The Fast Lane to Stress
High Pressure, high consequence work environments require the ability to switch gears and ramp up at short notice in order to respond to unexpected crisis and challenges.
Whether you’re a trader and a tweet has sent markets into free-fall, a senior executive and a scandal about your company has just broken, a lawyer whose star witness has done a 180 degree turn in their evidence or entrepreneur who has 12 hours’ notice for a one-shot VC pitch for $10 million; whatever your role, this experience of intense stress and pressure will be familiar.
Adrenalin and cortisol surge through your veins as you switch into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Your trusty autonomic nervous system enables you to adapt and respond to these new and unexpected challenges by preparing you for action. You are now officially stressed.
The Upside of Stress
The form of acute short-term stress outlined above is not inherently bad and has several potential benefits including enhanced immunity, increased focus, alertness and resilience. When managed correctly, stress can be a powerful weapon and competitive advantage. Stress has protected us for as long as we have walked the earth, enabling us to become predator rather than prey. These upsides are often forgotten or overlooked.
Stress can become destructive, however, when dust settles, and the crisis has passed. At that point, if you’d don’t rapidly switch gears, de-stress and decelerate, over time you’ll progress from acute to chronic stress and find yourself on the fast road to a town called Burnout.
This was a mistake I repeatedly made as a busy lawyer in the nineties. The nature of my practice meant that many of my cases were fast moving with high stakes, but short. I would often have to burn the midnight oil for an important hearing the following morning and even if it was over by lunchtime, I would spend the rest of the day unnecessarily operating in fight mode. To make things worse I would then spend the evening in a local bar talking about (and consequently reliving) the details of the case over too many glasses of wine.
When Traditional Stress Solutions Fail
Stress coaching and literature typically focus on managing the stress response. The point that is rightly and repeatedly made, is that it is not the event but the perception of the event that results in the experience of stress. Managing, mindset, self-talk and breathing are powerful tools that can be utilised when responding to a crisis.
The on the ground reality for many highfliers, however, is that when the trigger event occurs, the last thing they can think about is managing their mindset etc because they are focused on managing the situation rather than their emotions. This is why understanding the role of post-crisis recovery is critical.
Stress + Recovery = Growth
To mitigate the deleterious effects of stress, as soon as you have managed the crisis, take yourself into a recovery mode. Instead of turning to alcohol to unwind, spend a few minutes engaging in a practice that takes you out of fight, flight or freeze mode and helps you recharge and rebuild for the next curveball. Because you can be sure there will be more crises coming your way.
Management of the negative effects of stress is no longer dependant on weekly therapy sessions. Most people are already overloaded and talked out and simply don’t have the capacity to spend an hour each week analysing their responses to stress. Besides, it’s far from ideal to wait a week feeling stressed until you see the therapist.
The Intersection of Technology and Zen
Neuroscience, technology, and ancient practices validated by science, now provide us with an array of easy to implement, effective, fast acting recovery solutions that you can easily implement without the intervention of a third party. These include:
- 10 minutes of breathwork. Whichever technique you utilize the guiding principle is short inhale / longer exhale e.g., 4:6.
- The use of brain entrainment techniques such as Isochronic tones or Binaural beats that activate Alpha brainwaves. Just pop in your ear buds and press play.
- A heart coherence breathing practice.
- A virtual reality session.
- 15 minutes of Non-Sleep Deep Rest / Yoga Nidra.
- Wearable technology that restores balance to the nervous system, calming both body and mind. There are several effective devices that use vibration to stimulate the vagus nerve calming and conditioning the nervous system.
- A walk outside, ideally near a green space such as a park.
Burn Bright Not Out
A modest investment of 10-15 minutes engaged in post-crisis recovery will help ensure you avoid the devastating effects of long-term chronic stress and enable you to continue to burn bright, not out.