We all experience it. And we all have reactions to it.
My informal poll revealed that stress often brings on feelings of fear, anxiety, discomfort, helplessness, despair, doom, and self-limiting thoughts. People’s reactions to stress can result in diminished creativity, loss collaboration, short term focus, and isolation.
Stress can come in all shapes and sizes. For some it’s in the form of change, difficult relationships, conversations, packed schedules, and long to-do lists. And stress has no age limits, impacting the young and old.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try to avoid stress, it somehow finds its way into your life.
What would happen if we moved from trying to avoid stress, to embracing stress and finding a new way to navigate through it?
A New Perspective
Mindfulness journals encourage strategies like deep breathing to eliminate stress in exchange for ease and comfort. This strategy, although helpful as a way to push pause on auto-pilot reactions to stress, implies that stress is bad and should be avoided.
Neuroscience, however, would suggest something different.
The following is an example of how one individual learned to navigate stress, instead of eliminate it.
7 Steps to Navigate Stress
1. Acknowledge and name what you are feeling.
Acknowledging your feelings helps you to understand what is going on around you. Feelings are like pieces of data, helping you to make decisions and choices. There are no such thing as good or bad feelings. All feelings serve a purpose and provide you with valuable information, so pay attention and take note of them!
What is going on right now? How are you feeling?
“I have more than I want on my plate. I don’t know where to begin. And, I feel stressed out right now. I want to shut down and hide.”
Be curious about stress. Notice what is causing it, and how else you are feeling. What thoughts are running through your head? How is your body reacting to stress?
What else is going on?
“In addition to my normal work load, I have a new project. I’m excited about the project, but with everything else, it’s all more than I can handle. It is leaving me feeling overwhelmed, unproductive, and incapable. What if I fail? What if it’s not good enough? When am I going to sleep? I really wanted to create more balance, not more work. My body feels tense and I have a headache.”
3. Gain insight.
Although stress is a feeling that most people don’t seek out, it is still a valuable feeling that provides insight. Often times stress comes with things that matter to you. It’s hard to feel stressed about something that has no significance to you. Discover what really matters most, and why it is important to you.
What really matters in this situation and why is that important to you?
“I value doing high quality work. I don’t want to do anything half way, putting in half the effort. My work represents my character so when I’m put in a situation where I can’t possibly do everything as well as I like, I’m uncomfortable with that.”
When your brain perceives a threat, it processes things differently. The thalamus (the brain’s air traffic controller) receives a signal of a threat and rather than sending that signal to the cortex (the thinking part of the brain), it sends the signal directly to the amygdala. The amygdala sends out a flood of peptides and hormones that are released to create emotion and action. The amygdala reacts based on previously stored data.
“When I feel stress, I shut down and escape to my safe zone. I can’t focus on anything, and all I want to do is mindless things like watch TV, play video games, or go golfing.”
5. Consider the consequences of your auto-pilot reaction.
Sometimes an auto-pilot reaction can be very helpful. For example, when you are driving and someone walks out in front of you, without thinking you slam on the breaks. The perceived threat bypasses the cortex. You don’t stop and think, “Gee, someone is walking out onto the street. What should I do?” Instead, the thalamus directs the signal directly to the amygdala. The amygdala sends peptides and hormones throughout your body. Your heart starts to race, you might feel tension in your muscles, and in a instant, you slam on the breaks.
Other times, an auto-pilot reaction leads to a ineffective, auto-pilot pattern of behavior that is familiar and comfortable. For example, you are playing an intense game and realize in the last play of the game, you are going to lose. You throw your cards to the table and jump out of your chair knocking it to the floor. (Yes, I have witnessed this awkward moment.)
Thinking of your auto-pilot reaction to stress, what will happen if you allow it to have its way?
“I am going to be no better off. I still need to face the situation because it’s not going to go away.”
6. Identify your options.
To re-engage the cortex, take a deep breath and allow those peptide and neurons to dissipate. It only takes about six seconds! Try distracting yourself from the situation for six seconds by engaging the thinking part of your brain and begin to consider your choices.
What options do you have that will align more closely to what matters most to you?
“I can look at my workload and start to break it into chunks, or mini projects. If I do that, I would break it into five projects. One option is to work on one project per day. Another option is to work on the hardest part of each project during the morning time frames when I feel the most energized. A third option, which I never thought of, is to see who else can help me. Maybe I don’t have to do all this by myself.”
7. Choose to intentionally respond to stress.
With the options identified, you now can choose how you want to respond to the stressful situation so that it aligns with what truly matters most to you.
What intentional response to this stressful situation do you want to take?
“I need to change my perspective and look at this as mini projects, aligning the more challenging parts to the morning hours when I feel most creative and energized. I am going to see if I can move a couple of morning meetings to the afternoon. And I am going to see if there is anything on my plate where I can say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’. Yes, I still feel stress, but now I have a plan that will help me navigate through it.”
Following these seven steps takes practice. By no means is it easy, but it is something that can be learned and applied when you are feeling stressed and anxious. You can start with paying attention to how you are feeling throughout the day and being curious about those feelings. Talk to someone about what you are learning about yourself. Make note of your auto-pilot reactions to different feelings. Ask for input from close friends or family!
And finally, coaching and training is always a great way to gain further insight and change behaviors. To learn more, contact EQuip Studios HERE.
About Kelli Schulte, ACC, EQCA, EQPC
I am a Chicago-based consultant and coach helping individuals and organizations grow in emotional intelligence. With a natural curiosity for how people think and feel, I enjoy helping others increase self-awareness, build greater connections, and experience a healthier sense of well-being, in order to take positive steps forward.
In addition to being a wife and a mom of two young adults, I am also a certified coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF), a Certified EQ Assessor and EQ Area Network Leader with Six Seconds, a Panelist with the Six Seconds EQ Community Forum, and a regular contributor with 30 Seconds.
My combined 25 years of experience working as a leadership development consultant with Fortune 100 organizations, and working with students and adults in church ministry gives me a unique coaching and consulting platform.