Stress: Where Does it Really Come From & How to Manage It

By Diane Dempster, Executive Coach ― Nearly 75% of people in the United States report that they regularly experience the physical and psychological effects of stress. The annual costs to employers in stress related health care and missed work is $300 Billion. As a business leader, I can completely relate to this statistic, and I’m genuinely concerned.

Can you relate to my story?

Before I became a coach, I had a successful career in Healthcare Administration. It was a busy and stress-filled job. I was definitely one of those “do it all” kind of women, but as my job began to take up more and more of my attention, it seemed that I had less time for my personal life. Every aspect of my life was impacted and I felt increasingly disconnected. I decided to do something about it. Today, I’m not stress-free, and honestly don’t think that’s a realistic goal in today’s fast-paced society. I do have a strong sense of what I’m up against, both physiologically, and emotionally. AND I’ve made it my personal mission to help other people understand where their stress really comes from, and what they can do about it. Ready?

What exactly is stress?

stressStress is an automatic side effect when we encounter anything that makes us feel threatened or off-balance. When we sense danger, the body’s defense system kicks into high gear in a fast and automatic process known as the stress response. When it starts, our body and brain and body actually start to shut down to prepare for defense. All of our focus rushes to our feet so that we can either stand our ground, or run away. (That’s why they call it fight-or-flight!)

Stress is the body’s natural way of protecting you. When it works, it helps you stay focused and alert. In an emergency, it can save your life, giving you extra strength to defend yourself. A great example of this is if you were to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.

Three Key Challenges

1) Beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and can cause significant issues in all aspects of life; health, relationships, even your quality of life. We’ve all heard it―stress can be deadly.
2) Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a real physical threat and a perceived or even social one. Whether you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a co-worker, a traffic jam, or a mountain of bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation.
3) If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries (and what busy leader doesn’t?), your emergency stress response may be “on” most of the time. The more your body’s stress system is activated, the easier it is to trigger it and the harder it is to shut off.

What Do We Do About Stress?

In some situations, nothing. A little stress can be good. It can motivate us into action. But if we aren’t paying attention, stress can cause some real and significant problems in our life.

Tips to Manage Stress

Stress Tip #1: Pay Attention

Notice what your stress triggers are, and how your body feels when you are triggered. As you pay attention, you will begin to notice the moment when you move past motivation and start heading for trouble. I can tell how stressed I am by the tone of my voice, and the tightness of my chest. Awareness is the first step because it allows you to take action.

Stress Tip #2: Breathe, Move or Take a Sip of Water

It sounds simple, but it’s powerful. Breathing reverses the natural response when we are under stress. It slows down our heart rate and blood pressure. When you move, you connect with the body, which slows down the cycle of negative stressful thinking. When you take a sip of water, that animal instinct of fight-or-flight thinks: “the threat must have passed―we’re stopping at the watering hole!”

Stress Tip #3: Manage Your Mindset

Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a real physical threat and a social or even perceived one. The stress response itself is absolutely real: the heart racing, the flight-or-fight response. It’s the threat that is imagined or at least overestimated. When we worry or think about a threat (real or perceived), our brains create a “story” about the future, particularly in situations where we have little control. We all do this. It’s a completely normal response. Unfortunately, we tend to create a “worst case” type of story. So, If you are going to create a story, create a positive one! We’re making everything up, anyway. The probability of a good outcome is just as high as the story you’ve created (the one that is totally stressing you out.)

What’s Next?

The key is to take some steps in the right direction. Most of us would love nothing better than to move from being stressed-out to being completely stress-free. For many of us, setting a goal of being completely stress-free creates even more overwhelm as we fall short, and we beat ourselves up for not being better at managing things. The key is to take it slow. Let the momentum build and celebrate even modest improvements.

My challenge to you this week is try one thing. Notice how your body feels when you are stressed, or take a deep breath, a walk or a sip of water in that moment before you go over the “deep end.” Let us know what works for you!