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How to Stay Calm While Everyone Else is Freaking Out

I don't know about you, but I've had a lot to stress about over the past 6 months.

My business nearly failed, I got a second job, I had to learn how to train and engage on Zoom, my kids have missed out on summer swimming, track and field, traveling soccer, competitive volleyball, gymnastics, we canceled a family cruise….twice, I've become a home school teacher, and I've now got 2 teenage boys who think the best time to talk to their parents is at 10:30 at night - when all I want to do is sleep because I've been stressed out all day!

Do you feel me? Can you relate? I'm sure that many, if not most, of you can and you probably think that all of this gives you perfect justification to freak out. Right?

Wrong! Maybe your neighbor can freak out, maybe your co-worker can freak out, and maybe even your spouse, but you can't. You can't because you are a leader, and something that differentiates a leader from the "average" person is their emotional mastery. That is, we leaders have to be the rock, we've got to be the wall people can lean against. Whether it is your kids, your friends, or those you lead at work, people look to you to be solid. But how can we? How can we stay calm when everyone else is freaking out. Well, it might sound simple, but it's this:

Calm people have a different perspective on stress!

Yup, that is it. They see stress differently, and because they see stress differently they act differently. If we see stress as something negative, something that is to be avoided, or something that will eventually kill us, we will run from it every single time. Yet, if we see stress as a positive, something to be embraced, and something critical for achievement, then we'll not only stay calm but find joy in the midst of stress. Our response to stress all starts with how we see it.

Let's make this a little more practical for you. Here's a picture of our pet snake, Slinkey.

If you "see" snakes as creepy and dangerous, every time you get around one, feelings of fear will enter your body. These feelings of fear will cause you to avoid being near the snake and not going near snakes will keep you "safe." That is, how you see something, determines how you feel, what you do, and what you get.

However, if you see a snake as a pet, something that can be cared for, you'll have different feelings around it (love, concern), which will drive you to interact with the pet, and it will get you the satisfaction of hours of companionship with very little maintenance.

So, let's change how we "see" stress. Consider the following two studies.

Higher Stress = Higher GDP and a Longer Life

A 2005 study was conducted across 121 countries that involved 125,000 participants, age 15 and above. These individuals were asked one question - "Did you feel a great deal of stress yesterday?" From the responses over time, the study identified a national stress index for all 121 countries. You'd think that the country with the lowest stress index would have a longer life expectancy. Not true. Mauritania, a small country in northwest Africa, had the lowest stress index, with only 5% of its population answering the question positively. They are nowhere near the list of highest GDP and their life expectancy is just over 64 years old. This was true of almost all countries on the index. The higher the levels of stress, the stronger the GDP and the longer the expectancy of life. Weird, right?

Viewing Stress as Bad Increases Your Risk of Dying

In 1998, 30,000 adults were asked how much stress they had experienced in the last year and if they believed if stress was harmful to their health. After 8 years, death records for the 30,000 people were analyzed. Just as we would have imagined, those who have experienced a lot of stress died at a rate of 43% more than those with low stress. However, if you segregate the data and look only at those with high stress and a positive view of stress, these individuals had the lowest risk of death than anyone in the whole study!

In short, it is not the amount of stress you have, it is the way you see stress.

So, how can we see stress differently?

First, I believe that we have to cause a disruption in our brain. You've probably heard of the term "disruptive technology" before. These are technologies that didn't just change an industry, but significantly changed the trajectory of said industry. Think about the iPod and the music industry, Netflix and the DVD industry, and Uber and the taxi service. All of them, changed forever. We need to activate the same disruption in our stress-filled brains. Trying to solve the problem of stress while doing the work that is causing us stress is not effective. Let's create a disruption. Here are ten disruptive strategies.

  1. Take a Break. Instead of trying to push through the work, take a break. Studies show that 55% of Americans don’t take their breaks. Additionally, many of us eat while working.

  2. Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Lay down on a comfortable spot. Close your eyes, beginning with your feet, tighten your muscles. Move slowly up your body to your neck and face muscles.

  3. Go for a walk. Going on a brisk walk outside allows us to connect with nature, it increases our heart rate, and it gives us a better perspective on life.

  4. Meditation. Not too many years ago, this was a technique reserved for those that were “out there.” However, the science and positive effects have inched meditation close to mainstream society.

  5. Talk it out. Talking our problems out with another allows us to process and prioritize what is going on in our lives. Furthermore, our close ones can be great at helping us see a different perspective on our problems. When doing so remember - venting is better than complaining.

  6. Paint. You could paint, or engage in any creative task, which forces your brain to relax and reflect.

  7. Focus on breathing. You can achieve some of the same great benefits of meditation and yoga simply by focusing on your breathing. Slowly take a deep breath for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, and release for 8 seconds. Repeat this three times and you’ll notice a difference.

  8. Hug someone. Oxytocin is often called the cuddle hormone and it is often released through physical touch. This hormone fights the negative stress response in the brain.

  9. Work out (hit something). Similar to walking, working out increases our heart rate, bringing in more oxygen to our bloodstream. This increase in oxygen provides more confidence and it encourages positive action.

  10. Express gratitude. Robin Sharma says gratitude is the antidote to fear. Fear is often the main driver of stress, so taking time to keep a gratitude journal, listing what we are grateful for, or showing our gratitude to others can help us rid ourselves of fear.

Next, we need to change our mindset about stress. Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford psychologist who is an absolute wiz on the topic of stress, suggests looking at three different stress mindsets.

  1. See your body's stress as helpful. When you feel your heart pounding harder, your blood flowing faster, your palms getting sweaty, see these as physical reactions your body is providing to you to take on whatever challenge lies ahead. Stress is simply energy, see it as energy to get stuff done.

  2. See yourself as able to handle the stress, and even grow from it. Nascar drivers are given a warning: never look at the wall. Why, you may ask? Because at 220 mph, what you look at you become. The same goes for what we become. If we can see in our mind ourselves successfully handling stress, we dramatically increase our ability to successfully stay calm while everyone else is freaking out.

  3. See stress as something that everybody deals with. Often, especially when stress is high, we think we are the only ones in such a predicament. That our lives are just that uniquely screwed up. This is not true. Many people are going through the very same things you are, and some are even handling it extremely well. You can too! Stress is not exclusive to just you.

Finally, we need to move beyond ourselves and help others. This truly is the antidote for handling stress well. If you wake every day with a desire to serve others and to share your gifts with the world, stress somehow dissipates. It just goes away. Don't believe me? Take five minutes right now and write a card to someone whom you are grateful for, listing at least 5 reasons. Place it in the envelope, stamp it, and send it. Don't you feel better?

Let's be leaders. Let's keep our heads about us. Let's make sure that we have the emotional maturity that is necessary to use our influence to make a positive impact on this world. Let's see stress differently!

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