Oxford Dictionaries defines stress as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Nobody gets to avoid it; for some business leaders it is a daily occurrence.
Stress itself though isn’t necessarily a problem; it can even be a motivating force in the right circumstances. Many great leaders thrive existing on the edge of controllable chaos. But how you deal with prolonged stress over a period of time is important. Left unchecked it can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.
And at the centre of the stress problem is the hormone cortisol, aka ‘the stress hormone’. It is the chemical substance that floods the body during flight or fight responses. To a large extent, it regulates sleep and metabolism, and influences blood pressure and inflammation.
How you control and regulate cortisol levels is the simple scientific means to dealing with stress. Easier said than done, of course.
Like most physical conditions, the first thing is to try prevention rather than cure. Aggressive responses to colleagues are always going to get your adrenalin flowing. Being assertive rather than aggressive in your dealings is going to help control your stress in interactions over time. Moreover, it may even lead to you avoiding stressful situations. And if it doesn’t, then pausing and removing yourself from such circumstances is worth doing, if at all possible. You can revisit when things are calmer.
If removing yourself from the situation can be done, then there are ‘quick fixes’ for calming yourself.
- Deep breathing and mindfulness techniques are the best approach when learned. Get outside if possible – into nature is even better, if geography allows. Walk, breathe, listen and be mindful of nature around you. It’ll feel like wasting time at first, but will save time you’d waste instead on resentment and composing that snotty email response.
- Creating clear boundaries is another relatively simple strategy for reducing stress. Get organised, improve your time management, delegate better and learn to say ‘No’. All of these measured approaches are going to have a bearing on your stress in the long-term. Sometimes we create our own stress by backing ourselves into difficult corners through people-pleasing behaviours.
- Meditation and yoga are obvious, but perfect, and also give you tools to be used in the moment. Listening to music is also something that has been shown to bring down cortisol levels quickly.
- Sports and exercise – from swimming to kickboxing – are great for getting those endorphins going. Running with some music on is a double whammy. As is dancing.
- A healthy diet is important and there are some particular foods that are great for dealing with cortisol in the body. Dark chocolate, bananas, cups of tea (especially green), the probiotics in yoghurt, and fish oil supplements. Vitamin B is also great and surprisingly so is chewing gum. Sugar and caffeine have a detrimental affect where stress is concerned.
- Sleep is vital – even a nap can be beneficial. Have a good routine at night; put the smartphone down half an hour before sleep and read a book to help switch off from the day.
- Friends, kids and pets are hugely influential in helping with stress – even if they feel like they’re adding to the problem sometimes! Isolating is okay in very small doses, but hugs and kisses from loved ones are much better for you.
- Perspective. And finally, it might be worth trying to get some perspective on actually how stressful your career and life really is. I volunteered at a homeless centre for a few years, and seeing people walk in off the streets with nothing but the clothes on their back, grateful for some food and toiletries, made me realise that the things bringing me stress weren’t as important as I thought.
It should be mentioned that alcohol is not a good solution – avoid trying to drink the stress away. Wine o’clock often seems the only solution, but drinking heavily over time can have the same effect on cortisol levels as leaving stress unchecked; it alters levels in the body over time.
If you’re reading this and thinking ‘He’s dreaming, there’s no way I can avoid stress in my role or wander barefoot outside every time it blows up, then it’s even more important that you employ a range of lifestyle factors to give your life balance; so that you can deal with stress in the long term. Regulate those Cortisol levels over time, if not in the moment.