Your heart feels tight, your head's spinning and it feels like someone has placed needles between your eyes and clamped a vice to your shoulders. When you feel like this, your focus is fractured and even the lint between the keys on your keyboard becomes more interesting than the task you have before you. Sound familiar? That's stress run amok.
While the power of stress inside each and every one of us is inspiring, in excess it can also be self-defeating. Sometimes we believe that stress lets us keep our eyes on the prize and not stop pushing until we get there.
For many people stress has become a status symbol--a validation of worth and productivity. But over time, stress diffuses mental focus and physical health, and what is seen by many as an asset can quickly become a personal and professional liability.
But stress can be a gift. Used appropriately, stress helps to "rally the troops"--to gather and focus our mental and physical resources. Survival of the fittest is based on fast, precise reactions. Think about it: Those who became our ancestors were not the slow-movers. Ever wonder why the brightest idea comes in the eleventh hour? Our hard-wired biological stress reaction fuels creativity, action and immense productivity.
The most creative and effective people leverage stress by stepping into it. Knowing what to do while you're "in" it comes from knowing how it feels to be "out" of it.
The In-spiration of Stress
Because heightened stress levels have become a status symbol, many of us are oblivious to it. Try this 60-second experiment:
Sit back in your chair. Put two feet flat on the floor. Roll your shoulders back and away from your ears. Close your eyes. (Well, finish reading the experiment first.) Now take a few deep breaths. Pull air all the way to the bottom of your belly, hold it there and let it go. Try one or two more breaths, just for good measure.
Feel any different?
Deep breathing is one of the fastest and most effective ways to mitigate the effects of stress. Bringing oxygen to your brain helps you regain your focus and clarity. Do you think there's any coincidence that "inspiration" is used to describe both the inhalation of air as well as a timely and brilliant idea?
Using Daily Rituals
Use stress as a competitive advantage instead of suffering the fate of the "slow-mover." Try some of these daily rituals:
Build in breaks. Even if it's just a couple minutes of deep breathing every 60 to 90 minutes, breaks during the day can help lower stress levels. By recognizing and responding to your body's natural rhythms you can leverage the power of acute stress while avoiding the detrimental effects of chronic stress.
Become aware of your body's bio cues. Where do you hold stress? Tight shoulders? Clenched jaw? Indigestion? Fractured focus? When you feel your body signaling you with one of those cues, stop. Disengage from the task you're working on and take a walk, stand up and stretch, take a couple of deep breaths and start again with a clear head.
Get support. For many achievers, the pattern of overdrive is deeply ingrained. We cannot change what we don't recognize. Get the support of a professional coach, a counselor or a trusted friend to help you begin to recognize your own bio cues for stress and develop a plan for responding.
Stepping Into Stress
So the next time you're feeling stressed, take a deep breath and embrace the rush. But if you find that cleaning the lint from your keyboard becomes more compelling than the proposal you're writing, be gentle with yourself. Your lack of focus isn't a sign of weakness; it's your body's way of telling your brain to rest for a minute. Remember, your ancestors have ensured that your body is hard-wired to succeed--trust your body's cues and it will certainly continue to inspire your brain.