How Do you Manage Your Stress?

What’s your relationship to Stress?

Hans Selye was the man who coined the term “stress”. Most languages have now accepted his concept of stress into the lexicon of most languages. Selye was born in Vienna and raised in in Komarno, Slovakia which at that time belonged to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He later conducted most of his research at the Université de Montréal, in Canada.

Despite our shared tendency to view all stress as negative, Selye recognised positive effects of stress. Selye encouraged people not to be lazy. “Live at the stress level for which you were born,” he said.

Selye lived his teachings; he published over 1,700 research papers, 15 monographs, and seven popular books, and was nominated numerous times for a Nobel Prize. You can watch a short video of Hans Selye talking about his personal relationship with stress here.

I have spent the majority of my adult life searching for ways to adapt positively to high-stress environments and to harness the benefits of stress. Meditation, music, healthy food choices, great supplements, time outdoors and good old fashioned sweat have been my favourite strategies for effective stress management. I have learned both personally and professionally that we can react to stress in productive ways or unproductive ways. The choice is ours, and the results are dramatic.

KreekSpeak Mental Toughness Tip: How to Use Stress to your Advantage

When mismanaged, stress wreaks havoc on the mind and body. Poorly managed stress is the cause of 60% of all human illnesses, and 3/4 of all visits to the doctor, according to the American Institute of Stress. Fortunately, the reverse is also true. When properly managed, stress holds many benefits.

As Seyle suggested, the magic in life is learning how much stress you can handle, and effective strategies to help you recover fully from your stress.  When I was an Olympic athlete, the game was to achieve maximum stress load and balance that with the most efficient recovery.  By alternating dynamically between these two states, my teammates and I were able to maximise our performance. Now, in business and personal life my outputs are different, but my philosophy remains the same: I aim to maximise production and maximise recovery.

How do I do this? I love the metaphor of muscle building because I am a recovering benchpress addict. Muscles only grow after they are stressed. Delayed-onset muscle soreness after exercise is a signal that your body is adapting. You are getting stronger. We stress our mind and spirit the same way and experience growth. Growth is stressful. Change is uncomfortable. Have you ever noticed that the most peaceful people you meet have often endured the most stressful tragedies?

Stress Curve.001

The Science
The slide above is a variation of the Yerkes-Dodson Law. In 1908, two Harvard researchers, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, were the first to calibrate the relationship between stress and performance. I think we can all relate to this curve. Sometimes it’s nice to have a manager’s prodding, a coach’s deviled gaze or competitive energy from colleagues. Other times, external stressors become too much. They have a negative impact on our performance.

Stress Curve.002

If you look at the left side of this graph, stress is low, and performance is low.  To combat this, you need more accountability in your life. Ask your manager for more feedback. Hire an executive coach. Set a goal and share it. Join a course. Train for an athletic challenge in a group setting.

If you look at the right side you will see that stress is having a severe and adverse impact on performance. This is where you need to reach out to a mental health practitioner to find strategies and support for healing.

What’s key is identifying the level of stress in which you thrive and hovering there. Repeat. Expand or retract as needed.

Some of you may be drawn to the middle of the graph and wonder how we can develop our stress tolerance. The answer? Practice. Dr Herbert Benson is the founder of the Mind-Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, MA, and has numerous insights that will bolster your stress tolerance. I have summarized his common-sense four step breakout principle below:

  1. Work. Drive results until you are in a frenzy of anxiety, fearfulness, anger or boredom. Concentrate.  Focus. Use your mind to its maximum. You’ve reached the peak when can’t move forward.
  2. Walk. Go outside. Leave the office. Walk your dog. Sit in the sauna. Visit an art gallery. Meditate. Jog. Chat with someone. Dance. The key is to stop analysing your problem and surrender control. Get out of your head and into your body.
  3. Gain. Your break should be long enough to spur an epiphany. It should be distracting enough to forget your problem. When you relax and move, your body releases Nitric Oxide which stimulates nutrient delivery to the brain. You also allow your powerful subconscious to work on your problem.
  4. Return. Powered by your new insight, you will resume working at a new level of high productivity.

Stress Curve.003

You will notice in this last slide that the parabolic curve has moved up on the Y-axis. This means that there is more area under the curve. More area means more capacity. When you recover and take breaks effectively, you can handle more stress and perform at higher levels. Calculating the area under a curve is called integration and for some reason gets me excited. On top of my bench press addiction, it appears that I am also a recovering Mathlete…

Can you upgrade your relationship to stress?

Send Adam Kreek a message on Twitter @adamkreek. You can also find more tips to improve your body, mind and soul on the Don’t Change Much website or through Adam’s column on CBC Sports.

Adam delivers authentic keynotes, workshops and seminars for corporate, government and not-for-profit organisations worldwide.  Please contact us for information about our offerings.