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It's not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it." Hans Selye

Does the pressure of a tight deadline ignite your creativity and drive? Do pre-speech sweaty palms and jitters translate into compelling performances? Thank stress. Besides cortisol and adrenaline, stress stimulates neurotrophins to increase concentration and productivity and interleukins to boost immunity. Besides sweaty palms, stress builds resiliency and motivation to succeed. In the short term.

Under the strain of sustained, chronic stress, these benefits evaporate. Stress, or your reaction to it, can kill your career, your relationships - and you. As a high-level leader, facing constant stress, one of your most critical mandates is to figure out how to fight it. And win.

Stress: Your Biggest Career Threat?

Few executives, especially the harried ones, would argue that chronic stress is detrimental - but just in case, here's what it can do:

  • Shrink the brain. Long-term stress decreases grey matter in the areas of the brain that control emotional and physiological functions.
  • Trigger depression.
  • Increase the risk of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, asthma, and arthritis.
  • Accelerate aging.
  • Result in premature death.

The good news: stress management can mitigate, or eliminate, these risks. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine, for example, found that people with stable heart disease improved their physical health and mental well being by managing stress via a class or exercise.

Stress Relief is for Wimps?

So that's the good, the here's the ugly: while leaders recognize the value of initiatives and activities that decrease stress, few act on that knowledge.

In Why Leaders Don't Brag About Successfully Managing Stress, George Washington University School of Business Professor James R. Bailey reveals that while 79% of leaders say they recognize the importance of "renewal activities," only 35% say their companies encourage those activities. And, of those who do find renewal effective, only half encourage these activities among their people.

Bailey writes, "Executives may worry that colleagues would snicker if they knew about the stamp collection or the daily meditation sessions. These vital activities might be perceived as signs of weakness."

Ways to Reduce Stress

Stoicism does not equal strength. Stress is a clear and present danger to any leader; ignore it at your peril. The best way to encourage renewal activities in your company is to start with yourself.

1. Autogenic Training

Stress has the power to take over your body; it is difficult to talk yourself out of a highly charged state. But not impossible... Autogenic training is a method through which you can teach your body to listen to your brain. For example, "My breathing is slow, deep, and calm." This way, you can control your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing, returning your body to a state of calm. Of course, you have to train before you put autogenic techniques to the test. Find a video or training guide, practice each day, and you'll be able to "command" your body to relax.

2. Identify Your Triggers

What upsets you? Makes you angry? Stresses you out? It's hard to stop and say, "Oh yes, this is one of my hot buttons" when you're in the middle of a stressful situation. In Vistage's "Get a Life Guide for CEOs, TEC speaker Mike McCaffrey suggests waiting until you are calm. Then examine what happened: "write down your reaction and think of ways you can more constructively redirect the response."

By making this process conscious, you can learn to identify, and defuse, the triggers that lead to stress.

3. Laughter is the Best Medicine

Call you funniest friend or fire up your favorite comedy act on YouTube. Laugher stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles; increases feel-good endorphins, activates and relieves your stress response (creating a relaxing feeling), stimulates circulation; aids muscle relaxation; and improves mood.

Research shows that even anticipating a good laugh increases levels of beta-endorphins (chemicals that alleviate depression) and human growth hormone (which increases immunity) by 27 to 87 percent.

4. Work It Out

Ever feel so stressed you could hit something? Do it! (Just make sure it's a punching bag, pillow, tennis ball, or running trail.) Exercise spurs your body to release endorphins, and it helps you clear your head. Try high-intensity activities (running, dancing, spinning), kickboxing, martial arts, yoga, or sign up for a team sport.

5. Take a News Fast

With a 24-hour news cycle, it's difficult to avoid the news- whether it's about the economy, global tensions, or the latest goings-on of celebrities. But a "news fast" may be just what you need for stress relief.

Exposure to disaster, death, and negativity can trigger anxiety, depression, changes in mood, and physical health problems. Dr. Andrew Weil writes, "[T]aking periodic breaks from the news can promote mental calm and help renew your spirits. In this way, the anxiety and overstimulation catalyzed by the media may be minimized, and your body will function better."

You don't need to become uninformed; in fact, you may need to monitor news for the well-being of your organization. But try to limit your exposure (at least for a week or so to see the effects) to that which is essential.

6. Take Control

Tim McDonald writes in Huffington Post: "You cannot control the situation but you can control your reaction to the situation... Learning to separate yourselves from what happens to us and beginning to see how we respond to it is the best gift you can give yourself." Another Vistage speaker, Morty Lefkoe makes the point "events are just events; it's how we react to them that matters." For example, a major deal falls through after you've done everything you can go secure it. You cannot control that situation; you can control how you react. Are you going to sink into depression? Or are you going to lick your wounds for a bit and get back to work? When you recognize you're in control of your reaction, you can put stress in its place.

A little stress is necessary to get our juices flowing and motivate us to achieve results - but a little goes a long way. If you're living with chronic stress, you owe it to yourself and your organization, to find ways to reduce it.


Larry Hart

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