The topic of resiliency in the workplace is becoming more popular, and one aspect of resiliency is the ability to handle stress. Leaders are constantly put in stressful situations, such as tight deadlines, organizational change, and high-stakes decision-making, and our employees experience the same stress. Stress takes a toll on our mental and physical well-being and can keep us from seeing and thinking clearly. So how can we navigate stressful situations so that we remain clear, objective, calm, and rational, and set a tone of steadiness and confidence for our teams?
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress. I was fortunate to see her speak at a conference in May on the same topic as her book. Dr. McGonigal has reviewed a body of research that provides concrete ideas of how we can shift our relationship to stress to decrease the impact of stress on us. And she points to these three things in particular:
Reframe the experience. We normally associate the typical signs of stress – pounding heart, fast breathing – with anxiety. But, she says, what if instead we looked at these signs differently? What if instead we told ourselves things like, “My heart is beating hard to prepare me for action,” and “My faster breathing is getting more oxygen to my brain, to help me respond.” A study at Harvard did just this and taught participants to view the body responses that accompany stress with different meaning, as a positive thing. During stressful events, these participants experienced less stress and more confidence. Their biological responses were more like someone who was experiencing joy, not stress – instead of their blood vessels constricting, their blood vessels stayed open and relaxed. Your perception of stress matters.
Recognize the “upside” of stress. In the short-term, stress can feel uncomfortable. But in the long-term, stress can actually support resilience. When we are stressed, our body releases a number of hormones, like adrenaline (which ratchets up our heart rate). Another hormone we release is DHEA, and this is associated with resilience under psychological stress. In a study led by Columbia University, the researchers found that participants who adapted a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset produced higher levels of DHEA than participants with a “stress-is-debilitating” mindset. In addition, those with the “enhancing” mindset had greater cognitive flexibility under stressful conditions. When we believe that stress brings out the best in us, we actually boost a physiological response that supports long-term resilience.
Reach out to others. Oxytocin is commonly known as the “cuddle hormone” because we release it when we hug other people. Most of us don’t realize that we also release oxytocin when we are under stress. Dr. McGonigal explains that when we produce oxytocin as part of our stress response, it is our biology telling us to reach out to others, to seek support. It also enhances our empathy, making us more likely to notice if someone else is struggling and more willing to reach out and help others. A traditional work environment might encourage us to “suck it up and deal,” and each of us must find our own ways to deal with a stressful situation, on our own. But openly acknowledging common stressors and creating and enabling an environment where employees support each other can be an important aspect of your team being resilient in the face of stress.
Many of the events that cause us stress are unavoidable. But how we think about and respond to stress is within our control. With deliberate shifts in how we respond to stress, we can reduce the impact that stress can have on us, our teams, and our workplaces.