Tips on how to Combat Chronic Stress

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Background concept wordcloud illustration of chronic mental stress

Background concept wordcloud illustration of chronic mental stress

By: Alexander Caillet, Jeremy Hirshberg, and Stefano Petti

For most leaders today, frequent stress is inevitable. But with awareness and a little skill, its negative impacts are not.
Intense negative experiences of stress are all too common. Consider Stefano, coauthor of this article. In 1998, Stefano began a career abroad while simultaneously completing an MBA. He worked and studied 14 hours a day, seven days a week, fueled by a constant flow of stress hormones. By the end of that year, he suffered from fatigue, headaches, impatience, and irritability, yet he ignored his symptoms and kept going. Soon those symptoms escalated into full-blown burnout: dizziness, heart palpitations, inability to concentrate, panic attacks, apathy, insomnia, and depression. He eventually decided that he needed to take a full six months to rebuild his mental and physical well-being before he could return to work.
Chronic stress impacts people in different ways. In a recent global survey we conducted of 740 leaders, 84% reported experiencing stress on a regular basis. As you might expect, more than half of the 84% said stress had a negative impact on their effectiveness, interactions, or business results. However, the remaining leaders — around 45% — told a different story. In their experience, stress either had no impact on their leadership or had a positive effect. More than 25% said stress actually improved their effectiveness.
What accounts for these results? And what are those people doing that Stefano did not? The leaders we’ve worked with over several decades have given us a wide variety of answers. In this article, we focus on two: tipping point awareness and stress shifting.
Tipping point awareness
Like many other leadership capacities, stress management requires self-awareness. Each of us has our personal “tipping point,” the critical edge where moderate, tolerable stress transitions to chronic stress — and a constant flux of stress hormones drive us to the point of a breakdown. Leaders who manage stress well are able to recognize signs that they’re approaching that point and consciously, deliberately step back from the edge.
Signs of chronic stress fall into three main categories: physical, mental/emotional, and behavioral. The symptoms listed below are some of the most common complaints that leaders have told us they experience only, or to a greater degree, under chronic stress.
While each of these can adversely impact leadership, they all either directly or indirectly stem from instinctive reactions we evolved to protect ourselves. When we’re faced with a threat, whether real or imagined, our body mobilizes to prepare us for one of three survival responses: fight, flight, or freeze. For instance, a racing heart sends a rush of blood to the major muscles used to hit, kick, or run away. As primitive, unconscious reactions kick in, higher cognitive functions suffer. Stress hormones can dramatically impair concentration, planning, and decision making, all of which happen within the prefrontal cortex.
These inborn survival mechanisms are ill-matched with present-day realities. Success in our professional and personal lives requires flexible intellectual, emotional, and social responses rather than instinctive physical reactions. And the challenges we face often persist for long periods of time, leading to chronic activation of a survival system that evolved to function only in emergencies.
Eventually, that chronic activation can push any of us to our tipping point. We all have our limits, and when we stretch them too far we experience some combination of physical, mental/emotional, and behavioral symptoms that intensify as our stress levels rise. We need the awareness to notice them, as well as the courage to make tough choices to bring our stress levels down. As one leader put it, “In a world that constantly invites us to go beyond our limits, the most courageous response is to be aware of our limits and resist the mermaids’ chant that invites us to keep going.” Seventeen years ago, if Stefano had heeded his own physical and emotional warning signs, he could have prevented them from escalating, avoiding a great deal of suffering.
Stress shifting
Of course, committing to reducing stress is only useful if you have some idea of how to do that. Much has been written about specific stress management strategies, from cognitive reframing, emotional labeling, and mind/body practices to time management, fitness programs, and nutritional changes. We encourage leaders to use whatever techniques work for them. But there’s one practice we consistently recommend that can enable and support all the others: intentional breathing.
Breathing is both involuntary and voluntary. We don’t need to plan how and when to take each breath (thank goodness!), but whenever we decide to consciously change our breathing, we can. This gives us the power to interrupt our involuntary stress responses and establish greater balance in our autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic (our natural accelerator) and parasympathetic (our natural decelerator). When these two branches are alternately activated in a consistent pattern, we can enter into a state called coherence. Coherence is characterized by emotional stability and increased access to the prefrontal cortex, which promotes mental clarity, focus, and concentration — just what we need to tackle leadership challenges more effectively. Stress, in contrast, is characterized by strong sympathetic activation with less parasympathetic activation, so we are constantly accelerating.
And this is where breathing comes in: On the inhale our heart rate accelerates, and on the exhale it slows down. This heart rate information is sent directly to the brain, which plays a part in regulating the autonomic nervous system. Therefore, when we engage in a regular pattern of inhalation and exhalation, we help to establish a balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation.
We recommend using a three-step approach to engage intentional breathing:
1. Remember to breathe. When stress hits, it’s helpful to have a cue — like a simple sign saying “Breathe” — that reminds you to take a breath.
2. Begin breathing intentionally. Start with a couple of strong, long, and deep breaths. Try to notice the physical sensations that accompany these breaths
3. Engage in resonant breathing. After a few of these initial breaths, move to a technique called resonant breathing, where the total time spent on each inhalation and exhalation together is 10 seconds, for a total of six breaths per minute. Resonant breathing is particularly helpful in accessing coherence. You may find it helpful to learn how to do this while walking; the pace of your steps can provide a regular tempo for your breath. Eventually the rhythm will continue on its own, and you can stop timing. Continue until your state of mind shifts and you feel a sense of control over your own reactions.
Establishing coherence is useful in almost any context, not just high-stress situations. The more you practice the three steps, the easier it will be to engage in intentional breathing when you need it most.
Intentional breathing played a critical role in Stefano’s recuperation. It helped to regulate his nervous system, which in turn made it easier for him to sustain other healthy practices, such proper nutrition, better sleep, yoga, physical exercise, and cognitive/emotional exercises. In time, Stefano gained more energy, his heart palpitations ceased, and his heart rhythms became more coherent. At the same time, his depression lifted and his impatience and irritability disappeared, leaving him calm and relaxed. Today, Stefano is in excellent health. Like all of us, he sometimes faces stressors that tempt him to push beyond his limits. But he now has the awareness, knowledge, and skill to bring himself back into balance.

Source: Harvard Business Review

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