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Success Under StressPowerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure's On
By SHARON MELNICK
AMACOMCopyright © 2013 Dr. Sharon Melnick
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom Survival Under Stress to Success Under Stress
Imagine a person who responds to daily challenges and minor emergencies by thinking only of short-term solutions instead of looking at what's best for the future. Unable to see new approaches or new opportunities, he looks only to the past for solutions. He focuses on the problem, not the whole picture. He overreacts; he stresses over how a situation could possibly go wrong, keeping himself anxious and on guard.
If you had such an employee, you wouldn't look to him or her for innovations, would you? And in fact, that employee might not last long with you. Yet, what I just described is a typical stress-system response, left unchecked. Without knowing it, our response to daily stressful events may keep us stuck handling challenges the same way, day after day, thereby preventing us from reaching our next level of success. Clearly, if we don't do something proactively to achieve Success Under Stress, we might never have it.
Of course, we want better control over how we respond—we want to respond thoughtfully, not reactively. And, in a manner that's future oriented. We want to build value for a long-term benefit—not just for ourselves, but for everyone we work with as well. We want to respond with the best available option to solve problems, maintain good relationships and conserve energy. That's a Success Under Stress response! One client described his transformation from a typical stress response to one he could control as, "It's like I was driving a clunky car that doesn't turn well, and now I've stepped into a Porsche; my performance is just superior."
Let's get even more specific about the experience you could have when you are more in control of your response to challenging events throughout the day. We'll begin with an example. Here is the "Before" scenario:
It's 4 PM and you are at your desk. It's been a busy day, but the end is in sight. You and your spouse are due to meet at your 11-year-old daughter's end-of-the-year school play in two hours. Your boss calls you into her inner sanctum. Crisis. The president of your division is considering a strategic change, which would pull key resources away from your group. Your boss needs you to put together a 10-minute slide presentation on your big project for a meeting with the president and senior management tomorrow morning at 9 am. You're not exactly sure what she wants, but you begin to feel overwhelmed, so you decide to leave her office and get started immediately.
On the way back to your desk, your thoughts are scattered: If the number of people on your team were reduced, would you be included? You tell yourself, "Don't go there!" But you sense a hint of panic setting in. You can feel your heart thumping. You imagine what tomorrow's meeting will be like. Why does the president want to hear from you? What if you make a mistake or say something that the president thinks is mundane? You get a pit in your stomach. You recall that your boss met with the president a week ago, so you wonder why she's only telling you about this now. You feel resentful, causing your jaw to clench and your neck muscles to tighten.
You feel pressured to get the presentation done now because if you miss your daughter's play you will be inducted into the Bad Parent Hall of Fame. Instinctively, you know you'll get it done somehow, but you expect it will be stressful. Worse yet, you don't know if you'll be proud of what you produce. You feel completely trapped!
You sit down at your desk and try to brainstorm, but you experience tunnel vision. You keep having the same ideas over and over; it's hard to focus. You're racking your brain trying to remember where you filed that presentation your colleague did at the kick-off meeting so you can reference it. But you're running out of time. So you tell yourself to go with the first idea you had, which is to describe the project and its milestones.
Just as you begin to build a little momentum, someone who works for you pops in to hand you a report. You give it a glance and notice the numbers in the last column are off. That means you're going to have to take some time to re-explain it to him. You think about your packed schedule. When will you even have time to review it again? You feel crunched. Your voice has a tone of exasperation as you give him feedback.
You finish a draft, and then rush to your daughter's play, arriving with a minute to spare. It takes so long to settle in that you aren't really present until the second act. That night, you sleep restlessly, worrying about the presentation. In the morning, you're nervous as you enter the meeting, still unsure if you'll deliver exactly what your boss wants. Your presentation goes without a hitch, but you get peppered with a lot of tough questions about the go-forward strategy. You feel intimidated, so you avoid speaking up, even when you have something important to say. After the meeting you soldier on, but feel rattled for the rest of the day. When you pass your boss in the hallway you're anxious whether she'll say anything about it.
In this scenario, your response to stress is a series of interlocking effects, each compounding the one before it. A physical reaction to stress leads to panicked and scattered thoughts. It limits your ability to see the best solutions and interferes with your best judgment. When you don't perform at your best, you chip away at your confidence and put more pressure on yourself in subsequent situations. As depicted in Figure 1.1, your thoughts, your physiology and your responses to the problem form a vicious cycle that I call Survival Under Stress.
