Turn Stress into an Asset
Posted on Harvard Business Review: June 28, 2011 8:40 AM
You constantly hear how bad stress is for you: it’s damaging your health, jeopardizing your relationships, and hurting your performance. While these risks are real, recent research is showing that work strain, when managed correctly, can actually have a positive impact on productivity and performance. So how can you take the stress you thought was killing you and make it constructive?
What the Experts Say
Stress is unavoidable. “We live in a world of ongoing worry, change, and uncertainty. You have to get used to it,” says Justin Menkes, an expert in the field of C-suite talent evaluation and the author of Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others. “Stress is an inevitable part of work and life, but the effect of stress upon us is far from inevitable,” says Shawn Achor, an expert in positive psychology and the founder of Good Think, Inc. Both Achor and Menkes agree that altering your approach to stress can yield positive effects. “Stress can be good or bad depending on how you use it,” says Achor. In fact, how you manage pressures can distinguish you as a leader and give you a career advantage. Here are five principles to follow.
1. Recognize worry for what it is
“When you hear about stress being unhealthy it is so often because people aren’t getting to a place where they are seeing worry for what it is: a feeling,” says Menkes. The heightened reaction—tension in the body, heart racing—is an indicator of how much you care about the task you are about to do. In fact, according to Menkes, how much stress you feel is directly correlated to the importance of the activity. “If it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t worry,” he says. Once you understand worry as an indicator rather than a symptom of dysfunction or a cause for panic, you can react to it more rationally. Plus, remember that stress is not unending. “Feelings by definition are fleeting. They feel like they will be eternal but just give it five minutes,” says Menkes.
2. Then, reframe the stress
Once you’ve recognized what worry is, you then need to adjust your mindset. Achor’s research shows that how you view stress determines its effect on you. “Our brains work much better at positive than at negative, neutral, or stressed,” he says. When you are negative and worried, your brain goes into “fight or flight” mode, which limits your ability to think. If you are positive and concerned, then your brain turns to “broaden and build” thinking which allows you to process more possibilities. Which direction you go in is up to you. “When people have a stress in their life, they can attempt to see it as a challenge, instead of a threat,” says Achor. This mental shift will allow the feeling to be activating rather than paralyzing.
3. Focus on what you can control
One of the most positive things you can do when faced with worry or anxiety is to remember what you can affect and what you can’t. Far too many people spend time feeling bad about things they simply can’t change. In Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, he outlines an exercise he calls the Island Experiment. He suggests you write out a list of stresses and put them into two circles, “islands.” One island holds the things you can control. The other is for the things you can’t. Ignore that second island and choose a single concrete action to take in the first. This will begin to solve the stress and move you toward your goal.
4. Create a network of support
Knowing that you have somebody to turn to can help a lot. “It’s important to have that outlet so you know you can freak the heck out if you need to,” says Menkes. You may not use this option, but it can be comforting to know it’s there. Build supportive relationships when you’re not stressed. Menkes encourages you to “put in the effort and build the emotional deposit” so you can cash it in when and if required. The company you keep also makes a difference. “Surround yourself with people who do not complain or ruminate upon things they can’t change,” says Achor.
5. Get some stress-handling experience
According to Menkes, the best way to learn to handle stress is through practice. “If the body is not used to stress and you experience it, you’ll panic and it becomes a vicious cycle that needs to be broken,” says Menkes. He often sees this in younger people: “They have more intense reactivity than older people. It’s not only a function of hormones but it’s a function of experience.” Don’t wait for a dire situation to try out these techniques. “Think about ways you can put yourself in non-game-changing, but pressured, situations. Pressure and fear are good because it means you are stretching,” says Menkes. For example, if public speaking is nerve-wracking for you, he suggests you sign up for Toastmasters and try out your skills in a contained setting. Set up experiments in which you feel stress, but can manage it.
Principles to Remember
• Think of stress as an indicator that you care about something, rather than a cause for panic
• Focus on the task, rather than the emotion
• Build relationships so that you have people to turn to in times of stress
• Assume your stress is going to last forever
• Worry about things that are out of your control
• Spend time with people who are negative
Case study #1: Focus on what matters most
Eric Loucks, an assistant professor at Brown University’s Department of Community Health, was awake at 2:00 am worried about how he was spending his time. Like most academics in his field, his job has two primary functions: research and teaching. To fund his research—and his salary—he has to secure grants. The pressure to win grants is particularly high, especially since only 8% of applicants for federal medical research monies receive funding.
On this particular night, Eric had two grant deadlines fast approaching and was feeling anxious about how little attention he was giving to his students and colleagues. He had been working hard toward the deadlines, which left little time or energy for mentoring students, collaborating with colleagues, or any of the other duties that make up the other half of his job.
Lying in bed, he started thinking about everything he was unable to do and the people he felt he was letting down. “I simply don’t have enough time in the day to do what would be ideal,” he says. But he recognized that sitting up at 2:00am was not a good use of his time. One way that Eric handles stress is to practice meditation. That night, he used an approach described by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist Zen master. First, Eric named the emotion. He recognized that the stress was a result of feeling that he wasn’t supporting his students and fellow professors. He then gave it his attention. “The hardest thing to do is sit with the feeling for more than ten seconds,” he says. But by holding his focus on it he was able to see that in dedicating time to the grants, he was also supporting others: his students, collaborators, and family. “I am trying to discover novel things that influence our health to help society,” he says. While it was hard to feel the stress, it helped him see what matters most.
Then he was able to take a step back and look at the stress and ask himself, What is the next best step? “All I can do is prioritize the most important thing at the moment,” he says. He told himself that he would focus on the grants, since the deadlines were looming. He would get back to his students and colleagues when he was finished, which was in just two days. For Eric, the stress was a surface feeling and a deeper more fundamental issue was underneath: feeling he was letting people down. When he was able to get to that issue, he felt more equipped to solve it.
Case study #2: Know what you can change, and what you can’t
A few years back, Gustavo Osorio, a veterinarian and product manager in animal health, was given an opportunity. His boss had left the multinational company they worked for in Mexico City and Gustavo was temporarily put in charge of strategy for his business unit. His boss had been a strong leader and shielded Gustavo and the rest of the team from any problems he faced from above. This meant that Gustavo was seeing many of the pressures and stresses at the corporate level for the first time.
While honored to have the temporary promotion, Gustavo was under an immense amount of stress. He was doing many tasks that he had never done before while trying to prove he could handle the new work. He knew that the pressure was getting to him and sometimes he was not able to live up to expectations. “I made it difficult for the team to follow me at times,” he says. He relied on certain people in his life to put the stress into perspective, talking regularly with a couple of close friends, including a co-worker on his team. “My wife and family also played an important role because they allowed me to vent my worries and frustrations, mostly by listening and offering unbiased advice,” he says. One of the ways he relieved the immediate stress was by sticking to a regular workout routine, even though he was working long hours. He often got up at 5:30am to run eight to ten kilometers.
He was able to use the strain to his advantage in the long run. “I think the stress I felt made me work beyond what I thought I was capable of,” he says. After some time in the new position, he was also able to more clearly identify which circumstances he could influence. “I learned to focus on the most important things and stop worrying about those things I couldn’t change. I developed ways to quickly assess situations, classify them into important and non-important, and respond accordingly.”
Eventually the company brought in a new business unit manager. While Gustavo’s hopes of a permanent promotion were not realized, the experience allowed him to see his strengths and weaknesses more clearly and develop a more productive approach to stress. “I’m now on a path to being a better leader,” he says.
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