visiting cma? MAP IT


Turning Down the Heat on Stressful Situations

Summer is officially on the way, and temperatures are on the rise. So, today we are asking: what happens when the heat gets turned up at work? What do you do when you encounter tough situations? Certainly, there are no shortage of such moments in today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Leaders must show tremendous amounts of composure as they navigate these pressures. In times of crisis, is your default to go into panic mode, in turn, making others feel uneasy? Or, do you bring a calm and collected presence that helps your team feel like you’re in it together? If crisis mode is your default, rest assured you can reinvent yourself. You can learn new strategies.

Below are tips for maintaining your composure when the going gets tough.

  • Look for your own physical responses
  • Deep breathing or box breathing
  • Observe your external world
  • Use delay tactics
  • Focus on self-care and renewal activities
  • Remember the narrative you carry

Read on for more information on how to implement these tips:

  • First, know your triggers. What’s your tipping point? How do you know when you have moved from constructive to dangerous territory? One of the best signs is your own physical response. Your heart may start to beat more quickly. Your breathing may feel shallow. Your body may feel tenser (tip: tune into your shoulders as a signal – are they raised?). In these moments, though it is happening underneath the surface, our brain turns to “fight or flight mode” to protect us. In this mode, it is difficult to tap into your frontal cortex where the more rational part of your brain lives. Unfortunately, these are the exact moments when you most need your best self and best thinking.
  • Thankfully, once you know your triggers, you can then choose strategies that help you assuage your “fight or flight” mode. One helpful strategy is to tune into your body. Deep breathing is one of the best approaches. It seems simplistic on the surface but is quite powerful. In fact, it is a go-to technique Navy Seals use to stay calm and focused. Next time you find yourself negotiating, giving difficult feedback, or facing a conflict situation, try it. Box breathing is an especially helpful technique – breath in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breath out for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and repeat. You may be surprised at how quickly your body starts to recover. Another technique is to simply observe your external world. Try to notice the feeling of your legs in your chair or your hands on your computer. Look outside your window or at the objects in your office. The key to this approach? Don’t judge. Just notice and move on. This practice helps you depersonalize the situation. By acting as an outside observer, you can more quickly calm down and tap into higher level thinking. Another strategy is to use delay tactics, choosing to intentionally respond rather than react. This might look like taking a break or asking to revisit a tense conversation or provide an answer when you have had more time to think.
  • The above strategies are in-the-moment techniques to maintain composure. Even more importantly, work on building up your tank of resources outside of these moments. This way, when crises inevitably hit, you have more reserves to remain calm and objective. Outside of work, focus on self-care and find your favorite renewal activities. Really prioritize these activities. Put them on your calendar and treat them like important appointments not to be missed. Just like a runner doesn’t have the physical resources to run a marathon every day, you don’t have the resources to perform at your peak, day after day, without adequate rest. It is easy to be reactive when you are running fumes. Consider what most fills up your tank. Sleep should make everyone’s list, but what else makes you feel most renewed? It might look like being in nature, having coffee with a best friend, reading a book, practicing mindfulness (tip: try the phone app Headspace), exercising, etc. Brene Brown says, “Find an activity that centers you and then make time for it—no matter what. If it feels uncomfortable at first, that’s okay. Cooling down takes practice.” With regular practice, you may find you are better able to keep everyday stressors at bay.
  • Another strategy is to remember the narratives you carry. What are you telling yourself about tough situations? Stress is the result of both the situation and the story you tell yourself about the situation. On the one hand, the situation can be viewed as threatening, as a barrier, as an unplanned nuisance. On the other hand, you can think about the situation as an unfortunate reality but one you are equipped to face. Perhaps you can see it as a challenge to overcome or an opportunity to achieve a breakthrough. See the difference? A helpful technique is to create a go-to script you can tell yourself in these situations to flip the story. This is not downplaying a difficult moment. Rather, it is an approach you can use in the moment to tell yourself another story, visualize success, and paint a new path forward. Finally, in these moments anchor yourself in your end goals, your “north star,” if you will. Keeping this in mind as you navigate challenging territory can help you make values-based, rather than emotionally-driven, decisions.

Try some of these strategies next time the heat turns up at work. Practicing them will help you be less reactive and more intentional in your responses. Looking for more on this topic? Consider watching a TED Talk titled How to Make Stress your Friend by McGonigal for a unique look at how stress can help prepare your body for action.

By: Kelli Huber, Ph.D.