Lurking within every leader, popular wisdom holds, is a stressed-out future coronary victim. Stress is seen as poisonous. Like fat and termites, no matter how little you have, it's too much.
But Carol Jack Scott, an emergency-room doctor and executive coach (www.thecorporatedoctor.com), says stress is good — the right kind, that is, in the right dose. "We need stress," she says. Stress helps us meet seemingly impossible deadlines and tackle new challenges. It provides that rush of adrenaline or that burst of creativity.
Instead of trying to eliminate stress, Scott helps clients understand and stay in what she calls the "best-stress zone." Although stress feels like a physical phenomenon, she observes, it's really psychological. Activities or situations that overwhelm you aren't stressful per se. You just perceive them as stressful and react accordingly.
So part of staying in the best-stress zone means recognizing the signs that you're about to depart it. For one exec, it's when she begins misplacing her keys. For Scott, who divides her time among the ER and medical-school classrooms at George Washington University and the University of Maryland, coaching clients, and two teenage sons, the tip-off is little or fitful sleep.
Getting back in the zone can be as easy as several minutes of deep breathing or as extensive as several days of journal writing to uncover how priorities got out of whack. Try tracking stressful moments (good and bad) and reactions (physical, emotional, psychological). If you're more stress prone than stress resistant, you need more resources — a confidant, a network of friends, an activity outside the office to release physical tension. "You should assess your stress-coping resources as meticulously as you would assess your stock portfolio," she says.
The idea, after all, is not to eliminate the demands in your life but to control your reactions to them. Scott can't stress that enough.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.