You have more control over stress than you think. That is the message I would like to leave you with as we conclude Stress Awareness Month.
No, we do not always have control over potentially stressful situations. In a fast-moving business world, certain things are out of our hands. Yet we make countless decisions over the course of a day, and many of those decisions can either feed our stress and anxiety or feed our strength and resilience. We get to choose.
We also get to choose how we approach those choices, how we think about them. In other words, we choose our mindset.
In a sense, we have the ability to say no to stress. That does not mean ignoring or avoiding difficult issues. Denial is a choice in itself, and a poor one. However, by shaping our decisions proactively and productively, we can say yes to opportunity, yes to growth, and yes to empowerment.
Choose to be aware
The first step to thinking and acting differently about stress is identifying the stressor. If we do not take the time to step back from our day and check in with ourselves, we may experience a vague sense of anxiety without being clear about its source.
Stress can also sneak up on us when we ignore the early signs and try to push it to the back of our minds or grit our teeth and soldier on. Stress is most insidious when it is out of sight and out of mind. If we speed through our day on autopilot without being aware of how we are feeling, stress can build up and lead to chronic stress.
For all these reasons and more, a mindfulness practice is essential in today’s business world. For some, it might be meditation, for others yoga, for others a quiet walk outside. The important thing is to maintain an open feedback loop with yourself, so you can identify the symptoms of stress early enough to nip it in the bud.
Choose an empowered mindset
When you get into the habit of checking in with yourself and identifying possible stressors early on, you put yourself in a position to be proactive rather than reactive. Stress will no longer be something that creeps up on you.
Once you have become proactive, you are well on the path to developing a growth mindset—to seeing difficult challenges as opportunities and not threats. Those with a fixed mindset tend to play it safe and react defensively to change. Those with a growth mindset embrace change and allow themselves to take risks while choosing to transform stress into something more productive.
Choose to think differently about stress. Stress can be good and empowering. Like an athlete going through a stressful workout, difficult challenges can stretch and strengthen us if we approach them with an empowered mindset.
Choose to choose
Have you ever been to a restaurant that had too many options? An excess of choice can be overwhelming and contribute to stress. Fortunately, in many cases, we have some control over our own menu. We can choose to keep it simple.
Keeping our menu simple and not cluttered starts with the small things. We make as many as 35,000 decisions every day. The more we sweat the small stuff, the less energy we have for the critical decisions. To cope with this phenomenon of decision fatigue, Steve Jobs famously had one go-to outfit, and leaders like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg have followed suit.
Clarity is also crucial when it comes to the bigger picture. Great leaders set themselves apart by having a unique and compelling vision. You will not be able to keep your eyes on the prize if your day is drowning in minutiae. Focus on the macro decisions and delegate the micro decisions to others.
Make healthy and mindful choices every day that add to your energy and resilience rather than deplete them. In the same way your muscles get fatigued from overwork, your brain can get fatigued from stress. A depleted mind is less effective and is prone to poor decisions.
Be proactive by learning and adopting the habits that recharge your batteries. If taking a 15-minute walk after lunch clears your mind for the rest of the day, make it a priority. I coach my executive clients to identify the activities that feed their wellbeing, and then to schedule them as they would a high-priority meeting. Healthy habits, thriving relationships, and the freedom to pursue passions all contribute to our resilience.
We set ourselves up for success if we reframe stress as a choice. We learn to embrace change and challenge. Such a growth mindset is also an empowered mindset. When we feel we are taking control of our days and our destiny, we are far less vulnerable to the ravages of stress. When we focus on the things we can control, the things we cannot control become more manageable.
Choice is a powerful tool. Choice creates freedom and expands possibility. Choose to choose. When we approach stress with an empowered mindset, we are more productive, happier, and in control of our lives.