Twelve simple ways to get ahead of acute stress
Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. This post looks at dealing with sudden stress and turning it into positive energy.
We’ve all been there: stomach revolting, heart pounding, hands moist. All of a sudden, the well-rehearsed presentation start seems erased from memory. The smart board meeting intervention didn’t come across sharp at all. You’re leaving the interview for your dream role with that bitter taste of not having punched your weight.
What happened? Most likely you’ve not experienced sudden memory loss, nor have you lost your long-acquired capabilities or professional knowledge. What likely happened was that, in anticipation of your big moment when everyone would give you their full attention, stress took over and prevented you from performing.
In this column, I will mostly focus on acute (sudden, or short-term) stress, which many of my coaching clients describe as critical to control in order to succeed in their corporate roles. I will feature long-term stress in a future blog, which usually stems from never-ending intensity, permanent work overload, a toxic environment or constant fights with a boss or colleague. While both forms can impact your health and the latter is considered as even more damaging with a potential to manifest into a serious disease, acute stress can severely impede performance and, therefore, harm your career.
What acute stress does
First, it’s important to know what sudden stress does to our body. Even a basic understanding of your typical stress mechanics will equip you to better control and seize it to work for, not against you.
In my simple understanding of human nature, we’ve all been ‘programmed’ to deal with unforeseen challenges – many of them life-threatening in prehistoric times – in one of three ways: fighting back (i.e. launching a counter-attack to regain control), fleeing (hoping to outrun an attacker or avoid a situation) or freezing (hoping whatever’s just erupted might not notice us and blow over).
Many think their decision to either fight, flee or freeze is a conscious one – but it’s not: under extreme pressure, our ancient brain (the paleomammalian complex, or limbic system) makes an instant call of how to react. It is deeply rooted in things we tend to not consciously notice like micro gestures, voice tonality, smells, patterns, pheromones and more. It acts like an autopilot that instantly reacts to sudden threat, quite literally, to save our lives.
Studies show that in making decisions, the limbic system fires first, with the ‘logical’ neocortex immediately following, agreeing or disagreeing but not making the decision. What typically comes with this ‘autopilot reaction’ to sudden pressure is that our stress hormones kick in, raising blood pressure and metabolism yet slowing down ‘unnecessary’ functions like intestinal and inflammatory processes.
What can also happen is that we stop breathing properly or fall into shallow breathing, which can drastically reduce the amount of oxygen entering our bloodstream while our body prepares to manage the stress ‘attack’. When not supplied with sufficient oxygen, however, our brain can’t fully function. This can cause symptoms like sudden loss of thought, slow and incoherent thinking, attention and listening deficits or untypically long-winded explanations that fail to address the point in question.
To better manage sudden stress – which we all experience more or less frequently – we need to recognize its early symptoms and have a couple of mitigation strategies ready to not let it take over. The following approaches have helped me to deal better with stress at critical moments and turn the adrenaline rush into productive energy.
For me, two major stress mitigation strategies stand out as more effective than anything else: breathing and exercising.
When you notice the early symptoms of acute stress mount in your body, you must ensure enough oxygen intake to keep your physical and mental faculties intact. Unless you have your own proven technique, try a simple 7/11 breathing pattern: breathe in for seven counts, then out for eleven. Make sure to take deep breaths (that move your diaphragm down and push your stomach out) rather than shallow lung breaths. Repeat a number of times prior to getting on stage or speaking up in a meeting. You’ll notice how much calmer this simple technique allows you to keep.
On exercising, I’ll admit I’m not the world’s most disciplined sports crack. However, the benefits of a regular workout – even a moderate one – on my ability to build and focus energy on the day’s most critical tasks, as well as how that helps me keep a calm, balanced attitude in the face of unforeseen storms, is miraculous.
If you can’t get a workout in or – like me – you’re just not that sporty person, get yourself out of the chair occasionally during meetings, change positions, or stand up for a while. If hanging around in full sight of the Board isn’t appropriate, you can leave the room quietly for a few minutes to stretch in a neighbouring office or restroom. When working from home like many of us do at the moment, don’t be shy to switch off the camera to get a stretch in.
Take a break, and break the routine
Energising stretches and breaks are of particular value prior to your own presentation, talk or other contribution. Some people take a brisk pre-meeting walk to pump energy and oxygen into their system. Whatever you do – before you deliver, stretch!
If you know systematic relaxation techniques like autogenic training, mindfulness meditation, yoga or other – now might be the time to take a few minutes to apply them and revert you to a state of mind capable of mastering the upcoming challenge. If you don’t know any, don’t despair: Lean back in the chair and just breathe – deeply – for a minute.
Another escape tactic when you feel those unmistakable symptoms of stress coming on is to switch routine to something else that engages your mind differently. If you’ve been sitting outside the meeting room anxiously awaiting your turn while your adrenaline is having a field day – have a few friendly words with the assistant sitting by the door or call your spouse for a quick chat.
A senior life-sciences leader who keynotes at global conferences and presents to large audiences revealed how she engages her mind differently to keep stage fright in check: For the last minute before entering the spotlight, she would visualise the positive outcome of her talk, the audience’s delight and how she would feel stepping off stage after successful delivery.
Another senior executive once told me his way of relaxing into important public appearances and live media interviews is to put on the brightest smile he can possibly muster – and keep it on. Infecting others with a smile can be a powerful way of staying on top of any stressful situation.
A trusted partner
The other thing that seems to help some folks counter acute stress is letting off steam. Walk out of the meeting for a minute to lock yourself in an office or restroom, preferably sheltered from the meeting venue, and … scream. Swear. Punch into thin air. Let it out for a moment. Then go back with that radiant smile as if nothing had happened.
Importantly, whenever you can, have a trusted partner in the room with you who smiles back and sends encouraging signals like nodding along or looking straight at you to demonstrate interest and full attention. There’s nothing like an ally to reassure you and relieve stress. If talking to a completely alien audience, make sure to arrive early to connect and make new allies during a break ahead of your presentation.
Gather your accomplishments
It might not relieve acute stress but will help your foundational self-esteem if, occasionally, you treat yourself for overcoming anxiety and performing at your best. Upon delivery of a major success, a friend purchased an expensive coat she’d been pondering over for ages; for months following, each time she wore that garment the memory of why she’d rewarded herself with it seemed to release a new set of endorphins, joy and reassurance about her capabilities – positive thinking and energy that helped her master the next, upcoming challenges.
A simpler, less expensive way of reassuring yourself on a day-to-day basis may be to note down, each night, one or two specific things you did particularly well that day. Keep gathering your accomplishments into a journal and, occasionally, flip through to remind yourself of your little and not-so-small successes, any insights from having achieved them and overall progress you’re making. In addition, this will help foster trust in your own abilities which gives you a calmer mindset to stay on top of the next episode and not let acute stress take over.
- Breathe in deeply for 7 counts, then out for 11 – repeat
- Work out regularly, even if moderate
- Change position, stand up for a while or go for a stretch
- Take an energy or stretch break before you deliver
- Apply a relaxation technique or just lean back and breathe deeply
- Switch routine to something that engages your mind differently
- Visualise the successful outcome of your talk
- Infect others with a smile
- Let off steam in a sheltered place
- Have an ally in the room
- Reward yourself for outstanding accomplishments
- Note your daily successes and keep a journal
About the author
Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.