In fretful times, corporate executives-and the employees in the trenches-are increasingly asking whether a little bit of stress might just be a good thing.
Author Margot Carmichael Lester
CONGRATULATIONS, you’re the new CEO of a struggling company. Debt is high, confidence is low and a large segment of your workforce has just been sacked. Infrastructure is crumbling and as one of your first acts as boss, you were forced to eliminate the office’s complementary plastic cutlery. You’re feeling the pressure to fix this mess—and fix it fast.
Needless to say, your nerves are frazzled beyond belief. That’s why you’re you, and Barack Obama, the man with an equally daunting job description, is president. The cool, no-drama demeanor he exhibited through a long, contentious campaign has continued into his first 100 days, proving that even in the face of unprecedented financial calamities, the man is nothing if not calm.
“The president is so cool because he has a high EQ,” or emotional quotient, explains Lori Marcoux, president of Seattle-based professional coaching firm Extraordinary Learning. “He is a master of self-awareness, self-management, social consciousness and social skills.”
An essential component of the art of stress management is the ability to realize that anxiety, for all its negatives, is not the problem; the problem is how we often choose to deal with it. “We’re all like the strings of a guitar: We need the right amount of tension to function properly,” says Robert Rosen, author of Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success.
Think about it. If you’re living an anxiety-free existence, you’re clearly not challenging yourself enough. But too much anxiety and you’ll break like one of Hendrix’s guitar strings, accomplishing nothing. “When you have just enough anxiety though,” Rosen says, “you have the productive energy you need to turn your thinking and feeling into positive action.”
Let’s face it, anxiety is inevitable—at work and at home. Your car is going to break down, your children are going to get sick, and you’re going to get a pimple on your nose right before a blind date. In fact, it’s all probably going to happen on the same day. Once you accept that, you can learn to anticipate—and conquer—the feelings that come with such stressors.
“Instead of seeing anxiety as the enemy, start to recognize it as your companion on the path of change,” Rosen says. “This will allow you to tone it down when it starts to dominate your thoughts, or draw it forth when you need additional motivation.”
Marcoux has learned to recognize stress in her own life and deal with it accordingly. “When I am being unproductive and easily distracted, and begin to sense that stress is working against me, I ask for help,” she says. “I invite people to work with me, to brainstorm, to help me gain clarity.”
Everyone deals with stress differently. President Obama is dedicated to his daily workouts, which, along with providing him some alone time, release endorphins, a natural stress reducer. “Being healthy, fit and alert absolutely contributes to the president’s effectiveness under pressure,” Marcoux says. (Obama has also been known to smoke an occasional cigarette, which is emphatically not recommended.) But the administration also utilizes stress as a tool to improve performance, seeming to embrace numerous challenges at once, rather than taking the usual West Wing approach of focusing on just a few overarching issues. As Obama campaign manager David Plouffe put it during one highly fraught point in the race, “We are always better off on the high wire.”
For further proof of the power of harnessing anxiety for good, consider Timothy Warneka, president of The Black Belt Consulting Group in Cleveland. “Two-thousand-seven was a banner year for my company—we posted our highest profits. And the first half of 2008 was even better,” he relates. “Then the financial crisis hit and everything began to dry up. Initially, the anxiety was paralyzing.”
It held Warneka captive, leading him down a path of overeating, sleepless nights and angry episodes. So he began meeting with an executive coach to learn to accept anxiety as a part of his life and to harness it to become more successful.
First, he stepped up his exercise and meditation regime to improve his stamina. “I make sure I exercise at least every other day and meditate regularly,” he says. “I’m in the best shape of my life.”
Warneka also began concentrating on the things he knew he could control, resulting in higher productivity and better results. “As an entrepreneur, there are always a thousand different things to attend to,” he notes. “Rather than becoming paralyzed with fear, I’m focusing my energy on catching up and moving ahead.”
The big lesson, Warneka says, was the simplest one: “Like a car stuck in the mud and spinning its tires, excessive anxiety is wasted energy— and executives don’t have that luxury.”
And as for the dreaded stress spiral—in which we stress out about being overstressed—it helps to remember that the response is out of your control. When you feel threatened, shocked or particularly excited, you produce adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone. Once in the bloodstream, adrenaline prepares the body for action by increasing the oxygen supply to the brain and muscles and shutting down certain thought processes, while causing your heart to race. As a result, it leaves you feeling nervous and on edge without really knowing why.
Learning to manage your anxiety effectively isn’t just a matter of flipping a switch; it takes attention and dedication to learn to master your mind. But each day you work toward maintaining the right amount of stress, your leadership will improve.
Start by harnessing the anxiety produced in stressful moments and using it to solve problems right away, another technique Marcoux uses. “I use my adrenaline to take immediate action, whether that means checking off as many items as possible on my task list or methodically working through the situation in which I am experiencing stress,” she says. By moving quickly to address one of the causes of your unease, you keep yourself from falling into a funk, stewing over stressful situations and doing nothing about them.
Another tip: As you’re working, don’t set big anxiety-inducing deadlines—give yourself interim due dates instead. “This lowers the hurdle that needs to be encountered,” life coach Jim Weinstein says. It also keeps a parade of intimidating deadlines from sending you up and down a roller coaster of stress.
Of course, it’s not always easy to know when anxiety is spiking or when it’s ebbing, but Rosen offers some clues to help recognize when that balance is off. “You know you’re slipping into too much anxiety when you succumb to perpetual negative thinking,” he says. “You know you’re sliding into too little anxiety when your desire for contentment overrides the possibility of change. You start to get bored, tired and depressed.” Too little anxiety? It’s safe to say that’s one worry the commander in chief won’t encounter any time soon.
Margot Carmichael Lester has written for Playboy and Architect.
Maintaining the right amount of stress can be pretty stressful. These simple tips will keep your head and the wall far apart.
1. Take control of that which you can control. As for the other stuff, forget it.
2. Manage your workload with small, achievable deadlines.
3. Whether it’s taking a walk, turning off your Blackberry or sitting your children in front of the TV—take a break.
4. Suck in a deep breath. Hold as long as you can. Let it out, slowly. Now do nine more times.
5. Compose a mantra and repeat it. Or use this one: “My head will not explode.”
6. Blast some tunes. Music has been shown to slow heart rate and increase endorphins.