In a time of stress, your brain sees your environment as a place of danger and risk, and reacts accordingly.
The amygdala gets involved and sends you into fight-or-flight mode. Your field of vision narrows; doors close as options shut down. You’re all about survival, and you begin to assume that everyone is against you.
As you might guess, fight-or-flight mode can work to ensure survival, but it won’t always serve you well in a workplace setting, where you want to be productive and collaborative.
So, what to do?
I once read this quote, attributed to a Navy SEAL: “Under stress, you sink to the level of your training.” And that’s such a great concept to understand. Under stress, you react with those learned behaviors — I picture troops dismantling and reassembling their weapons in the dark, or athletes running the same drills over and over again. Dan Coyle calls this “deep practice” in his fantastic book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born; It’s Grown; Here’s How.
By doing that deep practice, you embed your desired responses so that under stress you can still perform at the necessary level. And there’s something here to think about when it comes to how we react to stress.
There are a few ways to help reduce the negative side of our reactions.
When we go into fight-or-flight mode, we often tense up and even hold our breath, disrupting our oxygen flow. Oxygen begins to flow from our conscious brain to our unconscious brain almost right away. Movement will force us to breathe and will replenish our brain with oxygen, regenerating the body. By moving around, we will also get different perspectives — literally.
Figure out what’s true. When we’re under stress, we tend to imagine the worst. Teasing apart the data from the judgment will help minimize that reaction. The data is the facts; the judgment is what we think to be true about the facts.
Judgments usually stem from three perspectives: that of the other person involved, that of the situation and our own. Those judgments are potentially useful, but you can’t assume they are the truth. Ask yourself something simple like “What do I know to be true here?” Such a question will ground you in reality and may help you realize that your judgments might not be true (or helpful) — and might actually be what’s causing the stress.
Embrace the Concept of Deep Practice
Imagine a stressful situation, and then imagine how you would ideally like to respond in that situation. Practice those responses in a mindful way. Break them down into small parts, practice them fast and slow, weakly, loudly, quietly, until you’ve developed a trained response to the hypothetical situation. Once you embed that learning, you’ll be able to perform at a higher level under stress. I can’t thank Dan Coyle enough for this tip.
Get Good at Creating Options
When we’re under stress, we see fewer options rather than more. And the dearth of options can really freak us out. If you can expand your options, that’s going to help manage stress. But how can you get more options? Good coaching questions always help. Ask yourself, “What ideas do I already have?” Start pulling the ideas from your brain — you have more than you think. Next ask, “And what else?” Generate more answers. And then: “What’s the fast thing to do? What’s the fun thing to do? What’s the safest thing to do? What’s the boldest thing to do?”
Asking these questions when under stress will generate options, so that rather than feeling panicked, and as if there’s only one way to respond, you’ll see alternatives. And by seeing the alternatives, you’ll be able to regain control, thereby reducing your stress.
Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner at Box of Crayons, a company that gives busy managers the tools to coach in 10 minutes or less. He’s written a number of books, and has recently launched The Coaching Habit after too many false starts.
Image courtesy of pixabay.com.