stressed out? get control back into your life!

09/13/2010

by anne lueneburger

Frank, junior partner in a prominent strategy consulting firm, had just been promoted to practice area leader. He was excited about this new responsibility, as it allowed him to focus on an industry that was of particular interest to him. Or so he thought.

It soon transpired that he was expected to take on this role on top of all the other responsibilities that come with being a partner in a prestigious consulting firm. He found himself putting in 80+ hour weeks, and he still didn’t feel like he was on top of his game. What made matters worse was that most evenings and weekends he was too tired to interact much with his family, and his relationship with his wife was beginning to suffer.

As a coach who partners with successful clients in their desire to be more successful, helping clients navigate stress is my bread and butter, and during my weekly sessions with Frank I started to notice physical signs of stress. He complained about: feeling exhausted, overeating, biting his nails, being excessively irritable with his colleagues, having trouble concentrating and making decisions, and a lack of interest in anything other than work.

What was happening to Frank?

Frank showed all the signs of being severely stressed. We define stress as a condition or feeling experienced when a person sees that demands exceed their personal and social resources. Stress is often accompanied by the individual feeling out of control and unable to cope with life.

Stress operates paradoxically. On the one hand short-term stress keeps us on our toes and allows us to rise to challenges, but too much stress – or chronic stress – is toxic and in the extreme can kill us!

The body responds to stress by raising the pulse and blood pressure, and in the short term the adrenaline that is released increases strength and stamina, speeds up your reaction time and enhances focus, preparing you to effectively ‘fight’ the perceived danger at hand.

But, beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage. Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Frank, like most humans, was not built to endure long-term stress. Consequently my coaching sessions with him focused on addressing the factors in his job and in his life that were causing him stress, and on building his resilience and his capacity to thrive within his working environment.

How could Frank reduce his stress?

Relax with technique

As stress and associated anxiety heighten, your breathing tends to quicken and may become erratic (as opposed to being slow, calm and rhythmical). By controlling your breath through regular practice of specific exercises, you regain a sense of control over your emotions as well. A simple exercise that I recommend to clients who don’t have the time to invest in a breathing and meditation course is the ‘Four Square Breathing’ technique:Take a long deep breath, in the nose and out the mouth, and don’t think about anything but your breathing.

Inhale to the count of four,

Hold it to the count of four,

Exhale to the count of four,

Hold it to the count of four.

Other relaxation techniques such as visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and yoga can also help you to activate this relaxation response. When practiced regularly these activities are guaranteed to lead to a reduction in your everyday stress levels, and a boost in your overall resilience and sense of wellbeing. What’s more, they also serve a protective purpose through teaching you how to stay calm and collected in the face of life’s inevitable curveballs (just think about that colleague who never pulls his weight when it comes to project deadlines…).

Change the way you think

As an executive coach, my work with a client does not stop at recommending relaxation techniques. Stress-hardy people have an optimistic attitude. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, accept that change is a part of life, and believe in a higher power or purpose.

The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope with. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect afterwards, a lengthier recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.

Frank and I took a close look at the source of his stress. People who are vulnerable to stress tend to feel like things are out of their control. As it turns out, much of the stress we feel is created internally. During our sessions Frank realized that some of his own insecurities had led him to struggle with delegating tasks. This resulted not only in an unreasonable workload, it also led to a tense relationship with his team who felt that Frank did not trust them.

During our sessions we explored and tackled where his low self-esteem was coming from, how this was serving him, and what it would take to build his self-confidence.

Change the way you act

You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or afraid. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity. Knowing about different management support tools can often work wonders.

In Frank’s case, we explored proven time management techniques that helped him to distinguish between tasks that are urgent, important, neither or both. We also worked on Frank using his strong network of supportive friends and family members more effectively – a significant buffer against life’s stresses. The more lonely and isolated we are, the more vulnerable we are to stress and the less able we are to cope when it strikes.

Other techniques to help change how you behave, and to lower the stresses in your life may include becoming a better communicator, managing conflict more constructively, learning how to balance work and home, and building trust with customers.

The ‘new’ Frank!

Frank and I worked together to devise an action plan around his goal to be more ‘in the flow’, and to enjoy his new role. After eight months of working together Frank now has a much better understanding of how to manage his life and its stresses, and is well on his way to being a more confident and authentic leader. He has made significant progress when it comes to delegating responsibility too, and in making sure that ‘balance’ is no longer an unfamiliar term in his life.

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