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Managing stress: Most people only do half the job–and here’s the other half ...

What we know from history

The history of “stress management” in industry is quite strange and interesting. It includes ideas from medicine, religion, philosophy, psychology and more, often mixed up into an incomprehensible mess almost no one can make sense of. We don’t need to go into all that history now (an article for another day …) but we have learned a lot from it. In that history it has always been emphasized that stress and strain are different. Two sides of the same coin, but not the same. Stress is what happens around us, to us. Strain is what happens inside us; our response to the stress outside.

Why is this valuable to know? Focus. We are taught from the time we’re very young to focus outside of ourselves. When we feel bad inside, look outside for the cause, and assume that the only way to stop the bad feeling (inside) is to eliminate the cause (outside). Certainly this is true sometimes, but it’s not the only choice. For example, why is it that some days certain things drive us crazy, but other days we barely notice them, or at least find it easy to accept them? Why are some people energized by challenging circumstances while those around them are paralyzed? The outer cause doesn’t always create the inner response. Each of us responds to situations in our own ways, and sometimes not the same from one day to the next! So, our resonses aren't written in stone. That means we don’t have to be victimized by any particular situation. There is power in that. The same for those we work with.

What other things have we learned from that history that can help us today? The first thing we’ve learned is that relieving stress is not the same as managing stress. These are two different processes and separating them is important. The second thing we’ve learned is that we do not want to separate managing stress from managing performance. These two should go together. The third, and perhaps most crucial, especially in volatile times like these, is that preparation equals prevention. We can actually build a program to both reduce stress and improve performance.

Tools

In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) we’ve explored these explicitly and have very specific tools to deal with stress and strain, and performance, at the same time. To do this we rely on the study of states of mind (or mindsets, if you prefer). In managing stress there are three primary states of mind we concentrate on:

Stress/Strain

Relaxation/relief

High Performance

Obviously we’d like to eliminate the stress/strain and replace it with one of the others. Traditionally, in the face of stress (when people are obviously feeling strain), people have automatically said: “You just need to relax!” This is natural, and sometimes it’s appropriate. When we’re taking a break, or leaving work for the day or the weekend, or even on holidays, it makes perfect sense to allow ourselves to relax. This does create real relief and is valuable and necessary to be able to do. Crucial for long term maintenance.

To be most effective we also need to understand the physiological aspects of stress/strain and what we can do to address those. This would include diet and exercise, sleep, rest, relaxation and more. We must also look inside, to our interior life, including our thoughts, beliefs, the focus of our attention, motivations and more. We have methods for gaining control of all the interior aspects of our lives and these are what ultimately give us the ability to manage our stress, and even develop and thrive as a result.

What kinds of stress/strain relief do you use for yourself? Here’s a representative list of the kinds of things most people use:

  • Exercise, sports, martial arts, yoga*
  • Meditation, mindfulness practice, visualization, self-hypnosis*
  • Healthy diet (this includes going on one …)
  • Relaxation, breathing exercises
  • Substance use (not abuse)
  • Self-distraction, “healthy” denial
  • Change of scene, escape, breaks
  • Support system, people to talk with
  • Hobbies, entertainment, games
  • Writing, journaling
  • Humor, arts, music, literature
  • Healthy indulgences (shopping, spa, resort)

Sometimes just looking at a list like this (shortened for this article) reminds people of things that work for them that they’ve forgotten about or let lapse. Just about everyone does some of these, and could benefit from trying others, as well.

Also, as you look at the list, you’ll notice an * next to the first two. That’s because exercise and meditation are special. You may not know that people who exercise regularly actually change their brain at a structural and chemical level. They literally experience less strain than people who don’t exercise regularly when they’re in stressful situations. They have lowered heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels and other physiological indicators of reduced stress. These improvements are measurable and have been researched and demonstrated consistently for decades. Regular mindfulness meditation practices provide those same improvements, only better. Both, however, need to be regular practices. Exercise needs to be done safely (especially if it’s been a while) and possibly under medical or professional supervision. Meditation takes some training and a good bit of practice. Many people give up meditation because it’s hard at the beginning. For everyone. It’s wonderful practice however and worth the time and effort for the long term benefits. Just don’t expect to be a seasoned meditator right away.

