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| September 13, 2016

by Jim Bruce

I suspect that you, like me, must answer “yes.”  From a neuroscience perspective, our brains are constantly, subconsciously scanning the world around us seeking to identify and examine “events” of note – for example, the school bus that went down my street this morning at 8:15, the traffic light turning from green to yellow, the likely contentious meeting on my calendar for next week, etc.  And, it brings to our conscious attention only those events that the rules it has catalogued over time indicate are important at that moment.
If the brain senses a threat, and in particular one that it does not have an automatic procedure for mitigation, it communicates that threat to the conscious brain, which in turn creates stress and anxiety.  The level of that stress is situational – the stress generated by the angry client is far less than that generated by the failure of a major enterprise system.
The real question we need to address is how do we constructively address the stresses and the associated anxieties that we experience. 
Susan David (see reference below), faculty member at Harvard and founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching, reminds us that “in the larger scheme of things, stress is incredibly useful.  It’s an important evolutionary response to danger, an automatic tool that takes over in the event of an emergency.”  It’s the body’s alarm system.
Most of the time our immediate response to stress is to try to eliminate or minimize it.  Kelly McGonigal, writing in The Wall Street Journal, gives contrary advice.  She tells us that studies at Harvard have discovered that “the best way to handle stress is to embrace it rather than to try to minimize it.”
Amy Gallo, contributing editor at the Harvard Business Review and author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, notes that how you engage the stress you encounter can distinguish you as a leader and also gives you a significant advantage. She suggests five principles that one might apply in addressing stress:
1.  Recognize stress/anxiety/worry for what it is.  Robert Menkes, author of Better Under Pressure, tells us that stress or anxiety or worry is a feeling;  that the tension in the body, the racing heart, are indicators of how much you care about the task you are about to do.  “If it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t be stressed.”  It’s an indicator, not a symptom and therefore you can react rationally to it.
2.  Reframe the stress.  Once you have recognized what the stress is, you need to adjust your mindset.  Neuroscience has recognized that our brains work much better when we come to an issue from a positive frame of reference than when we come from neutral, negative, or stressed points of view.  When negative and stressed, we have difficulty thinking;  when we are positive we are able to broaden and build our thinking, allowing us to consider more possibilities.  When we have a stress, we have a choice:  Is it a threat or a challenge?  Seeing it as a challenge is activating allowing us to move forward.  This is a major change in our mindset.
3.  Focus on what you can control.  When experiencing stress, the first thing for you to do is ask what can I change?  Far too many people, including ourselves, spend inordinate amounts of time ruminating over things we cannot change.  To move forward, you need to “park” those issues and move on.  Acknowledge what you cannot change, and turn to those things where you can make changes.  Begin to identify changes you can make, one by one.
4.  Create a network of support.  One of the first things you heard in the Leaders Program was the mantra “Relationships are the currency of the realm.”  Have people around you with whom you can openly discuss the stresses you are experiencing in your life.  And make sure that they are people who do not ruminate or focus on things that cannot change.  Use them to help you think through your stresses separating the can-change ones from those you cannot-change.  And, make use of these individuals as thinking partners as you work through a set of action steps.
5.  Get some stress-handling experience.  We get better at a task or skill by practice.  The same is true in dealing with stress.  We’ll be better handling stress after we have had some practice at it.  Don’t wait until you are in a dire situation.  Take some time to think through how you might address stressful situations.  Put yourself in the game.  If there is a stressful topic coming up in a meeting, prepare, even practice what you might say to ensure your comments are rightly heard.  Create thought exercises where you look at stressful situations and think through how you would approach the situation.  Every time you handle a real situation or a thought experiment builds your competency in this arena.
We are all in the game of stress.  When a stressful situation comes along, ask the fundamental question:  Can I change the stressor?  If the answer is no, set it aside and work hard to leave it be.  If you can change it, see it as a challenge and work through the changes that are needed and the process to put them into action. 
This simple change in mindset can make a tremendous difference in the stress you are experiencing and the results you will achieve.  I suspect that this is something all of us would benefit from working on.
Make your week great!  .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO and Vice President for Information Systems, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Alexander Caillet, Jeremy Hirshberg, and Stefano Petti, A Simple Way to Combat Chronic Stress, Harvard Business Review, April 15, 2016
Susan David, How to Use Stress to Your Advantage, Harvard Business Review, August 10, 2016
Amy Gallo, Turning Stress into an Asset, Harvard Business Review, June 28, 2011
Kelly McGonigal, Use Stress to Your Advantage, The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2015