Faced with stress, is it even possible to stay calm, cool, and collected? To take it all in stride, function effectively, not lose sleep, and still handle problems successfully?
In order to stay unstressed, a manager must understand and accept these essential concepts:
Stress is within us – not “out there.” Sure – bad, undesirable things really do happen. But the stress reaction is within us: our blood pressure increases, our muscles tense, our breathing pattern changes, and stomach acidity increases even as our bodily fluids flow from our torsos to our limbs. It’s called the fight/flight reaction and is an adaptive mechanism that prepares our bodies for fast, short term, violent activity. But living as we do, in civilization, where our threats are more likely to be from a lack of money or an unreasonable boss, this mechanism is no longer adaptive. And the stress-reaction we undergo causes more harm than good – both physical and emotional.
Stress always includes negative emotions. Emotions are not just mental events, but are total psycho-physiological responses to some perceived threat. When your body goes into high gear in order to ward off some physical danger (by fighting it or fleeing from it), you also experience a strong emotion. If you are ready to fight, the emotion will be anger or a related feeling; if you are ready to flee, the emotion will be fear or anxiety. And if there is a sense that the danger for which your body was aroused is totally unavoidable and you are a goner, you’ll experience an emotion like depression.
Emotions are caused by thoughts. You see a man in the street and he is carrying a gun and looking around nervously. Alarm bells go off within you and you start to sweat, your heart skips a beat . . . you are having a classic stress, or fight/flight, reaction. But a moment later, you see the camera crew and you realize you are watching a movie being made. You smile, your heart returns to normal, and you calm down. Even though there wasn’t really any danger, you did experience stress – because you thought there was a real danger. And it is your thoughts – always – that cause your emotional response.
On the other hand, suppose that there really was a man with a gun, and he was stalking you and was just a few paces behind you. Not knowing anything about it – and therefore not thinking about a danger that is real – you go on your merry way. Again, it is never an event that causes our feelings; only our thoughts. And as long as you tell yourself and believe that there is a threat of some kind, your mind and body will go into a high stress mode.
We can reduce stress by thinking more rationally. Usually, we are not being hunted by men with guns. More often than not, we get stressed out and experience negative emotions when we must face the kinds of events mentioned earlier: having to deal with an unreasonable boss, meeting a suddenly increased work demand, coping with family issues, facing a financial crunch. None of these harsh realities cause the stress, but your thinking about them does. Tell yourself that it is awful, horrible, and unforgivable for your boss to suddenly pile a new assignment into your already overburdened calendar, and you’ll start to sweat and develop other stress related symptoms. Start telling yourself that he’ll probably fire you and you’ll end up as a homeless bagman and your family will starve . . . and you’ll get that really big headache. Remind yourself that you always doubted that you were really as competent as you let people believe; now they’ll know you’re a fraud . . . and despair and lethargy are sure to follow. It is these exaggerated and irrational thoughts that produce the stress reaction.
Instead, catch yourself when you start having such catastrophic thoughts and try to examine your own thinking. First, identify those thoughts that are producing the stress. Then, vigorously challenge them: How bad is it – really? Will I really get fired if I don’t complete this project on time? Even if the worst happened and I was fired, would I really be unable to get another job so that I’d be broke and my family would starve? Where is the evidence that I’m just an incompetent fraud? By challenging your irrational thoughts in as rational and sensible a manner as possible, you’ll be able to change your thinking which will, in turn, change your feelings. Instead of being uptight and fearful – which would interfere with your functioning as well as you otherwise might – you’ll calm down, recognize that there is a real problem, and you’ll have to deal with it, but that it’s not awful, horrible, unimaginably difficult: it’s just a problem and you’ll handle it.