Stress management for turbulent times

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This year has been both challenging and profitable for many of the business owners and executives I coach. Despite the difficult and often tumultuous economic times, some of these leaders have remained focused on executing their vision, and have connected with their clients and received an abundance of new referrals. Yet others remain stymied and continue to feel overwhelmed by a financial environment they cannot control.

The difference between these two types of individuals lies in their ability to identify their stress indicators and respond to those signals effectively. In confusing and ambiguous times, managing your stress can be the ultimate key to having a competitive advantage in business.

The role of stress in our life
Stress is a necessary part of our survival, defined in science as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand placed upon it.” We are continually bombarded by physical and emotional demands. We all have our own internal mechanism of realigning our body’s reaction to this stimuli and coping effectively.

However, when faced with an event or thought (a stressor) that overwhelms our ability to maintain this equilibrium, it can result in a negative response. For example, if you are extremely concerned about the potential negative impact of losing a key client, you may experience muscular tension, headaches, chest tightness, distractibility, anxiety, depression, angry outbursts or difficulty sleeping. This inability to manage our stress is what we call a stress reaction.

A coping response is anything you do that helps you deal with the stress reaction in a way that provides some relief. These coping responses can be either maladaptive or adaptive. Maladaptive coping responses work temporarily but are negative in the long run, such as: drinking excessively, smoking, abusing drugs, or practicing avoidance behavior.

Adaptive coping responses may take more effort to learn, but they produce both short-term and long-term benefits and results. An example of this type of response might be: relaxation, meditation, problem-solving, enhanced communication skills, positive self-statements, exercise, hobbies, etc.

Common stress-related behavior
The two most common maladaptive behaviors people engage in when they are feeling overwhelmed by stress is to do nothing (avoidance behavior) and/or to engage in irrational thinking.

In approach-avoidance behavior, the further we get away from something stressful, the calmer we feel. The tendency is to “shut down” and doing nothing when the fear of making a mistake becomes overwhelming. During the recent economic turmoil, I have witnessed business owners engaging in avoidance behavior in an attempt to escape the negative impact of this type of reaction.

But ultimately the anxiety builds, and avoidance makes the situation worse. For example: You may avoid contacting a client you believe may be upset with your company’s service and is considering going with a competitor. You might email them or call them at a time you hope they won’t be available, instead of making an appointment to meet with them to discuss the situation. While initially you may feel relief, eventually you will be distressed that you didn’t speak with them and have the opportunity resolve the situation.

Additionally, during stressful times people often engage in irrational thinking, resulting in unrealistic beliefs and expectations of themselves and others. When things don’t go well for us we can feel like a victim of circumstances and have a tendency to blame external situations for our negative stress reactions. However, the stress model I am presenting suggests that events in the environment are neutral. Our level of coping depends on what we tell ourselves about a situation and the actions we take.

Therefore, the first step to coping effectively is to understand you are not a victim. You cannot control the environment; you can only control your reaction to the environment. Those individuals who demonstrate the ability to anticipate, persevere, remain focused and take action in spite of obstacles, reflect the resiliency needed to thrive during difficult times.

The stress management plan
By understanding your own stress-related reactions to turbulent economic times and evaluating your current stress management strategies, you can develop an action plan for yourself and your business that will allow you to not only cope better but guide your organization more effectively. While some of us are pre-wired to handle stress well or were taught effective coping skills growing up, others of us have not demonstrated consistent resiliency in the past.

The good news is we can successfully modify our behavior and learn alternative strategies. The bad news is that making these necessary changes can be difficult. Creating an action plan is an important step in identifying and learning new stress management techniques.

As a part of this process you will likely have to engage in new behaviors that initially might make you feel uncomfortable. A key principle to keep in mind is that behavior is easier to change than feelings. In my work with business owners and executives I recommend the following behavioral strategies be considered in the creation of a Stress Management Action Plan:

• Keep a stress management log. Record the stressful situations you experience over a two-week period. Be sure to include your stressors, your stress reactions and your current coping responses.

• Create strategies for managing your own stress. After recognizing circumstances that “set you off” and patterns in how you respond, the next step is to modify your current ineffective behavior and substitute more effective coping responses. Some suggestions are:

  • limit outside negative influences ( i.e. avoid watching “talking heads” on news shows and surrounding yourself with pessimistic people);
  • continue journaling stress events and responses;
  • make a list of daily action steps;
  • listen to relaxation or meditation tapes before bedtime;
  • exercise;
  • make time for non-work interests and hobbies.

Create governance rules for your business. Predictability, consistency and accountability are essential for ensuring client confidence. Proactively creating business policies will help you manage your own work-related anxiety, along with client expectations. Areas to consider addressing are: client communication policies; responsiveness to client needs and identifying action steps that are aligned with your business goals.

For you to thrive as a leader, you need to demonstrate resilient behavior during stressful times. However, taking action and getting out of your comfort zone is critical if you are going to move past inertia, learn more productive coping responses and achieve the next level of success.


This article was originally published in the Gulf Coast Business Review.

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