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Sarah Greenberg is a lead coach at BetterUp. She is a Harvard-educated coach and licensed psychotherapist who has worked with leaders from top organizations, first responders in crisis situations, and even teens beating all odds to complete their education in rural Africa. She has witnessed the most extraordinary human resilience in the most extreme circumstances.
There’s a major difference between stress and overwhelm. Stress can motivate. It can help us muster up strength and energy to take on worthy challenges. It provides the activation we need to conquer a project, or rock that talk. Contrary to popular myth, stress can indeed be good for you.
Overwhelm, on the other hand, can freeze us in our tracks. It can feel akin to having one foot firmly planted on the gas, and the other on the brake. Overwhelm is the enemy of flow, creativity, and productivity. It puts a strain on relationships and can get in the way of your capacity for effective leadership.
Success usually encompasses stretching ourselves beyond our current capacity, and navigating unfamiliar, challenging terrain.
But what high achieving person has never experienced overwhelm? Success usually encompasses stretching ourselves beyond our current capacity, and navigating unfamiliar, challenging terrain. “Preventing overwhelm” and “thriving in chaos” are unfortunately two topics that most of us didn’t learn in our early education. And that’s a shame, because stress is an inevitable part of life and impossible to avoid (without consequence). How much time, energy, and overall well-being is sacrificed as a result of not having skills to navigate stressful situations skillfully?
While it’s not possible to completely remove stress from our lives, there are practical, actionable, and research-based tactics for “ getting good at stress,” and preventing overwhelm.
Calm is a skill, not a permanent state. And while no one can predict what life will throw our way, nor would you want to avoid opportunities that push your limits, these strategies will increase your capacity to navigate stormy weather, and stay centered in situations that may have once felt chaotic.
One reason we may feel stress or overwhelm particularly acutely in the workplace is that, at work, our success can feel tied to our overall sense of survival and identity. Not to mention, work can be downright chaotic and intense.
If we allow language to be a window into the mind, we must take note of the metaphors so regularly used at work. It’s common to hear teammates describe feelings of “being underwater,” “putting out fires,” “feeling trapped,” and even “getting hammered by emails.” This is the language of crisis.
It’s no wonder that based on their 2017 survey on Stress in America, the American Psychological Association found that 58% of Americans identified work as a significant source of stress in their lives. And further, studies show that about half of all work absence is due to work-related stress disorders.
Though it’s not possible to drastically shift the intensity or the pace of the modern workplace in the short term, learning new skills and strategies to manage existing stress, prevent overwhelm, or promote your sense of thriving amidst chaos is within reach. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Take your temperature
According to author and psychologist, Daniel Goleman, all effective leaders have one trait in common: emotional intelligence. A critical component of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. Self awareness means tracking and monitoring how we’re feeling, so that we can respond, rather than react to challenges.
But how do you build this skill? A good place to start is to ask yourself a few times per day, “How am I doing?” When teaching children to practice “tuning in,” child psychologists often give them the visual of a thermometer. The lower part, level 1, is cool and calm. The red part, level ten, is hot, stressed, and probably overwhelmed. Beyond emotional intelligence, and mindfulness, tracking our emotional temperature opens up the possibility of “managing” our internal experience before we hit the red zone, rather than unconsciously allowing our feelings to manage us.
Manage your energy
We all have the same 24 hours in a day, but how we spend that time is largely dependent on one of our most valuable personal resources: our energy. Energy management means working to balance that which depletes you with that which enlivens you, so that at the end of each day, week, or year, you end up with a surplus, or a balance, not a deficit. One way to examine and refine your habits is to conduct an energy audit.
For the next three days, write down all your tasks at work and beyond, and note whether each one drains you or fills your cup. Include both intentional activities and unintentional diversions (eg procrastination, or getting caught up in emails). After three days, review your balance sheet. Are there any changes you can make to do less of what drains or more of what enlivens you? Any surplus you build over time will be a critical asset when encountering challenges.
Protect your time
Often, the most clear takeaway from an energy audit is the need to protect your time in order to achieve your goals. In a world of dizzying interruptions, blocking time on your calendar to focus on a single important task can be a game changer. Start with one or two hour blocks where you commit to turning off all notifications, and have a clear, achievable, and important goal in mind for what you wish to accomplish. As a leader, encourage your team to also carve out “focus blocks” in their calendars, too.
The average US worker takes about half of their paid vacation time, leaving the rest on the table. While I, and science, encourage you to take that vacation, it’s also worth examining your regular routine, and working to balance your energy with micro-actions throughout the day. In her recent book, Micro-Resilience, Bonnie St John shares how the simplest of techniques, such as smelling holiday spices, and drinking water, can go a long way toward managing stress and optimizing your productivity, hour by hour.
The “reversi” technique, for instance, can be done in less than two minutes. To begin, write down a limitation or an obstacle you’re currently facing on one side of a note card. Now flip the card over and write the opposite of what you wrote on the front. Just a moment of engaging with the opposite thought allows a glimpse into new possibilities.
Purpose is the feeling that your work is meaningful and contributes to a mission that goes beyond yourself. Unsurprisingly, it’s linked with overall well-being and life satisfaction. It’s also one of the four characteristics that researcher and professor, Angela Duckworth, sees in individuals who are high in Grit.
To hone your sense of purpose, consider what it is about your work that drives you. When your sense of purpose is high, capture it in writing. Your “statement of purpose” can be an asset and inspiration in the face of a challenge. Feeling low on purpose? Focus on the people that are positively impacted by your work in ways large and small. Notice if there are any small shifts you can make to amplify your positive impact. This can be as simple as committing to treating your colleagues or clients with kindness, or even volunteering for a cause you believe in outside of work.
Stop making stress the enemy
Contrary to the oft-purported view that all stress is “toxic,” Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal‘s research demonstrates the “upside of stress.” Yes, stress leaves its mark, but the impact can be positive in the long-term. The difference between those who thrive in the face of stress and those who falter can be attributed to whether or not you view stress as a harmful or an inevitable part of life.
One way to reframe your relationship with stress is to write down the two or three most challenging experiences of your life. Choose ones that were tough, but that you can say you already successfully moved through. Next, write down the gifts that came from each challenge, such as new skills, stronger personal connections, or greater resilience. What you’re left with is a meaningful reminder that what doesn’t kill us, can indeed make us stronger.
There’s a catch to Kelly McGonigal’s research. The neutral or positive impact of stress only applies when you have strong social connections. Many of us have the tendency to isolate from social connections when we’re overwhelmed or busy. But it’s important to remember that relationships literally protect us from the ill effects of stress. This a particularly true when the social connections involve us helping others.
As a leader, do it for your team
In the spirit of promoting a purpose beyond yourself, it’s worth pointing out that cultivating your capacity to stay centered amidst chaos is not just beneficial to you as an individual, but has positive ripple effects on your team, and all those close to you. That’s because of what researchers call “ emotional contagion.” Your capacity to cultivate a sense of calm and centeredness benefits those around you, particularly when others are looking to you for leadership. A great analogy is the experience of turbulence on a plane. Imagine how it feels when the pilot is visibly nervous versus cool and calm, and how this affects your mindset.
Because “being centered” is not a permanent trait, but rather an actively cultivated state, it can take a tremendous amount of hard work and practice to hone the skills required to stay centered in the face of chaos and challenge. Having a reason beyond the self can be the additional motivation needed to make the effort worthwhile.
Original art by Theo Payne.