The stressors that set Survival Under Stress in motion are infinite: When priorities change. When someone gets competitive with you. When your income is lower than expected. When you don't get feedback after your presentation and wonder if "no news is good news." It certainly is going on once your email inbox climbs up to an impossible number. As Ned Hallowell describes it in his seminal article, "Overloaded Circuits": "The sufferer doesn't experience a single crisis but rather a ... never-ending drip of situations perceived as minor crises. Feeling trapped and wanting to live up to your own and others' expectations of you, you 'suck it up' and don't complain as the workload increases or the results don't appear. Your attitude is one of 'I'll try harder.' You feel a constant low level of panic and guilt. Facing a tidal wave of tasks, the executive becomes increasingly hurried, curt, peremptory and unfocused, while pretending that everything is fine.... You've become so used to being in this state of frenzy that you may not recognize that your coping mechanisms aren't working." 1 If you've had any moments recently where the onslaught of demands became so great that you thought to yourself, "Stop the train, I want to get off," now you know why.
Does this cycle remind you of how you respond to stressful situations? Judging from the number of times I've presented the idea of the survival cycle to businesspeople and heard back, "It's like you are in my head," it's certainly the pattern that characterizes many of those with whom you work and live.
Let's return to your 4 pm scenario with the boss. This time you will see the possibility you have to create Success Under Stress. Notice that in this scenario, little time is wasted. The emotional churn barely exists. And, the presentation you draft has more impact on your future and your team's.
In your boss' office, you start by taking a deep breath so you can actually listen closely to her request. You have the presence of mind to ask a few questions to help clarify her needs. You think through a few ways of drafting the presentation and ask your boss if she agrees with you: "It might be better to give a brief overview of the project," you say, "but then focus on the strategic value and bottom line recommendations to improve it going forward. Do you agree?" Yes, she agrees. As you walk back to your office, this clarity enables you to begin forming a mental outline of the presentation.
Back at your desk, you use a one-to-three minute mental reset technique so you can be in the right frame of mind to think clearly and creatively (Chapter 4). You forgive your boss for giving you the assignment at the last minute, and you realize she asked you because she has confidence in you (Chapter 9). You experience a few seconds of nervousness at the thought of presenting in front of the company president. But you know how to use the "Panic Reset" button, an acupressure point that reduces anxiety within seconds (more on this in Chapter 7).
In the brief time remaining, your concentration is steady. Each slide you complete gives you a sense of satisfaction and momentum. You put together a solid presentation—pleased to have a say in your team's future and confident that you'll do a good enough job in the morning. When your assistant pops in to hand you the report, you notice the mistakes. Instead of snapping, you think about the best strategy to influence him to give you the right work. You refer to the recent conversation in which he agreed to take responsibility for his mistakes and fix them, so your conversation is more of a brief touch base to get him on track (Chapter 11).
You arrive at your daughter's play on time, and you beam with pride throughout her performance. After you fall asleep that night, you wake up once but know how to get back to sleep within three minutes (Chapter 4). You arrive at work rested and take a few minutes to review your slides. The presentation goes smoothly and, when there is opportunity to add additional value to the discussion, you speak up without a script (Chapter 6). The president is a woman of few words but you don't necessarily need her explicit praise—you could read her body language and also know inside of you that your presentation was well received. You are on a small high for the rest of the day.
In this scenario, you created a positive spiral—a virtuous cycle. You handled it well from the beginning by preventing your stress response from spiraling out of control. You had constructive and confident thoughts. You were motivated by the last-minute circumstances. In fact, the heightened pressure brought out your best qualities. You achieved a better result, all from small shifts you made in your physiology, your perspective and your approach to the problem. This scenario characterizes Success Under Stress (see Figure 1.2).
Many of us are locked into Survival Under Stress but don't even realize it! Lack of sleep, muscle tension, and impaired concentration are often viewed as justifiable by-products of doing business in today's world. Some people see these as badges of honor for being a road warrior and a multitasker. But we might not notice that our decisions aren't based on listening intently or thinking through the facts. We may rush into what is right for the moment—or not act at all - instead of doing what's best for the long term.
And who can blame us? First, consider the sheer volume of demands that require our attention. The average business professional has between 30 and 100 projects on his or her plate—all at once; is interrupted on average seven times per hour; and faces incoming communication from multiple technologies 24 hours a day. You may be paid to think, but it's hard to find the time!
Second, this daily onslaught comes at you against a backdrop of rapid local and global changes that force you to adjust your priorities and innovate to capture the attention of your target market—whether that's your customers, donors, or manager. If you don't keep up the pace, you might not be seen as a contender or you might let a critical item fall through the cracks. You worry that if you don't work all the time you could lose an important client or won't earn enough money. You run mental movies of what might happen if you lose your job or don't earn enough each month.
