Foundation of Stress Mastery

March 13th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

A phrase you frequently hear in the business world is “stress management.” It’s supposed to be the process by which businesspeople learn to deal with their stress in a healthy way. But does managing sound like the ideal scenario? I don’t think so. Managing, for me, connotes just getting by, just keeping your head above water. That is certainly not a threshold high enough for any businessperson who aspires to higher rungs on the corporate ladder.

When I work with businesspeople, my goal is to help them become “stress masters.” That certainly has a very different — and more empowering — ring to it, doesn’t it? Mastery suggests total control and power over something. Isn’t that the relationship that you would like to have with the stress you experience in your life?

So, are you under stress at work? In all likelihood, your answer is a resounding “Yes!” The very nature of the business world and the climb up the corporate ladder that I just mentioned is stressful. And, as I noted in my previous issue of Prime Business Alert!, its effect on your professional and personal lives can be dramatic and destructive.

Assuming that stress is a given in your life, you have two options. One, leave the business world and find a less stressful line of work. That’s probably not realistic, is it? So, two, the default option is to somehow gain control of the stress you experience, in other words, become a stress master.

Attitude Toward Stress

Becoming a stress master begins with having the right attitude toward your work life. This attitude starts with love. Obviously not a word you hear much when it comes to business — more often, words you hear are revenues, losses, and the bottom line — but an essential one nonetheless because love is your first line of defense against debilitating stress. When I talk about love, I mean love what you do. If you love your work, then you’re probably driven by an intrinsic motivation that enables you to experience meaning and fulfillment in your work. That attitude alone can act as a powerful buffer against the most incapacitating aspects of stress.

This attitude focuses on the process of work rather than its outcomes. In other words, you do what you do because you, first and foremost, enjoy doing it and the results of your efforts, namely, money and status, are just icing on the cake.

This attitude also emphasizes the relationships you have in your work. Did you know that the most significant predictor of job satisfaction is not income or title or where your office is located, but rather in the quality of the relationships at work? Yep, people who work in an environment that is pleasant and supportive enjoy their work more and, not surprisingly, experience less stress.

The final attitude you must have to pursue stress mastery is the decision that you will not be a stress victim and the belief that you not only want to be, but are capable of being, a stress master. This attitude establishes the basic belief that stress mastery is attainable and that you are committed to going down that road.

Does this attitude mean that you won’t experience stress at work? Of course not. Will it inoculate against stress altogether? Sadly, no. But, though it’s difficult to evaluate the lessening of stress, I’ve found that these attitudes take the edge off of the stress in subtle, though substantial, ways and become the foundation for further efforts at stress mastery.

Goals for Stress

A part of becoming a stress master involves setting realistic goals about stress and how you can master it. You may have heard stress-management consultants say that the best way to deal with stress is to avoid stress. Well, I would suggest that’s just plain unrealistic. If you work in the business world — or just live in the real world — life is stressful and can’t be avoided. So, a goal you don’t want to have is avoidance (the only real way to avoid stress is to die, and I don’t recommend that strategy because you miss out on a lot of fun stuff).

The first real goal you should set is to accept stress as just a part of the deal in striving for success. Don’t try to resist the stress; that only makes it worse. When you accept stress as a part of your life, when it occurs, it isn’t a surprise to you. In fact, when you assume it will be an ever-present part of your life, though you probably won’t make friends with the stress, you’ll at least be able to tolerate it with a bit of a Zen attitude and good cheer (sort of like an annoying relative who visits regularly). You’re able to roll with it rather than trying to push back against it (a truly futile effort, I might add).

Your second goal is to recognize when it occurs. Almost without exception, you will find a consistent pattern in the situations, people, and experiences in which you feel stress. Just by knowing when stress is likely to arise, you are in a better position to prepare for and respond positively to the stress.

Once you’ve identified your most common stressors, you can then examine the root causes of the stress, in other words, what really stresses you out. And the obvious cause isn’t always the real cause. For example, you may find that you stress out when your boss sets a deadline that you don’t think you can make (even though you know she always sets tight deadlines and you always meet them). You can explore what underlying issues (e.g., lack of support, low confidence, insufficient resources) are causing your stress over something that shouldn’t really be that stressful.

A third goal to shoot for is, when you experience stress, to commit to looking for solutions rather than being consumed by the stress or wallowing in the problems that cause the stress. When faced with stress, you have three possible solutions to pursue. First, you can change the cause of the stress, for example, you can bring in other members of your team to help out if you become overloaded. That, realistically, isn’t always possible, particularly these days where staff numbers are down and responsibilities are up.

Second, you can alter your perception of the stress. Think of it this way. Two businesspeople can be under the exact same stress, but perceive and react to it in vastly different ways. Businessperson A sees the stress as a threat to be avoided and is overwhelmed and paralyzed by the stress. In contrast, Businessperson B sees the stress as a challenge and is excited and energized by the stressful experience. Who do you think is going to experience more debilitating stress and who do you think is going to rise the occasion and continue to perform at a high level?

Third, when confronted by stress, you can treat the symptoms of the stress. For example, you can use meditation, massage, or exercise to relieve the physical manifestations of stress, such as racing heart, shallow breathing, or muscle tension.

Your final goal is to fill a “toolbox” with stress-mastery tools that you can access when you experience stress. Though stress, as I’ve indicated, is inevitable in the business world, the intensity of that stress is exacerbated when you don’t feel that you have the means to respond to that stress in a positive way. When you have access to the stress-mastery toolbox, you feel more in control and capable of mastering the stress and, as a consequence, will perceive less stress than you would without the toolbox.

In my next business-related post, I’ll help you fill your stress-mastery toolbox with useful tools that will help you take the final step toward becoming a stress master.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see TV interviews and Prime topic discussions.)

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