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High performance & practice

In that history of stress management we talked about earlier, some of these relaxation tools were the focus in helping people in business. Companies hired experts in visualization, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, self-hypnosis and more to help people relax at work when they needed to. This made perfect sense, and still does, with an important caveat. Relaxation and relief are necessary and wonderful for us. But what if we’re in the midst of putting out multiple fires at work? In that case, we can’t do any of those things on the list. Besides, in that case relaxation isn’t the answer anyway. When we’re in the middle of tough challenges, chaos, confusion and high stress/strain we really need to be at our very best, not necessarily our most relaxed. This is when we need to perform at our highest level, like an athlete finding another gear when they’re losing so they can pull out a win. It’s sometimes said that winners are at their best when things are at their worst. The ability to turn on the high performance states we have is just as important as–and in the long run much more productive than–relaxation.

Just as we’ve all been in states of stress and strain before, we’ve also been in states of high performance. Remembering this is the first step. Without going into detail here about controlling states of mind, suffice it to say that if we can remember times when we were at our best–when the situation was at its worst–this can be the key to controlling ourselves in any situation. Vividly recalling any memory is the quickest and surest way to change our state of mind (our mindset) to the way it was at that time. This is simply how memory works in the brain. Vividly remembering something recreates the state of mind we were in when we actually had the experience. This is something we can practice on purpose. We can also, with practice, learn to call these memories back–and the high performance states of mind that go with them–whenever we need them. In addition, with training, we can learn to “program” these states to automatically arise during stressful situations.

One way to practice this on your own is to think about how you usually handle stressful situations. You may find that you have habits, or patterns, that are normal for you in these situations. A way to shift this toward more resourceful high performance states is to imagine doing so. This may sound odd, or even obvious, but it works. If you can remember a time you were in a high performance state, and experience it fully, then remember a time you were in a stressful situation, that stressful situation may immediately seem different to you. (In our training programs we go through a series of exercises designed to make this process much more powerful, and automatic.)

Everything we’re talking about here is really about understanding how we think, learn, make changes, cope with ambiguity and manage ourselves. It’s also helpful in understanding how we make decisions. These decisions include what’s important (or not), what we can control (or not) and what’s worthwhile (or not). More than anything, this is about knowing those things about ourselves and learning to use our knowledge and skills to cope with any given situation we find ourselves in. When we know how we work inside, mentally, emotionally and physically, we can use that knowledge to our advantage, and the advantage of everyone around us. Effectively managing stress means handling the strain that we feel as a result of too much pressure. For most of us, unfortunately, we don’t even notice that strain until we’ve been under it for too long. That’s because we get so focused on putting out the constantly developing fires around us, that we don’t ever get to practice the kind of prevention that would keep us safe from them to begin with. Hopefully, thinking about this discussion will help you focus on those things and make the changes you need to in helping to manage stress and strain, and yourself, better.

Want more?

This discussion is only an overview of what we know about managing stress and strain. There are many more approaches we have available to us. These include changing our internal experience in other ways besides the one described above, changing our thinking about the challenging situations we find ourselves in, changing our beliefs about how these situations work and what they mean, and more.

In our Talent Developer system, a part of what is measured is how people respond to these situations, and how resilient they are. We can even pull out the stress management module as a separate piece that can be administered without the rest of the assessment. This module gives a really thorough look at the mindsets people usually use in stressful situations, along with suggestions for improvement included in the reporting.

If these tools would be helpful to you, your team, or even your entire organization, please contact us and we’ll explore ways to help.

Sid Jacobson, PhD

Director, Lean Talent Systems

LTS has expertise, experience and tools to help you with in your organization. These include an automated Lean Recruiting system. An advanced Talent Developer system. Training, coaching, consulting and more. We can help you create a future worth having. You can contact us any time through a Linked In message or click the Contact Us Now button below.