Third, for many of us, this overload is just the base of a stack of other stresses that compound one another to magnify the effect. For example, perhaps your high expectations of yourself (and others) create an extra layer of pressure to do more. If you have any doubts about yourself, you may worry about what other people think; you may feel the need to invest extra effort in getting their approval. We constantly judge ourselves on whether we are doing enough at work or at home. And yet we know that in order to succeed, it's more important than ever to speak up and show confidence instead of staying in our comfort zone.
In the face of all this, you try to produce meaningful work, make your mark, and be well paid for your services. No wonder stress has become a national epidemic! (Over 80% of workers feel stress on the job and over 70% of healthcare provider visits are due to stress-related conditions.) The pace feels unsustainable, and many of us are already near a breaking point, with no relief in sight.
The New Normal is here to stay, but there's good news: it can work for you. What if you had the ability to complete projects and handle people as smoothly as in the second 4 pm scenario? What if you could be present at work, and present at home? What if you could get off the Survival Under Stress cycle and onto Success Under Stress? In Chapter 2 you'll learn how to do so—and quickly—by flipping the control switch.
Are You on the Survival Under Stress Cycle?
If you want to take a temperature check to understand how much of your life is defined by Survival Under Stress, then take a brief detour and fill out the chart below. You'll feel a sense of accomplishment as you begin to shift to Success Under Stress.
Rate yourself on each of the domains listed on the survey. The higher you rate the item, the more you are displaying the signs of Survival Under Stress. The lower you rate the item, the more you are displaying the signs of Success Under Stress. What are your main sources of stress? Do they have to do with Too Much Work? Self-Confidence? Relationship Friction? After you complete the survey, total your score and see for yourself how much the signs of stress are influencing your effectiveness and happiness.
To what extent are you on the Survival Under Stress cycle? Find out here:
On how many items did you rate yourself 5 or higher? That's how much Survival Under Stress characterizes your life. It will be helpful if you identify a few early warning signs so you can take swift measures to prevent the response from getting worse and keeping you in the cycle. What are the canaries in your coal mine? What signs foreshadow that your stress could get out of hand? A typical early warning sign is the first time we say to ourselves, "I don't have time to go to the gym this week." Another is when we say something such as, "I'll just stay up later to get it all done." Or maybe it's the negative tone we use when talking with someone.
Write down the early warning signs of your stress. Then, you can be on the lookout for ways to reverse the trend at an earlier stage in the process.
My early warning signs that I'm on the Survival Under Stress cycle:
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Chapter TwoControlling What You Can Control: The 50% Rule
"There's only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self " —ALDOUS HUXLEY
Stress is not necessarily the result of the workload, the lack of response, the interruptions, or the "traffic jam" of unfinished projects and overextended commitments. It occurs when the demands of a situation exceed your perceived ability to control them. The key is that the more you perceive you can control, the lower your stress, and vice versa.
Stress is not external. It's internal. It's not the 100th email of the morning in your inbox per se. You feel overwhelmed because you process that event as, "Mayday, Mayday! I am overloaded." If that email announces a delay in the approval for your project or gives you negative feedback about your proposal, you experience stress from your visceral reaction of worry about your future reputation, job security, and income. If that email is littered with mistakes from your assistant, stress comes from the anger you experience over your inability to control his actions.
As suggested in Chapter 1, we don't generally choose these reactions. Many are hardwired in our brains. And on a moment-to-moment basis, our brains coordinate an elaborate and delicate symphony of responses that will determine our neurochemistry and, consequently, how we feel and what we are prone to think. Without knowing it, once these internal patterns are established, we lock into them. (No worries! You'll learn how to "unlock" in Chapter 4.)
Since stress is experienced internally , changing it is within your control. How to begin? By changing your response.
You can flip an internal "control switch" to take you out of survival mode and into success mode in any situation. All it requires is some proactive effort to steer your responses away from the automatic, involuntary, and reactive toward the deliberate and purposeful.
When you control a situation, you influence the outcome. Each and every time you exercise control—for example, by changing a thought, slowing your breath, choosing your words carefully, or blocking time on your schedule—you determine what happens in your brain, your body, and the situation itself. In a confident and calm state, you work faster, solve problems more easily, and make fewer mistakes. You react more positively to others and can motivate them to help you get desired results.
Excerpted from Success Under Stress by SHARON MELNICK Copyright © 2013 by Dr. Sharon Melnick. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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