It may not always seem like it, but stress is one of the greatest gifts we have. It’s a motivator, a source of strength, and a survival instinct that pushes us beyond what we often perceive as the limit of our capabilities.
Failing to properly harness, manage, and cope with that stress, however, can serve to damage careers, personal relationships and even health and well-being.
“Stress is sometimes called ‘the biology of courage,’ and that set of physiological responses can make us courageous, like the mother that lifts a car off of her kid,” says Laurie Cameron, the founder and CEO of PurposeBlue, a mindful leadership consulting firm. “It’s sort of counterintuitive, because there’s been so much writing and hype and idiomatic expression in our society about how stress is bad, but it’s all about how we relate to the events that create the stress response in the body.”
Cameron explains that the goal shouldn’t be to cope with or eliminate or even reduce stress, but to learn how to harness the power of stress for positive outcomes. She adds that when employers list “ability to thrive under pressure” as a vital skill in a job listing, what they really mean is the ability to manage stress effectively.
“We’re in such a volatile, uncertain, complex business and world economy right now, the whole ecosystem is changing all the time, and we need to be able to move quickly,” she said. “If we can thrive under pressure, we can really excel.”
Changing your relationships with stress, however, requires a certain degree of work. “It has to be built into your routine, and if you start later in your career, it’s harder to figure out how to fit it into your life, so the earlier you can figure out the best practices for you, the better off you’ll be later in your career,” said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women’s heart health at the Heart and Vascular Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital and American Heart Association spokesperson.
Steinbaum adds that chronic stress can lead to a wide variety of negative health outcomes, including inflammation, fatigue, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and much more.
Figure Out Your Triggers
The first step toward managing stress, according to Steinbaum, is establishing a deeper understanding of the unique effect it has on us as individuals. Since everyone experiences stress differently, it’s important to understand your own stress tolerance levels and common triggers before testing out some stress management tactics.
For example, while yoga and meditation might be the preferred method for some, others might benefit more from breathing exercises, and others might find stress easiest to manage through proper dieting and exercise. “The sooner in your life you find out what it is you can do to help with stress, the better off you’ll be, and the easier your career will be,” said Steinbaum.
As the founding partner of New York City-based digital agency Ready Set Rocket and a sufferer of anxiety disorder, Aaron Harvey has had to overcome being, in his own words, “a giant ball of anxiety.” After acknowledging that he is a less effective leader when he’s stressed, Harvey set out to explore tactics that could help him better manage his emotions.
He explains that he had a habit of leaving work to the last minute, and his procrastination had gradually become a major source of stress. “I eventually realized that I’m not really waiting until the last minute, I’m always thinking about it and chipping away at it, and when I sit down to do it with a compressed time frame, it actually works really well for me,” he said. “Now I no longer stress that I’m doing that, I honor that that’s how I work best, that’s who I am, and I accept it.”
Harvey explains that people often feel stressed when their instincts don’t align with how they feel they should behave, adding that gaining a deeper understanding and acceptance of the self can be helpful in overcoming unnecessary stresses.
Stop, Take A Breath, Observe, And Then Proceed
Though some people find it more effective than others, breathing exercises can be a powerful tool for managing stress. In those stressful moments, Cameron—who recently published a book on the subject, titled The Mindful Day: Practical Ways to Find Focus, Calm, and Joy From Morning to Evening—suggests two breathing exercises in particular.
One she calls “STOP,” an acronym that stands for stop, take a breath, observe, and then proceed. “We STOP and check in, and once we direct attention to our inner experience, then we can get clarity about what’s going on in that stressful moment,” she said. “When we do that, things start to loosen and we start to create space.”
The other breathing tactic she refers to as simply “three breaths,” a strategy that can help those experiencing stress remain focused on what really matters. “The first breath brings attention to the stress, the second is relaxing the body, and the third is asking what’s really important right now,” she explained.
Whichever breathing tactic you find most effective, Cameron suggests dedicating a few minutes each day to practicing them in a low-stress environment. “[It’s] building the muscles and the default way of responding, so that when I’m under stress, I’ve got that instinct,” she said.
How Not To Deal With Stress
Though different tactics work for different people, certain tactics don’t work for anyone, at least not in the long run. One of the most natural reactions to stress is to build it up on one area, like work or personal relationships, and let it out elsewhere.
“Everyone has a place where they let loose and a place they invest their energy; they say I’ll be really stressed in this context, but I’ll let loose in this other context,” said Loretta Breuning, professor emerita of management at California State University, East Bay, and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute. “The problem is that the consequences of letting loose in that other context accumulates.”
Breuning explains that while some have healthy stress relievers, that release valve far too often takes the form of unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking, or poor diet.
“Some people say, ‘I’m so stressed at work that I get to have a box of cookies tonight,’ or ‘I’m so stressed at work I get to have a martini after work,” she said. “Suddenly you feel stressed because you’ve had too many martinis or cookies, but you don’t have any healthy ways of dealing with it, so you just have more martinis and cookies.”
Breuning explains that unchecked coping mechanisms often become the source of future anxieties, underscoring the need to establish healthy stress management techniques at an earlier stage of life.