Stress Response-Ability: Beyond Fight-or-Flight

About eight years ago my life went through a bit of an upheaval. I was in the middle of a demanding Masters program, I was working in a job that really wasn’t fulfilling, I was in a relationship that had an uncertain future, and I was in that “phase” of life where I was questioning everything.

My stress was high and my resilience was low. Let me tell you, it was not a winning combo.  Despite my type-A, success-at-all-cost mentality, my body shut down. Stress was oozing from any available outlet. Meanwhile, my b*tch-of-an-inner-critic was saying: “get it together,” “you’re stronger than this,” “successful people don’t break down!” (Doesn’t she just say all the right things?)

With so many changes (real and potential) going on, my mental and emotional capacity was tapped out. I was at my max. And, what I’ve realized is that I’m not alone. Stress isn’t something we casually talk about… especially as a leader. It has a stigma, and can be seen as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. Though I can tell you, I’m stronger now for having lived through and experienced that low point.

The truth is, stress is real and it’s everywhere – at work, at home, between work and home… With our current world, some say we might even have a stress epidemic on our hands: leaving people with an out-of-control feeling more often than not. But what we do have influence and control over is growing our capacity and resilience to deal with it.

Physiologically, we are wired to respond to threats with our automatic stress reaction of “fight, flight or freeze” – a response that is very useful in predator-prey situation, not so useful in a corporate office.

In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world-renowned expert and teacher on mindfulness-based stress reduction, says that rather than falling victim to our stress reaction, we can develop adaptive strategies for coping: “you do not have to go the route of fight-or-flight reaction nor the route of helplessness every time you are stressed. You can actually choose not to.” Simply by bringing in mindfulness, or moment-to-moment awareness to what happens to us when we are stressed we reduce the strong-hold that our stress reaction can have on us.

When we’re in the grip of stress, we’re not at our best. And as a leader, when you’re not at your best, your team can suffer.

So what can you do? Start with simply noticing.

  • What is it that triggers a stress reaction in you?
  • What is your “typical” full-out stress reaction?
  • Can you pay attention to the subtle cues that are the start of the downward spiral of stress?
  • What can you do to re-calibrate and re-energize?

When I get that antsy, anxious flutter in my tummy, I know it’s time to hit the woods on my bike and get grounded. It fills up my tank emotionally, physically and mentally, and gives me the re-fresh I need to face the challenges that are part of life and leadership.

What are your stories around stress? What’s your re-fresh routine? Do you have one?