Stress… ugh. We all know what it feels like. It manifests for each of us in different ways. Muscle tension, inability to sleep well, headaches, an inescapable anxious feeling in your gut, lowered immunity to sickness. And it can affect our relationships and performance potential in equally harmful ways.
How you respond to stress is one of the biggest determinants of whether or not you reach your goals. What if I told you that stress does not impede performance? Or, rather, that it does not have to? Stress increases performance, if it is the right kind of stress, in the right amounts. So how do you tell the difference, and how can you make stress work for you?
Related: 11 Strategies for Managing Stress
I was recently on an airplane and got a distressed email from the CEO of a global enterprise. He said he just visited his doctor about some persistent physical problems and they told him, “If you do not reduce the stress in your life, you are not going to get well—in fact, you might get worse.” So he asked if I could help.
Being on an airplane, there was not a lot I could do in that moment, but I had an idea. I could give him a way to find the source of his stress. If he could do that, he could begin to take the right actions to deal with it, and I could help him with that later. But first it was vital he figure out where the stress was coming from.
Now some might say, “My stress is coming from work, you idiot! I have some serious stuff going down right now. I don’t need to know where it is coming from; I need it to go away!”
But that isn’t what he needed. He needed to use his stress to help him succeed.
The wrong kind of stress inhibits both performance and well-being. But when we are performing well, we have good stress. Good stress increases performance, activates our system to good kinds of actions, and produces results—an Olympic swimmer feels this kind of stress right before the finals. It is activating stress of the best kind. It heightens the abilities of the brain, mind and body. I needed to help him get to the sources of useless, distracting and destructive stress, and help him get activated to perform better.
I wanted to help get him from the ambiguous fog of “It’s my work that is causing my stress” to the truth: It is a collection of dynamics in how you are experiencing your work, your relationships and your internal world. If you break those down, you can take specific actions to reduce the stress. Work, problems, kooky people and large projects do not necessarily cause debilitating stress. High performers deal with those all the time, and thrive… if they are processing them in a certain way. I needed to help him see the difference.
So I came up with this list of questions to help him process the roots of his stress. He found the questions so powerful that I now share them with the other high performers I work with. They should help you, too. But be ready, they will lead you to some very important work to do… not just in your business, but in every area of your life:
- Are there identifiable external stressors that are unusual or different in some way? Name them—particularly the ones that are negative and that you might not have ever encountered before. What is different? What do you need to address differently than you have before?
- Are any of these tied to key relationships that have particular meaning for you? Personal or professional? Name them specifically.
- What is the meaning that they have to you? What is in danger? What is threatened? Scary? Name it. Face that, and put it in its right perspective.
- What is just about sheer quantity of stuff, vs. qualitative stress having to do with the deeper meaning of the stressors you’ve named? Be specific about where you feel overloaded in terms of time, energy, capacity and brain power. Prioritize, and prune the quantity to what you can do and what is most important.
- Is there a person or persons tied to where the stress is coming from? Who? What do you need to do to deal with that situation?
- Is the stress coming from external forces mainly, or internal forces? Like pressure from inside? Voices and unrealistic demands from inside your own head? Conflicts from inside? Name them. Where does that goofy thinking come from? How do you need to observe it and change it?
- What is the key fantasy that would make it all go away? Is it a hire? Is it a different kind of relationship than a hire? Is it some kind of help? A wish to be rescued by someone strong and able, or supportive and nurturing? Let go and ask yourself the truth. It might show you what the exact pressure you feel is about and whether you need to bring in some other capacity or need to gain more support.
- What do you see on your schedule that makes your stress go up or is totally de-energizing as you look at it? Name it. Why does it do that to you? What can you change about how you think about it? Can you get rid of it? Can you get help with it? How can you address it actively?
- Who or what do you see on your schedule that is a downer or de-energizer in some way? Name it. What can you do about it? What is in your control? Can you eliminate it? Delegate it? Change it so it is a positive energy? Get rid of parts of it?
- What do you feel responsible for that is out of your control? Name those factors—they are there. Write them down, and worry about them for about five minutes and then turn to the list of things you actually can control.
- Who do you feel affected by that is outside of your control? Name those people. Begin to realize that you cannot control them, or their behavior, but you can control how they are affecting you and how you react or respond to them.
- Who is filling your tank? Who after being with them do you feel full? Happier? Refreshed? Energized? Relaxed? Name them and when and what you do to have that happen. You obviously need more.
- Who is the opposite? The ones with whom the result is negative to you. Name them. You obviously need less, either less time around them or to change the dynamic with them in some way.
- Where are you operating outside of your strengths? Name those times and places. Limit your exposure to them and get some help in those areas. Lower your expectations to perform perfectly in areas that are not your strong areas.
- Who do have around you that you secretly wish would go away? Name them. Deal with them directly if possible.
- What is lying “out there” that feels threatening? Foreboding? How? Is it outside your control? How? How are you interpreting its possible outcome or result? Name it. Look for how you are enabling that result instead of preparing for it or keeping it from happening.
- Are you getting the rest and relaxation you truly need? Really? Really? Really?
- Where do you feel like you are falling short of your own expectations or the expectations of others? How? Are those realistic or even true? Have you asked? Have you had a solution-oriented discussion with them?
- Are you isolated and cut off from people or activities that fuel you? How much of the time? Why?
- Do you feel controlled by others? Whom? Name them. Why can’t you or aren’t you saying “no”?
- Who do you resent? Why? How have they cornered you into having to put up with it?
- What hurts? In your heart? What can make you sad to think about or talk about? Who are you talking about it to? Why not? Are they helpful? Who could you trust?
- What are you currently going through that triggers old pain or trauma or anxiety? What are you being reminded of?
So there are a few things to think about. Obviously just reading them is not going to solve everything, but it can give you very clear directions of the things you might have to address that are creating the stress. Dive in, get to work and I hope to see you smiling on the other side!
Related: Stop Stressing About Stress
Dr. Henry Cloud is a psychologist, leadership consultant and New York Times best-selling author. His newest book is called The Power of the Other: The Startling Effect Other People Have on You, From the Boardroom to the Bedroom and Beyond—and What to Do About It.