The Neglected Key to Stress Management

Meet Nathaniel. Nate wants to be successful and respected at work but not lose himself, his family, or other things he values in the process. He’s hardworking and was very successful in his job. As a result, the board promoted him to CEO, which seemed glamorous to Nate, and he was sure it would bring money, prestige, power, and recognition. He looked forward to greater happiness and success.

Very soon, Nate found himself facing the realities of the job. He was paying less attention to his self-care and his family. He struggled to get everything done. After about 16 months in the new position, Nate was depressed, having panic attacks, and showing all the signs of burnout. He was irritable and impatient with his family, and angry more often than usual. He had headaches often, wasn’t sleeping, and had a cold he couldn’t shake. He had more trouble concentrating and paying attention than usual and he frequently lost track of important things. He came to tears more quickly than typical for him. Disenchanted, he was not sure why it had to be this way. There ought to be a better way.

How has being CEO been for you? Challenging and fulfilling? Stressful? Who gave you the heads-up on the unrelenting stress of the CEO job—the demands of global business, the requirement to be “always on,” and the travel involved? How about the frequent frustration, disappointment, irritation, overwhelm, isolation, loneliness, and the effects of all this on your health and well-being. How about the pressure on your family life? Do you recognize stress when it shows up in you? Do you know the essentials for managing the stress of the job?

To Manage Stress, Increase Self-awareness

If you want to manage stress to your advantage, establish a solid foundation of growing self-awareness. All other stress management efforts are built on this foundation. Yet, many stress management techniques skip over self-awareness and treat only symptoms. As a result, they do not yield long-term results.

I work with people like Nate (and like you) in coaching relationships to support their growth in self-awareness and help them manage the stress of the CEO job. They learn to increase their self-awareness, critically examine their situation, and implement stress management strategies and techniques that help them put stress to work for their advantage. They come out on the other side with a clearer focus, a better pace of life, increasing quality in their relationships, and ultimately greater success.

Pay Attention to Your Whole Being

The term self-awareness is most commonly used to refer to a person’s awareness of their inner states and how those states express themselves, which is very important in leadership and life. Some have suggested that self-awareness is “both a tool and a goal” and I agree that it is just that important and beneficial. “The ability to reflect on and accurately assess one’s own behaviors and skills as they are manifested in workplace interactions” is a characteristic of high-performing managers, according to the organizational psychologist Allan Church. And self-awareness can improve your overall sense of well-being.

Here, I am using a broader idea of self-awareness, one that involves your whole being—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. This type of self-awareness is foundational for the management of your stress, for improving your persistence in distress, and for living and relating well.

Self-awareness is “both a tool and a goal.”

Helpful self-awareness is not neurotic rumination about an issue or getting stuck in the negative; that dynamic can lead to greater anxiety and depression. Helpful self-awareness involves getting to know yourself more deeply by taking time to pay undivided attention to what you are experiencing in the moment, in the various aspects of your being—as objectively as possible—and being open to new experiences of growth. Such attentiveness is a disciplined process that one must learn. As awareness grows, you can take time to understand the source(s) of these experiences as well as their present and potential effect.

A growing self-awareness can help you learn to recognize signals of stress and appreciate them for what they are. Then you can choose a positive, helpful path of action.

If you are not self-aware, you can miss these signals. Then, stress can become unhealthy, leading to burnout, ineffectiveness, and depression with accompanying low energy. If allowed to continue unmanaged, the stress can wreck your health and even kill you.

If you have been in the red zone of stress for a while now, you have likely come to accept it as a “new normal.” You may not be aware of how far you have driven yourself up the distress ladder until it seriously affects your health, relationships, and work effectiveness. Most people wait until the train is completely off the tracks before thinking of getting help.

Stress Is Natural and Normal

Stress is a natural and normal part of being human. You need a little stress all the time to assist you in meeting the demands of life and work. But you can get too much of a good thing. Your brain does countless things without your conscious knowledge, and one of these is to trigger the stress reaction based on your unique version of reality.

Your brain is always on alert, rapidly scanning the environment, checking to see if you are safe or in danger and working to minimize danger and maximize reward. Five times per second, life events trigger non-conscious emotions. As it scans your surroundings, the brain may predict that danger is present and “throw a switch,” so to speak, to prepare you to fight, run, or hide. All of this happens outside your consciousness.

When your brain throws the switch, your first awareness will be a feeling. Physically, you will feel it in your gut and your chest, and through physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure. Emotionally, you will feel it as anger, fear, or frustration. These experiences can range from a little discomfort to a full fight, flight, or freeze reaction. Once you have this conscious feeling, which is about half a choice 1/2 second after the brain “throws the switch,” you are a position to choose how you will behave. You can let the fight-flight-freeze reaction run its course, or you can choose another behavior.

