One of the most important decisions we make is choosing how we handle stress. We are surrounded by stress. In fact, we’re struggling to survive in the midst of a stress epidemic. The same is true for our colleagues. Stress is ubiquitous.
Lack of role clarity, maddening traffic, multitasking, managing budgets, rising costs, a troubled economy, too much caffeine, no exercise, unhealthy eating habits, not enough sleep—these are some of the stressors we face each day.
Combine all these stress factors, and the result is people who are not at their best. Add the sense of having no power over external circumstances, and you have increasingly stressed, unhealthy, and unbalanced people showing up at work. In that state of mind, a person will succumb to bad decision making, low productivity, impatience, lethargy and irritability. Multiply this effect from one person to a team—or even the majority of people in an organization—and you have a systemic problem.
A person’s choices—or lack of choices—can kick off a cycle of negative energy that depletes the group rather than contributing to it. If that person is the leader, the problem is compounded. Leaders are especially influential in the work environment. One impact leaders can have is to remove or reduce extremely stressful circumstances thereby assisting people to contribute their best.
If we fail to make choices that reduce stress, we undermine our capacity for focus and mindfulness. Centered choices are a cornerstone of personal mastery, and they boost effective evolution for groups and for individuals.
The stress we experience on a daily basis is part of life—people have been stressed throughout history. What is critical is how we handle stress. How we choose to manage stress determines whether we feel overwhelmed or in control. Our ability to grow is supported or undermined by how we handle stress. Whether we can be healthy or not is affected by how we choose to respond to stress. How can we think about living less stressful lives so we can be more effective? Can we focus on the primary decision at the heart of the matter? If so, we may be able to make progress where progress has been hard to make.
Walter Cannon, a physiologist at Harvard University, coined the term fight or flight. Fight or flight describes a set of physiological changes that are a natural response to danger. When we feel threatened, our bodies prepare us to defend ourselves or to run as fast as we can to safety.
We’re ready to fight or flee. The problem is that we’re sitting at a desk or behind the wheel of a car. We’re on the kind of high alert our ancestors needed in the wild, but this isn’t what we need minutes before a big meeting or in the middle of a major decision. Instead, we tend to be more successful in these situations when we are cool, calm, and collected.
The faster we can identify the fight or flight response and avoid pumping unneeded adrenaline through our bodies, the more appropriately we can respond to the reality around us. As leaders, we must be able to override instinct when we ask others to work in a competitive setting, or we’ll be feeding the tension and reactivity, not freeing those around us from responding to the day’s challenges with the reactions of cave dwellers. Leaders can model how to choose tools to reduce psychic stress so work proceeds in a constructive manner.
Calm is a choice. Stress is a choice.
The more we consciously choose to evolve beyond outdated behaviors, the more we can see that life’s common stress factors do not warrant fighting or running. We learn that we can choose a positive attitude over a negative attitude toward stress. It all comes back to attitude. The fight or flight response can be kicked off by any stressor— positive or negative. But there is a crucial difference in brain functioning related to positive stress (the challenges that mobilize and motivate us) compared with that related to negative or bad stress (the threats that overwhelm, paralyze or demoralize us). The brain chemicals that generate enthusiasm for a challenge are different from those that generate fear of a threat. And in many cases, whether we experience enthusiasm or fear is a matter of choice. We can choose attitudes that challenge, motivate and mobilize us, and that bring out the best in us. In other words, we can circumvent the fight or flight impulse by choosing to feel neither. How? By changing how we think.
Studies show that people who choose to meet stressors with a positive attitude develop a remarkable hardiness and can bear the physical burden of stress much better. They emerge from difficult times with far less illness. Their hardiness permits them, despite stress, to stay committed, feel in control, and be challenged. We can choose to be resilient. We can choose to become hardy.
Whether or not we will have a fear response depends on two factors. One is physiological arousal, and the other is thoughts that interpret a situation as threatening and then attribute our physiological arousal to fear. The key to unlocking this hidden cycle is to remember that the actual situation often has little to do with our emotional response. The way our thoughts interpret the stimulus and the feeling we have is the real force behind whether the stress we experience is negative (draining our resources for a fight or flight response) or positive (energizing and motivating us). This explains why the same person who is exhilarated by skydiving leaps onto a chair shaking and shrieking in terror when he sees a mouse on the floor or gets angry when his girlfriend serves him chocolate cake. In all three situations, he experiences the fight or flight response, but he attributes it to three different emotions.
Eventually, we learn how to choose so our bodies don’t click into a fight or flight response at all. When we take responsibility for our assumptions, we begin to break the cycle of stress and become free to face seeming threats with energy and enthusiasm. What’s required is a conscious mental shift in how we view our world. What’s required is a change in attitude.