(Forbes) I’ve been in business long enough to have seen it all. The senior partner who broke out in tears when a decision didn’t go his way. The project manager screaming at his team members in the face of deadlines. Colleagues rushing to the bathroom, sobbing, after a feedback session. I’ve seen thrown coffee mugs, name-calling, and disagreements almost come to blows.
We are working at a time of hyper-competitiveness and an unprecedented pace of change, and feelings of stress may be at their highest levels ever. According to The American Institute of Stress:
80% of workers feel stress on the job
25% have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress
14% of respondents had felt like striking a coworker in the past year, but didn’t
9% are aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace
Under Stress, We Regress
Many psychologists believe that we regress, or return to, behaviors we used in childhood when faced with an emotional threat. As a child, I would run away and hide in my room or just sit sullenly if things weren’t going my way. Today, my stress reaction is to “shut down” and to shut people out. And of course, if you were a child who threw tantrums—or objects—when things didn’t go your way, you may be a “screamer” under stress at work.
Low Frequency, High Impact Behaviors
Executive coach, Dr. Roger Lipson, calls it the “low frequency, high impact” effect. As much as we’d like to think modern organizations want to support the “whole person,” and we should be open to authentic sharing of emotions at work, the fact remains that even a single emotional outburst can derail a career path.
I may be a great leader for five months in a row, but if there is one day where I scream at you and demean you, it would be hard for you to feel good about my leadership ever again. If senior leadership observes me crying or yelling, they may question whether I would be able to handle the increased pressure that comes with advancement.
Great Leaders Say, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Executive presence is one of the most popular courses taken by managers in the LEADx library. Everyone wants the “it” factor. There is, of course, no standard definition as what “it” actually is. But everyone agrees they know when they see it.
Most people agree that part of executive presence is a cool, calm, confident demeanor. While others are racing and reacting throughout the day, highly successful executives seem to walk calmly, purposefully and remain focused on their predefined objectives. Even in the face of crisis, their emotional reaction is the equivalent of Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell’s message, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” And many studies have shown the positive correlation between emotional intelligence and regulation and leadership effectiveness.
So how do successful people do it? How do they remain calm under pressure? How do they overcome the normal and natural reaction to regress, when under stress?
#1 They Take Care of Their Bodies
There’s a lot of wisdom in those Snickers commercials that claim you aren’t you when you’re hungry. Our environment is the biggest variable when it comes to behavior, and our body is the immediate environment of our minds.
Successful people are intentional about when and what they eat. Your new mantra: Food is fuel! There is probably nothing more controversial in the health and fitness world than what and when to eat. High protein diets, vegan diets, intermittent fasting, so many options! For myself, if I want to optimize for motivation and energy (not rapid weight loss) I consume five small slow or low-carb meals a day.
Successful people also intentional about their sleep. In my book, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, I interviewed 13 Olympic athletes and their number one secret was to get more sleep. Eight hours of sleep isn’t realistic for most of us, but instead of focusing on quantity of sleep, you should focus on quality of sleep (ie, maximizing time in deep sleep). Keep your room dark, quiet, and cool. If you want to monitor the amount of deep sleep you get each night, I’ve personally tried and would recommend these trackers: Whoop, Fitbit, Withings.
#2 They Exercise
Numerous studies have shown that exercise reduces stress, anxiety and even depression. This is because exercise increases the amount of feel-good hormones like serotonin, and reduces cortisol which is the primary stress hormone. If you like exercise as much as I do, you are probably groaning at this recommendation. Thankfully, you don’t need to become an overnight gym rat to control your stress. You just need to move in a way that gets your heart beat way up for twenty minutes a day. A fast walk around the neighborhood, a yoga session, or after work pickup basketball game would all be great.