The brain sometimes makes good predictions that are helpful and even lifesaving. In cases of physical threat, the fight-flight-freeze reaction is essential and must run its course if you are to react fast enough to escape danger. But the brain often makes bad predictions and erroneously prepares our bodies to fight, run, or hide. Bad predictions can occur in interpersonal relationships, in various social settings and situations, and in response to other issues such as schedules, deadlines, disagreements, and personality or style differences. In these cases, the fight-flight-freeze reaction is not necessary, productive, or helpful. It is better to engage your problem-solving abilities to make a different choice than fighting, running, or hiding.

Stress Is Like Fever

Just as you don’t choose to have a fever, you don’t choose to have stress. Your body produces it automatically when needed. It’s a signal, a symptom, showing that something unusual is present—a perceived threat, something unfamiliar, something that pushes the limits of your capacity.

As with fever, once you recognize your stress as a symptom, you don’t panic every time it happens. Instead, you can use this self-awareness to manage the situation with problem-solving skills, trying to get back to “normal.” In the future, you can avoid whatever precipitated your stress and hopefully prevent it in the future.

As with fever, once you recognize your stress as a symptom, you don’t panic every time it happens.

But if your stress remains unchecked, it can become contagious, affecting not only you but also those around you—your spouse, children, colleagues, and others. Your stress can create distress for them as they witness your misery, dodge your defensive behavior, or catch the brunt of your fury.

Cognitive Impairment and Stress

When you are in a stressed, defensive posture (feeling the urge to fight, run, or hide, which for some of us is most of the time), your brain is channeling your mental and bodily resources away from critical thought, problem solving, and self-management. As a result:

  • Your ability to concentrate, learn, think, hear, communicate, and see problems clearly declines dramatically.
  • A demand for certainty replaces curiosity and creativity.
  • Your perspective narrows. You tend to oversimplify, minimize, and neutralize problems, and you lose the big-picture as a result.
  • You look for a scapegoat to blame when things go wrong.

Imagine how these things can affect your leadership, especially in times of crisis. Fortunately, if you are growing in self-awareness, you will learn to recognize these symptoms of stress and choose better, more rational responses.

How to Improve Your Self-Awareness

  • Practice mindfulness. To be mindful is to pay deep, intentional attention to what’s going on in the moment, inside and around you. It means paying attention to what’s going on in your mind (not just your brain)—to your thoughts, motives, defenses, emotions, physical states, and how all of this might affect you and others. Increased reflection results in increased self-development.
  • Use reflection questions.
    • Reflect on your practice. At various times during the day, especially at the end, take time to think back through your interactions. Examine the beliefs you espouse compared to beliefs you act out, your thoughts, sensations, reactions, and emotions. Ask “what” and “how” questions to understand how these played out.
    • Reflect in your practice. Monitor the above aspects of your being while you are working and interacting in real time. Present-tense versions of your end-of-day questions work well to guide real-time reflection.
    • Find questions for reflection here

A Few Favorite Reflection Questions

How else could I look at this?
What were my clear expectations?
What impact did my inner conversations my effectiveness?
How open am I to learn?
How stuck am I in my way of thinking?
How true am I to my values?
What triggered the emotions I experienced?
  • Exercise discipline.
    • Throughout the day, take breaks and replace thoughts of work with positive thoughts about something or someone you appreciate. Be grateful for them.
    • Stay present during interactions with others. Pay attention to what others say without judging them, letting your biases distort the message, or having an inner side conversation with yourself. Avoid avoiding jumping to quick conclusions, correcting, or trying to fix. Stay curious. Be open to new and unfamiliar ideas and ways of doing things.
    • Practice behavioral agility, which is the ability to modulate your behavior, especially stress behavior, to best serve a particular situation.
  • Learn how others see you.
    • Have conversations with others you trust to see if your beliefs about yourself are accurate. You may not feel comfortable opening up to your coworkers, your board, or even at home. If so, get a coach, a counselor, or a trusted advisor.
    • If you think others may be guarded in their opinion, engage a third party to facilitate a qualitative 360° interview process.
  • Be courageously honest with yourself, even if it’s painful. Celebrate the good. Correct thoughts and actions as required.
  • Try keeping a journal of your thoughts and reflections.

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J. Michael Godfrey

J. Michael Godfrey

J. Michael Godfrey, DMin, PhD, PCC, is the founder and president of True Course. He supports leaders to be more, see more, and achieve more that matters in their personal lives and professional lives, and helps them posture themselves to finish without regret. True Course supports executives as they lead their organizations to become places where people love to work, serve, and be customers. He is the author of Without Regret: Be More, See More, Achieve More that Matters and Put Stress to Work: Turning Headaches into Advantages. For more information visit DiscoverYourTrueCourse.com. Contact Dr. Godfrey at discover@discoveryourtruecourse.com.

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