Ask someone you know if they feel stressed, and I’ll bet you anything their answer will be yes.
Granted, that’s an easy position to take.
Recent statistics show that approximately 80 percent of U.S. workers say they experience stress at work. Half say stress negatively affects their behavior. Over 75 percent say stress results in headaches, fatigue, and problems sleeping.
So how do successful people find ways to stay cool, calm, and focused during stressful situations? (After all, the better you can understand and manage your emotions — and, by extension, the emotions of people around you — the greater your chances of success.)
Looking for ways to eliminate stress is is unlikely to pay off; to misquote Forrest Gump, “(Stuff) happens,” and stress naturally follows.
But what you can do is reduce the impact of the stress.
Here are a few simple ways to dramatically improve how you deal with stress:
1. Pinpoint the actual emotion.
I called my wife from Dubai and told her I felt stressed.
“About what?” she said.
I snorted. Duh: I was anxious about my upcoming keynote at the Arabian Business Awards.
“Okay, but what specifically stresses you out?” she said.
Good question. “Stressed” was too vague. I was worried about the logistics. I was worried I hadn’t rehearsed enough. I was worried about whether my Covid test would come back negative and I would be able to come home later that night.
Those feelings are what neuroscientists call granular emotions. When we’re stressed, we’re not just “stressed.” We’re concerned about a specific outcome. Or a specific decision. Or a specific action we need to take, goal we need to achieve, conversation we need to have…
And here’s the thing: The more granular you make an emotion — the more specifically you describe it — the better. As Dr. Marc Brackett writes in his book Permission to Feel:
Subjects who were low in granularity were less skilled at differentiating emotions (e.g., angry, worried, frustrated). Participants who were deemed granular were better able to differentiate their emotional experiences.
When the two groups were compared … granular individuals were less likely to freak out when under stress and more likely to find positive meaning in negative experiences.
They also were better at emotion regulation, moderating their responses in order to achieve desired outcomes.
So don’t be tempted to push aside your emotions — especially negative emotions. But don’t dwell on the emotion itself; take the time to think about the reasons behind why you feel the way you do.
As Jeff Bezos says, “Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have some control over. I find that as soon as I can identify it, and make the first phone call, or send off the first email, it dramatically reduces the stress I feel.”
Be specific in identifying the emotion, because then you can take action.
2. Understand that you aren’t programmed to respond a certain way.
Emotional responses are in part innate.
But they’re also learned.
As How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett writes:
Where emotions and the autonomic nervous system are concerned, four significant meta-analyses have been conducted in the last two decades, the largest of which covered more than 220 physiology studies and nearly 22,000 test subjects.
None of these four meta-analyses found consistent and specific emotion fingerprints in the body.
In short, we all learned — from our parents, friends, the culture we grew up in, etc. — how to process and respond to things that happen to us.
Which means we can work to unlearn — and relearn in a more positive way — the way we respond.
Especially to stress.
3. Reframe the feeling.
Research shows that feeling stressed — feeling afraid, hesitant, anxious, etc. — negatively impacts professional and personal performance.
Makes sense; we all perform better when we feel self-assured and confident.
While science shows simply trying to ignore stress rarely work, reframing “stress” can.
Say you’re nervous about an important sales demo. See the fact you feel nervous as a good thing because it means you have the chance to win a major account.
Or say you’re concerned you won’t be able to deliver on a tight timetable. See the fact you’re concerned as a good thing because it means your company has the chance to be a hero for your customer.
The fact I felt “stressed” in Dubai? That was a good thing, because it meant I was about to do something really, really cool.
Pressure? That’s an emotion you want to feel, because it means you’re in a position to do something meaningful. Something important. Something where the outcome truly matters to you.
When you feel nervous or stressed, reframe that emotion. See stress for what it is: An opportunity to step in, step up, and eliminate a problem or overcome a challenge that will make your life better.
Your emotions? You will never totally control them.
But you can better control how you manage your emotions.
Which, if you think about it, is all that matters.