[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Lori Green, Program Leader and Leadership Coach at MOR Associates. Lori may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
As a leadership coach I have witnessed the stress levels of IT professionals increase in the past year due to adapting to changes, such as remote work, preparing campus for fall instruction, teaching their children at home and so much more. Thomas Jefferson said that “Knowledge is power.” I believe you can better control things if you understand them, and that applies to your stress. With some understanding, tools and practices you have the ability to take command over your stress.
Susan David, founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching, states that “Stress can be incredibly useful. It is an important evolutionary response to danger, an automatic tool that takes over in the event of an emergency.” What our body and mind perceive as danger now is very different from caveman days, yet we are still wired that same way. Starting a new job, losing your phone or having to stay home is very different from the threat of being eaten by a prehistoric mammal. Most of our “threats” have solutions and are not as dire as we perceive them to be.
Stress originates from four basic sources. I encourage you to name the stressors you have in each of these categories:
- Environment – Changes in the environment that demand you to adapt and adjust. Such working remotely, remodeling your house, hurricanes and fires.
- Social Stressors – Expectations regarding others whether it comes from them or from you. Such as deadlines, presentations, loss, teaching your children at home, planning a wedding, being a perfectionist.
- Physiological – Illness, pain, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, overweight, etc. This kind of stress can be the cause or a result from your other stressors as well.
- Thoughts – Your brain interprets and translates situations and your body determines when to turn on your “emergency response”. How you interpret or label your present experience, or the future, can serve to either relax or stress you. For example, “this remote work will never be over” is a negative message which exacerbates the stress vs. a helpful positive message such as “there have been other viruses and we will get it under control” or “it is difficult but I am grateful I have a home to work in, food to eat and healthy children!”
Stress can come from any change that you must adapt to and begins with your appraisal of the situation and your resources to cope.
Amy Gallo, author of HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, notes that how you handle stress can distinguish you as a leader and also give you a significant advantage. She suggests five principles to addressing stress:
- Recognize stress/anxiety, worry for what it is. Stress is a feeling. Define the source of your stress. Tension, a racing heart, holding your breath, etc. are only indicators of how much you care about the situation. “It’s an indicator, not a symptom and therefore you can react rationally about it.” Rather than trying to minimize or eliminate the stress, embrace it.
- Reframe the stress. When negative and stressed we get tired easily and have difficulty thinking. Our brain works better when we come to an issue from a positive frame of reference. We are better able to build on our thinking, consider more possibilities and figure out an action or solution. See the issue as a challenge rather than a threat.
- Focus on what you can control. Ask yourself “What can I change?” or “Is there anything I can do about this?” People spend too much time and energy ruminating over things they cannot change. Start making the changes that you can and “let go” or “park” the things that are out of your control.
- Create a network of support. You have learned that “Relationships are currency”. Surround yourself with people that you can talk to about the stresses and who will be thinking partners around what is in your control and what actions you can take.
- Practice. Once you understand your stressors you are equipped to anticipate possible stressors in the future. Scenario plan and practice how you will respond to anticipated stressors. This provides you stress-handling experience and creates new habits.
You cannot have psychological stress and physiological wellbeing at the same time. Stress at work is often associated with unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, lack of exercise and a poor diet.
Your goal is to find the right amount of stress that maximizes your performance and doesn’t impact your health.
Here is a list of some relaxation techniques to help you cope and think better through your stress:
- Breathing – When stressed we forget to breath, diminishing the oxygen in our brain and muscles. This makes it harder to think and cope with stress. This is vital and can be practiced at any time. Inhale slowly and deeply so your stomach raises, hold for the count of 5 and exhale slowly. Imagine your stress leaving your body as you exhale.
- Progressive relaxation helps with body awareness. Lie down or sit in a chair, close your eyes. Start from your head and work down to your toes by tensing each muscle group, one at a time for 5-10 seconds, then totally relax. You will feel the difference and become aware of how tense you were and where your tension lies.
- Meditation – This is a practice of attempting to focus your attention on one thing at a time. It can be your breath, or counting to three, or the sound of the birds. It is impossible to worry when your mind is focusing on something other than the object of your stress. There are many meditation apps to help with this practice.
- Visualization – Your imagination is a powerful tool. Emil Coué, a French pharmacist, said that all of your thoughts become reality – you are what you think you are. For example, if you think sad thoughts you feel unhappy. You can refocus your mind on positive, healing images. Close your eyes and visualize what you desire, a positive moment or place of contentment. This technique has been proven to improve performance for athletes and can improve yours as well.
- Goal setting and time management – Instead of trying to get more done in less time try prioritizing and scheduling your days. Evaluate how you spend your time and how much of it produces results. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you have the power to choose how to use the time. Clarify your values, set your goals, develop your action plan, organize your time.
I encourage you to begin by taking 15 to 30 minutes a day to work on yourself and your stress. Create healthy practices by becoming aware of your stressors, reading your body, practicing coping techniques such as positive reframing or meditation, and taking action that is within your control. Managing stress is within your control.
Martha Davis, Elizabeth Eshelman, Matthew McKay, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, 2008.
Susan David, How to Use Stress to Your Advantage, Harvard Business Review, August 2016.
Amy Gallo, Turning Stress into an Asset, Harvard Business Review, June 2011.