How to conquer stress (Part 1)

This morning, I was talking with a client about the impact of stress on decision-making.

It’s a VERY important topic that affects:

  • How strategy gets defined
  • How strategy gets executed
  • How otherwise solid leaders get derailed
  • How otherwise solid followers get sidelined

At its core, it is a topic that EVERY organization should address.

Unfortunately, most of the stress-related “solutions” that are taught/discussed are more self-help advisements than real-world solutions.

Yes, we all need to take a break and go for a walk outdoors. But, no, not in the middle of a true crisis. Especially when customers are involved.

And yet, when I talk with people from all walks of life, stress is the most common struggle that I find. They are stressed and not handling it as well as they intuitively know that they should.

And that means that people – from all walks of life – are more than likely making decisions that they should not be making. Or more precisely, choosing to do things that won’t truly produce the best outcome.

Let me back up.

Do you understand how stress affects the brain?

When something causes us stress, we have two paths. One path takes us to the front of the brain (the cerebral cortex) where we logically try to address it. This is when we call the stress “good” because it produces all kinds of positive reactions inside of our bodies that both excite and fulfill us (aka the “rush” of the thrill). The other path takes us to the middle of our brain (the amygdala) where we emotionally freak out and try to escape the stress – via fight, flight, or freeze.

Pause. The fight/flight/freeze idea is very 1900’s. More recent research describes a more complex response that can be summed up as survival mode. In other words, when modern humans get stressed, our survival mode kicks in. Yes, fight/flight/freeze fits in here, but so do blaming others, going passive, becoming manipulative, and shaming yourself. Our survival mode is less about escaping wild animals and more about preserving our position in social circles.

So, what happens to our decision-making when we are trying to protect our position in society more than addressing the stress? What happens when protecting our ego takes priority over solving the problem?

Does it sound like some leaders you know?

Does it sound like some co-workers you know?

Does it sound like some family members you know?

Does it even possibly sound like you?

Mirror moment: Are you someone who gets stressed? And if you do get stressed, do you take the focus off of the situation and make it about your survival? Because I know that I do.

When we go into survival mode, we actually stop accessing the cerebral cortex, where our most logical and effective problem-solving takes place and retreat into a hormonally-charged, emotional space that can lead us into not only poor decisions, but unethical ones as well. All in the name of survival.

Which begs the question: What other choice do we have? What is the alternative to survival mode?

Answer: Go into serving mode.

Literally, serve your way through the stress. Make it about “us” and not “me.” Make choices that consider how other people will be affected. Be willing to “take a hit” if it will lift the rest of the team.

Yes, this is sacrificial.

Yes, this is humbling.

And yes, this is the healthiest response. For many reasons, including:

  • It inspires other people to do the same, creating true community
  • It pulls others in, generating the kind of support that only true community can deliver
  • It frees your soul, producing the kind of peace that doesn’t make sense – but works any way
  • It allows you to get back to the front of your brain, spawning new solutions that turn the risk into an opportunity

I have much more to share on this topic in the coming weeks, but let me leave you with this simple reflection to ponder:

When you get stressed, do you go into survival mode or serving mode?

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

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