4 ways to harness the upside of stress

4 ways to harness the upside of stress

Can you adjust your response to stressful situations - to your advantage? Try these techniques

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March 02, 2018

In the digital transformation era, there is arguably no more demanding role than IT leader. Stress is simply part of the job. While some CIOs and IT leaders thrive under pressure, many others suffer in myriad ways as a result of it.

But stress, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It’s an evolutionary adaptation designed to drive human beings to act. The physiological changes that occur when we encounter stressful situations – the rapid heartbeat, the quickened breathing, the jolt of adrenaline – can impart energy and focus. 

The problem comes in our interpretation of stressful events. The human brain is constantly scanning the environment for threats. Sometimes the danger is real; other times, it's a mysterious summons from the CEO, an unexpected problem with a project, or an impending deadline. “Your neurobiology is designed to react quickly rather than to thoughtfully respond,” explains expert Laurie J. Cameron, founder and CEO of PurposeBlue, which offers mindfulness and mindful leadership programs to companies, universities, and federal agencies. The flight-or-fight stress response is triggered, and as a result, performance often suffers.

“When we get unexpected difficult news, for example, our body initiates the stress response. It is natural for senior leaders to get triggered,” says Cameron, who previously worked as a change management consultant with Accenture for large enterprise software implementations. “When we are in this physical and mental state, it is much harder to see wider possibilities, to make clear decisions, and to trust and collaborate with others.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. In her upcoming book, The Mindful Day: Practical Ways to Find Focus, Calm, and Joy From Morning to Evening, Cameron illustrates a number of techniques individuals can use to reframe stressful situations. “It is a powerful advantage when IT leaders can adjust their response so they can become calm, clear-headed and resourceful,” says Cameron. Here, she shares four tips that IT leaders can apply throughout the day:

1. Shift how you interpret your body’s signals

How you interpret events impacts how stressed you feel. When a CIO feels the heart pumping or the body tightening, say before a board presentation, they can reinterpret those physical shifts as the body’s signal that it is providing the energy, power, and drive to succeed. “The next time you feel stress coming on, consider that those feelings are mobilizing you for action,” Cameron advises.

[ CIO Brian Beams tells his first-hand story about why IT leaders must care for themselves. Read Is IT bad for your health? How our jobs might be killing us. ]

2. Take three breaths

It’s not easy to go from “OMG” to “Om” in the business world, but a breathing trick can help.

People are often hardwired to reject the reality of a stressful situation. They may get angry, blame others or themselves, or even give up. However, recognition of the situation is critical for effective problem-solving and decision-making.  “A CIO who sees reality with calm acceptance can then be creative, resourceful, and wise,” says Cameron. “Choosing to see stressful events as temporary, seeing yourself as empowered to take action versus a victim of circumstance, and seeing events as opportunities to grow all increase our resilience.” 

It’s not easy to go from “OMG” to “Om” in the business world, but a breathing trick can help. When a CIO hears about a problem, Cameron suggests they take three breaths. With the first, they silently say the word “breath” and bring attention to the air coming in and going out. With the second, they say “relax” and make a deliberate effort to loosen the body. On the third, they have the space to respond more dispassionately. “The three breaths practice gets you to the stillness that is available in all of us – below the choppy surface of the water,” says Cameron. “When we become calm, we can use cognitive skills to accept the situation and then take a wider, impersonal perspective.”

3. Interrupt negative thinking with body scanning

Researchers have discovered that the human brain is often in a repetitive loop of anxious thinking. This “default mode network” is where the mind goes when it is not focusing on an object or another anchor of attention. We obsess about the past or worry about the future. 

A core mindfulness practice for escaping the default mode is the body scan. CIOs should find a quiet spot to sit and begin systematically directing their attention from one body part to the next, starting at the head and moving to the feet, or vice versa. “This strengthens the insula, the part of the brain associated with our capacity for interoception, a lesser-known sense that helps us understand and feel what's going on inside our body,” says Cameron. “When we deliberately direct attention away from thoughts and into the body, we shift from spinning rumination to focusing on something in our immediate experience.” 

4. Practice compassion – and start with yourself

No one is harder on IT leaders than they are on themselves. “I advise tech leaders in a variety of companies, and what I see across the board is the power of learning a self-compassion strategy,” says Cameron, who is a trainer with Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. “There is that voice in the head that can be critical, demanding, and tough when mistakes happen, goals aren’t met, or an IT solution doesn’t meet expectations.”

[ Communication. Empathy. EQ. They're must-haves. Read our related story: Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them. ]

Research has shown that working on self-compassion instead actually improves performance and outcomes, according to Cameron. “It fuels learning, growth, and motivation to keep going and to improve.”

Practicing the mindfulness approaches above can pave the way for increased self-compassion, as can recognizing that challenges and failures are part of being human and talking to yourself as you would a friend.

Leaders build resilience

The goal of these exercises is to become a more resilient, strong, and agile leader. “As CIOs increase their capacity to recognize the hard moments and the body’s natural response, then they become more and more adept at pausing, calming, creating space, and seeing more vividly,” says Cameron. “With mindful awareness, you can take in more information, examine motivations, and operate from a more conscious mindset.” 

Reinterpreting stress can have the added benefit of imparting more meaning into work, which is motivating as well. “When we see a series of stressful deadlines, a difficult problem to solve, a merger of two companies and their systems, it can feel very overwhelming,” says Cameron. “The skill is to go up to the balcony, take a wider perspective, and see how all of these aspects of what is creating stress is serving the larger mission. We reconnect to purpose.”

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.

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