The 4-Pronged Approach to Addressing Your Stress
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As a leader, a solid understanding of your core competencies can help you gain insight into how and why you might be more susceptible to specific stressors. Then you can start to think of stress management in much the same way as your other daily hygiene practices, such as washing your hands, brushing your teeth and taking a shower. A proactive approach is far more effective at correcting stress in its acute stages before it reaches chronic levels.
To address your stress, embrace a four-pronged strategy: Identify your internal stressors, identify your external stressors, acknowledge your fears and talk about your stress.
Identify your internal stressors
The first coping mechanism against stress is to identify your own internal stressors. Internal stressors are sources of stress that are triggered from within your body or mind. They frequently stem from your personal goals, expectations and perceptions.
According to experts at HelpGuide.org, common internal stressors include the following:
- An inability to accept reality
- Negative self-talk
- Unrealistic expectations
- Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
- An all-or-nothing attitude
- A need to always be perfect
Perfectionism is one of the most common internal stressors affecting leaders and executives. If you’re a perfectionist, anything less than perfection will push your anxiety button. Ironically, the symptoms of internal stressors can be an additional source of stress. You may worry about your insomnia -- how will you manage to deliver your presentation at the early morning board meeting if you can’t sleep? These ruminations escalate stress levels to new peaks. As stress rises, it becomes more and more difficult to relax and rejuvenate, making recovery much harder. Needless to say, perfectionism can be unproductive and unpleasant for your team, too. Take the following quiz to see how “perfect” you are:
Reply to the following statements with a yes if you agree or a no if you disagree:
- I’m likely to unnecessarily double- and triple-check an email before I send it.
- I tend to plan my days in advance.
- Minor errors in work (mine or others) bother me.
- When given instructions, I tend to follow them word for word.
Think about your own internal stressors. Do you have certain goals, expectations, standards, or perceptions that make you feel uneasy? To get a handle on your internal stressor, make a list of at least five internal stressors that you face. Use a scale of 1 to 10 to indicate how significantly each stressor affects you (with “1” indicating hardly at all and “10” indicating an almost paralyzing amount of stress).
Identify your external stressors
In addition to internal stressors, you’re also faced with external stressors. These stressors are caused by external factors and are often difficult to control. Common external stressors include:
- Poor company performance
- Strained relationships with employees or vendors
- Intense workloads
- Lack of required resources
- Unreasonable customers
- Changing market dynamics, including recessions and competitive threats
While the workplace is a ripe breeding ground for many of the external stressors facing leaders, they’re also caused by forces outside the workplace. Relationship problems, financial difficulties, or health complications can all cause significant stress.
Internal and external stressors can trigger similar physical and psychological effects, such as insomnia, headaches, and irritability. As with internal stressors, your most effective weapon against the external stressors that are affecting you is to identify them.
What are your external stressors? Jot them down on a piece of paper. Include the big, the medium, and the small, and use a scale of 1 to 10 to indicate how much each stressor affects you (with “1” indicating hardly at all and “10” indicating an almost paralyzing amount of stress). Also indicate whether each stressor is real or imagined (that is, only occurring in your thoughts and dreams).
Acknowledge your fears
Now take some time to list your fears. I call this exercise, “What’s the worst that can happen?” It’s a technique I learned from my mom. “What’s the worst that can happen?” is a system for thriving in high-stress environments. In this exercise, you visualize the worst things that could possibly happen to you. By doing so, you’ll become less afraid to take action. The only way to truly conquer your stress is to define and examine your fears.
Think about your biggest fears, the absolute worst situations you can envision unfolding, and then write down the following information about each of them:
- The fear itself
- What you can do to prevent it from happening at all
- What will happen if you don’t take any steps to overcome your fear
- What the worse thing is that could happen if that fear becomes reality
Talk about your stress
Far too many people avoid sharing their stress with friends or family. They think they’re lone wolves and have to struggle on all by themselves. But family and friends can be important sources of relief and support during times of stress: Your close connections know you and embrace you for who you are. Be open with them about your stress levels.
Many successful leaders also seek professional help to cope with their stress, even when they’re surrounded by loved ones or have access to employee assistance programs (EAPs) at work. You should consider seeking peer, group, or professional assistance as well. Don’t try to convince yourself that your stress levels aren’t that bad. If your stress and anxiety are affecting your day-to-day life, it’s a red flag that it’s time to seek professional help. A professional will help you find the internal strength to deal with your stress. You’ll then be able to move onward and upward.