How to Manage Your Stress Level
4:07 PM Friday March 13, 2009 by Judith Ross
Tomorrow you're delivering a sales presentation to your company's biggest client. Your boss and the client company's CEO will be there. A lot's riding on a deal going through; what you say and how you say it will really count.
But you're not anxious. On the contrary, you're charged up. You feel sharp and focused. You've got a solid command of your material and know the client's needs well. Looking one last time through your slide deck, you recall a story the company's CEO once told you about his business that you can work into the introduction to make it that much stronger.
If you recognize something of yourself and your experience in this scenario, you know that a certain amount of stress, in the right circumstances, can enhance performance. Whether we're competing in a sporting event, presenting a closing argument to a jury, or negotiating the terms of a business deal, the adrenaline surge triggered by stress increases our focus and heightens our efficiency, enabling us to perform at the top of our game.
Yet we also know that stress, far from enhancing performance, sometimes undermines it. When our stress level is too high or the stress has lasted too long, we can't concentrate. Creativity fizzles out and frustration sets in. We become distracted, forgetful, irritable.
So where's the boundary between good stress and bad stress? And how do we know when we're close to crossing that line so we can make sure we don't?
To find out, we spoke to Herbert Benson, M.D., director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (Boston), and Peg Baim, the institute's clinical director of training.
The physiology of stress The first step in monitoring and managing stress is understanding our physiological responses to stressors, says Benson, who is also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. Stress activates the body's fight-or-flight response: heart rate and blood pressure go up, and several hormones are released into the blood stream, the most important of which are epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and cortisol.
In the short term, these hormones boost our focus, memory, and creativity. A century ago, Harvard researchers Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson calibrated the relationship between stress arousal and performance, finding that as stress goes up, so do efficiency and performance. However, once stress exceeds a certain level, they noted, its benefits disappear and performance declines. Mental flexibility, concentration, and mood all take a hit.
This relationship between performance and stress has been dubbed the Yerkes-Dodson law. This graphic represents it:
The Yerkes-Dodson Curve
Identify your personal stress-response pattern Everyone reacts to stress differently; X amount of stress might be energizing for you but debilitating for your neighbor. How people respond when their stress levels are getting too high is also individual, although a person's response tends to be consistent over time. The symptoms of excess stress may be physical, cognitive, or affective (relating to mood) — or some combination thereof.
To recognize how you respond when you're edging closer to the downward slope of the Yerkes-Dodson curve:
Other symptoms are more subtle. Some people fall into negative thought patterns: Minor issues seem like major setbacks. Their view of people and situations loses nuance and becomes black-or-white, all-or-nothing. Other people become perfectionist task masters who hold the bar unrealistically high and overreact to mistakes, both theirs and others.
Another way to identify your individual stress response is to reflect on how you feel and act when you are deeply relaxed. "What are you like when you have less stress in your life or when you are on vacation?" asks Baim. "Do you still get headaches?"
Managing stress and counteracting its effects When you've learned to recognize when your stress level is getting too high, you can take steps to control it before it takes control of you. If you've been working furiously on a project or problem and one or more of your usual stress-response symptoms occurs, step away from your work. Engage in an activity that calmly engages you, such as yoga, knitting, or going for a walk. Visiting an art museum counts; visiting a Web site does not. Similarly, watching TV is out. But looking intently and meditatively at a painting in your home or office may be an effective way for you to dial down the stress.
Benson and Baim especially recommend meditation to activate what they call the relaxation response. All you need are a quiet place and 10 to 20 minutes during which you repeat a word, sound, phrase, or gesture. When everyday thoughts intrude, as they inevitably will, calmly disregard them and refocus on the repetitive activity.
The relaxation response is elicited by breaking the train of everyday thought. It counteracts the fight-or-flight response, decreasing metabolism, slowing heart rate and breathing, and lowering blood pressure. In fact, Benson's most recent research shows that eliciting the relaxation response can bring about physiological changes that offset the harmful effects of stress. (To learn more about the relaxation response, go to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine Web site at www.mbmi.org.)
Given the costs to employers when their employees are overdosing on stress, Benson suggests that "managers should find or create a space where people can go to alleviate stress and evoke their own relaxation response."
Baim agrees. "If stress is a mainstream condition," she says, "then we should make the buffers mainstream as well."
Making some lifestyle changes can also help you keep stress in check: