Stress

A Brain Surgeon's Tips for Handling Stress Head-On

If you're comfortable, you're not learning, this neurosurgeon advises. Oh, and another thing: "Never cut what you can't see."
A Brain Surgeon's Tips for Handling Stress Head-On
Image credit: Westend61 | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Neurosurgeon, Princeton Brain and Spine Care
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Most people at least try to avoid stress, especially when it comes to business and workplace conflicts. Even successful, high-profile business icons struggle with how to handle stress: Elon Musk recently admitted in a tweet reported on by CNBC that he faces "unrelenting stress."

Related: How Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Richard Branson Cope With Stress (Infographic)

That's alarming to hear from such a famous and successful entrepreneur. And he's hardly alone in the world of business: But as a businessman myself, and a neurosurgeon, I've discovered that the secret to a more fulfilling, successful life and career is to engage with stress, not run away from it.

In fact, many stressors we encounter are actually beneficial. Without the stress of gravity, our bones would soften; without the stress of exercise, our muscles would atrophy; and without the active engagement of our minds, our intellects would weaken and we would become more susceptible to dementia.

What's more, when we're not exposed to stress, we're not learning or growing or getting stronger. Only when we fully engage in stressful situations and face our fears head on can we succeed in our personal and professional lives.

As a surgeon, I've encountered numerous high-stress circumstances requiring a cool head and decisive action. The discipline of neurosurgery has helped me develop cognitive dominance: It's enhanced my situational awareness for making rapid and accurate decisions under stressful conditions, while the clock was ticking.

But if my years of making life-or-death decisions in the operating room have taught me anything, it's that all of us must have the right tools to conquer one of the fiercest opponents any of us face: stress and fear. So, the next time you face a high-stress situation, try the following strategies for making better decisions under extreme pressure.

1. Always place a drain.

While many difficult situations in life are out of our control, others should never occur in the first place.

Related: Why Stressed-Out Control Freaks Make Insanely Great Entrepreneurs

There's a rule in brain tumor surgery: Aways place a drain. That preemptive procedure of putting into place a fluid drain gives surgeons more control of the operative micro-environment and makes the removal of a tumor safer by providing a "pop off" valve that can relieve intracranial pressure. By following this rule, we prevent a life-threatening problem during surgery and control our stress in the OR.

What are your safety valves? What are the "rules" you follow in your life that control stress and keep it in check?

One way to manage stress in the workplace is to deal with your overloaded email inbox. If you find yourself drowning in emails, with unanswered messages from months ago still sitting in inbox purgatory, wipe the slate clean and start fresh with an "email bankruptcy." Simply delete all emails in your inbox with dates that are over a month old and move on.

With so much electronic communication today, who can possibly keep up? Striving to do so will only result in unnecessary stress, distracting you from truly important matters. An email bankruptcy allows you to stay in the current moment and keep your thoughts focused. (Besides, if something is truly important, the sender will follow up.)

Taking simple burdens such as these off your shoulders will free you up to make better, more level-headed decisions in all aspects of life.

2. Never cut what you can't see.

This pearl is based on the first rule of neurosurgery from my mentor, the master neurosurgeon Peter Jannetta: Never cut what you can't see. Just as illumination and magnification are vital to surgeons, making tough decisions under pressure requires first shining a light on an issue and studying the situation closely to determine its true nature and ultimate solution.

I recently encountered significant stress in preparing for the most important toast of my life ... for my only daughter's wedding. I struggled with a flood of emotions the week before and broke down every time I also practiced my toast -- a lot. After a lot of thought, I realized my problem stemmed from remorse at missing out on so many events in my daughter's childhood due to my hectic surgery schedule.

Illuminating the issue allowed me to accept that these thoughts were natural for someone in my profession: surgeons whose medical duties often bump up against family obligations. Rather than letting regret torpedo my speech, however, I determined to apply myself to being a better, more present parent in her adulthood.

If you're running up against a roadblock or find yourself in a stressful or tense position, first shine a light on the issue and look at it from multiple perspectives. Ask yourself, "Why am I so anxious about this upcoming business meeting?" or "What's really making me clash with this particular team member?" Make a point to illuminate, magnify and dissect your problem: The anatomy of the issue might be right in front of you, and you just haven't been able to recognize it yet.

3. Get a second opinion. Avoid your first reaction to any stressful event, as it's often the wrong one. Almost invariably, your first reaction is going to be geared toward self-preservation, and that's not generally the best solution to any problem. Instead, find ways to depersonalize the situation, removing emotion from the decision-making process to make smarter choices based on measured facts and different perspectives, not off-the-cuff feelings.

For example, I find it difficult to maintain a balanced perspective when a patient isn't doing well or has unexpected symptoms after a surgery, so I often turn to one of the five other doctors in my practice for an unbiased, third-party analysis. Reaching out for another opinion is helpful from the perspective of achieving optimum care and deleting the emotional aspect.

If you find yourself stressed, nervous or under the gun, don't leave the decision on your own shoulders. Get an outside opinion from a trusted partner, colleague, friend or mentor to obtain an unbiased assessment.

Related: Elon Musk Explains Why He's Still Sleeping on the Tesla Factory Floor

By facing stress head-on with these rules, you can gain greater control in work and personal matters, allowing you to practice cognitive dominance in any situation.

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