#3 They Train Their Minds
Many of the most emotionally grounded people have strengthened their mind through meditation. If you’re unfamiliar with meditation, it is notabout just sitting quietly or trying to channel some mystical energy of the universe. If you understand how lifting weights can make your muscles grow, meditation is the same thing—it literally grows your brain. One Harvard study showed that after eight weeks of meditation there was growth in the hippocampus (the area of the brain that regulates emotion) and a reduction in the brain cell volume in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for anxiety and stress. The great news is that, unlike a physical workout at the gym, doing a meditation mental workout only takes a few minutes, can be done anywhere, and doesn’t require a change of clothes. If you’d like to learn how to meditate for a few minutes each day, these are my favorite apps: Headspace, Waking Up, and Muse.
#4 They Are Grounded in Gratitude
Highly successful people have an attitude of gratitude. Negative emotion is easily washed away by positive feelings of gratitude. No matter how bad our situation is, if we pause, it’s usually very easy to see how much better off we are than others. Similar to meditation, having a solid gratitude practice literally changes our brains. Research done at the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA shows that gratitude practices impact the brain at the neurochemical level, and acts as a catalyst for neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and nor-epinephrine–all of which have a major impact anxiety and stress response.
One way to adopt a gratitude practice is to simply spend five minutes a day writing in a “gratitude journal”. Personally, as part of my morning ritual, I think of three things that I can feel grateful for. It only takes a minute, I can do it while still in bed or in the shower or even driving to work. The key is you have to pick things that you can actually feel grateful for.
#5 They View Stress as a Spotlight on Their Values
We feel stress when something we care about is threatened. This is so important, I'm going to repeat it: we feel stress when something we care about—something we value—is threatened. We might feel stress over money, because we value money. We might feel stress over a big presentation to our CEO, because we care about what the CEO thinks of us (we care about our career). We might feel stress over a five o’clock project deadline, because we care about customer service.
Knowing this, highly successful people realize they are feeling stress and pause to ask: what is my body telling me? What is it that I care about, that I think is threatened? When you have that answer, it’s easier to thank yourself for the warning sign. Your stress is like a spotlight on something you need to protect. So you can literally just say to yourself, “OK overactive primordial brain, I understand. I care about being a good mom, and if I don’t leave work on time I’ll miss my kids play at school. Now I’m going to work the problem…”
#6 They Reframe With a Growth Mindset
When we feel overwhelmed with too much to do, or angry at someone’s incompetence, or frustrated because our flight was canceled, or disappointed when we failed to close the sale, it is very easy to think: why is this happening to me?
Highly successful people reframe negative experiences into growth experiences. Instead of, “Why is this happening to me” they think “Why is this happening for me?”
I just lost this major sale...what could I have done differently? Where was my blind spot? I’m grateful for this experience because it will make me better for the next, bigger deal.
I can’t believe my flight is delayed and now I won’t get home until midnight. Why is this happening for me? It’s going to be a great chance to practice patience. Perhaps I’ll meet someone interesting at the bar. I can live my values and try to bring calm and happiness to some of the other upset passengers. I can invest the extra time in reading my book.
#7 They Control Their Physiology
Even the most mentally strong people will encounter times when the amount of pressure they feel is turning into acute stress. In these extreme cases, successful people control their breathing, to control their physiology. A powerful and simple exercise I repeatedly turn to—and teach others—is box breathing which I originally learned about from former Navy SEAL Mark Devine. A short description of the exercise:
INHALE through your nose, counting to four very slowly. Let the air fill your lungs completely.
HOLD your breath to another count of four.
EXHALE through your mouth, to a count of four.
HOLD your breath again for the same count of four.
Repeat from step 1.
This simple practice immediately re-centers your mind and slows your heart rate. I’ve used it in the dentist chair to overcome pain, my friend uses is on airplanes to overcome hear fear of flying, my daughter uses it at college before her big class presentations. If it’s good enough to calm combat stress of Navy SEALS, it’s good enough for me.
If stress is a spotlight on something we value that is under threat, it’s now wonder we’re all running around feeling more stress than ever before. We care about our careers, being good parents, our health, our faith—so many things—and yet, there are only so many hours in the day. By training our bodies and our minds, and reframing our daily experiences, we can thrive under pressure and not degrade under stress. And when all else fails, when you’re about ready to pound the desk or scream at a colleague, just remember—inhale one, two, three, four…