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3 Strategies to Avoid a Runaway Stress Reaction

3 Strategies to Avoid a Runaway Stress Reaction

The stress reaction is a primitive survival instinct. If the nervous system were an operating system, it has not had an upgrade in 100,000 years. Today, stress reactions are frequently running in the background because of the many distractions around us. Distractions increase the sense of urgency and block your ability to focus on what is most important.

Think of the brain like a high-performance car; to keep it performing at peak levels, it needs more maintenance than the everyday commuter car that you drive until it dies. This maintenance includes strategies like mindfulness and journaling. Let me briefly introduce parts of your internal computer (brain) to help you understand why these strategies work.

The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is the part of your brain that frequently goes offline during a stress reaction. It is like a CEO, handling complex functions and ensuring you achieve the results you want. Its main functions are:

  • regulating impulses
  • emotional reaction
  • problem solving
  • directing attention
  • planning
  • dealing with competing distractions
  • impacting mood
  • motivation
  • decision making

The pre-frontal cortex links other parts of the brain—the limbic system (emotional center), cortex (thinking center), and brain stem—and carries out complicated functions based on your body’s internal direction. A regular practice of mindfulness has been shown to increase activity in the PFC, enabling a greater ability to tune out distractions and focus on top priorities.

One way to increase self-awareness is to reflect on how you respond in a variety of situations:

  • Of the functions listed above, which of yours get derailed most often?
  • What triggers this?
  • How does this stress reaction impact your performance?

The other part of the brain that plays a key role in emotional hijacks is the amygdala, nicknamed the security guard. This part of the brain processes emotions and controls how we react to certain triggers, especially something we consider a threat. The brain does not know the difference between what is real or imagined. Acting like a panic button, the amygdala sounds the alarm and sets the nervous system into motion when faced with perceived threats. This fight-or-flight reaction is how many people go through the day.

Imagine being distracted with little sleep, too much coffee, and not enough energy to think through the threats to your organization. You cannot outperform your own well-being.

This little almond-shaped structure in the brain holds the memories of all our past experiences and reacts when something triggers those memories. Because of how memories are stored, emotional memories are usually outside of conscious awareness, but they can easily get tripped and create an emotional hijacking.

The stress reaction creates a narrowing of perspective. As pressure mounts, leaders make decisions that are designed for survival, limiting their options. This creates a vicious cycle of reacting to unexpected events and making less than ideal decisions.

To counter this, executives must realize one thing: the skills they used to get to where they are now are not the skills that will help them manage stress. The competitive instinct to win needs to be balanced with social interaction and positive relationships.

Try these suggestions to bring more balance into your week so you can maintain peak performance:

1. Create a personal dashboard.

Do you recognize when you cross the line from performance to pressure? Ask friends and family to let you know when you start to get irritable. Put that trigger on the dashboard. Identify other areas you might compromise your balance like diet, sleep, or social interactions. Put them on the dashboard.

2. Set up a power hour, first thing in the morning.

If you cannot spare an hour, make it 30 minutes. Pray or meditate for 15-30 minutes, and exercise for the other 15-30 minutes. Make a commitment to give your body and your mind the type of workout that will sustain your best performance.

The use of creative visualization can effectively relax your mind and allow for a refreshed perspective. Worry and rumination is the negative use of visualization. Instead, just like a professional golfer or other athlete, visualize the best outcomes, knowing you are prepared to handle whatever shows up.

3. Recognize you need a new way to think about work.

In this digital age, managing information and workflow requires a disruptive approach in order to change “business as usual.” Set up a system to handle new initiatives. Develop a digital communication policy and limit emails and meetings, cutting back on the volume of information that everyone receives.

When executives understand the impact of unchecked stress on them, they recognize the trickle-down impact on their team and organization. This recognition will save time, money, and talent and protect the gains that have been made. Your self-awareness will save you time and energy—the only resources you cannot get back.

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About the Author Cynthia Howard RN, CNC, PhD

Performance Consultant. Unleashing potential in leaders and organizations through innovative performance development.