Sweaty palms, racing heart, sinking posture; that’s where I left you at the end of my previous post: you were deep in the abyss of your stress reaction; battling your stress demons. If you missed it, go back before you read this. There’s no hope of slaying your stress demons if you don’t know what creature you’re hunting for.
Today, you get to build on your increased awareness of your stress reactions and learn how to actually silence them before they do any more damage to yourself or those around you.
What works for you will depend on how you react in stress. A hostile, aggressive kind of stress will need to be tranquilized; a desolate, isolated kind of stress will require you dig deep for steely resolve or connect to take strength from others.
As I shared with you last time, my stress can be frenetic. If I were to animate it, it would have many, many legs (maybe like a millipede). On its tiny head, it would have beady little eyes that dart constantly from left to right and dozens of antennae hyper-attuned to the world around it. (I’ve never actually described my stress as a creature before, but it’s useful to picture it.)
My frenetic stress monster is rendered defenseless by robbing it of stimulation. If it were a cartoon, I would trap it in a dark cave where it would wither and die. In real life, I wrangle it by taking my laptop into a sparse room. I close every open document and go right back to a blank desktop. I deny it by shutting off ringers, alarms and notifications. I starve it by doing one thing at a time. I end my stress by embracing tunnel vision for a while. That is stress management for me; and it works.
Ok, it’s a silly metaphor, but here’s what I know: stress is visceral and it’s sneaky. It gets right inside your head. So the only weapon powerful enough to battle it needs to be equally visceral.
Pick your own metaphor. It doesn’t have to be a monster and you don’t have to slay it. Use what works for you.
A Few Techniques
Mindful: Are you a cerebral type with a penchant for mindfulness? Do you use self-talk to manage your thoughts? You can use the voice in your head to provide sage advice in times of stress. Maybe it’s even the voice of someone you trust or respect (think Simba hearing James Earl Jones as Mufassa in the Lion King). Listen to the voice when it tells you “don’t do that, don’t go there, it’s just the stress talking”
Spiritual: Maybe you’re a spiritual person who finds guidance from a higher power. You might think of your stress behavior as the advice from the devil on your shoulder. Start tuning in to the angel on the other side imploring you to be kinder to yourself and everyone else. Listen to the whispers, not the screams.
Physical: Maybe you need a more aggressive, physical cue to head off your stress. You might need to give yourself a slap across the face a la Cher in Moonstruck “snap outta’ it!” (Hopefully this can be accomplished metaphorically or your teammates might worry.)
Visual: If you’re the type to get yourself into the death spiral of negative thinking, try imagining pulling up on an airplane throttle to right yourself from a tail spin.
A few others
- If you get hot with anger, transport yourself to an inviting cool spot (feel the spray of the ocean at the beach, imagine the cool damp air of the forest?)
- If you exhaust yourself trying to boil the ocean, imagine filling one tiny pot. Picture it: scooping out one pail that you can start with.
- If you get adversarial in stress, picture yourself laying down the tug-of-war rope. Remind yourself “I don’t want to fight.”
- If you feel small and vulnerable, stand in the super hero pose in your mind. Chest up, hands on hips, stare the bay guys in the eyeballs.
- If you steamroll, turn around and face yourself. See how you look from the other person’s vantage point.
- If you isolate yourself, make one connection by doing something as small as smiling at a colleague.
I have no clue what will work for you. I only know that when I talk about these ideas in speeches or with teams, it’s the images, the metaphors, and the pithy phrases that people tell me they take away with them. I love getting emails from folks who share their new mantras with me like “unpack your baggage” or “drop the rope.” They tell me those images or phrases provide the oomph they need to get out of stress and get back to being constructive and productive.
When you’re stressed, you aren’t logical, so relying on a logical, dignified, mature approach to stress management is not likely to work. Engage your senses, get visual, fight stress on its own terms.
Take a moment to think about what you look like when you’re stressed. How can you catch it and stop it in the act? Once you know you can slay your stress demon means you stop fearing them; and their power is immediately diminished.