Stress: Friend or Foe?

Stress: Friend or Foe?
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How many of you have spent the night tossing and turning, thinking about the workday ahead, planning out tough conversations or revisiting blunders? You’re not alone.

Stress is an essential part of the human experience, but it often causes problems –from insomnia to heart disease. But, in my experience working with leaders, stress can sometimes be a good thing – particularly if you master how to handle it.

When looking at research of high performing leaders at organizations, stress tolerance, or the ability to deal or manage stress, is often one of the top three characteristics.

Try to think about what this looks like in the workplace. Your boss calls your team asking for a tough deliverable in a short timeline. While one of your colleagues may be paralyzed by the new ask, complaining about the unfairness of the deadline or the feasibility of getting it all done, a strong leader in the group quickly devises a game plan and divides up responsibilities. One acts, while the other is immobilized by stress.

So how do you become that leader? As I outlined in my new book, The EQ Leader: Instilling Passion, Creating Shared Goals, and Building Meaningful Organizations through Emotional Intelligence, being aware of your stress is the first step to managing it. Often we first become aware of the physical cues – increased heart rate, butterflies, sweaty palms, etc. Trying to fight or control these feelings often makes them worse.

Another way to deal with these situations is to change your perception of what is happening. How you interpret the symptoms, for example, can affect how you deal with anxiety. Instead of instantly connecting your speedy heart rate and sweaty palms to your fear of public speaking and worrying about all the things that can go wrong, restructure your thoughts. Instead, try to feel the symptoms and then reinterpret them as part of the excitement of a new challenge. Changing your perception can change a fear response to one of excitement.

Research has documented the benefits of this approach. Andreas Keller and his colleagues published a report that examined surveys of nearly 186 million U.S. adults who participated in the 1998 National Health Interview. In the survey data, 55 percent of participants reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress during the previous year. Nearly 34 percent indicated that this stress had negatively impacted their health to some extent during that time.

The researchers found that those who reported higher stress and beliefs that stress negatively influenced their health had a 43 percent increased risk for premature death.

The study supports the idea of changing your perception of the stressors that are in your life and using interventions such as cognitive restructuring and problem solving techniques to manage stress.

For better or worse stress is here to stay, whether you become its master or servant. Great leaders master it. Now it’s your turn.

Dr. Steven Stein is the author of The EQ Leader, and CEO of Multi-Health Systems.

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