Stressed out? Here's what's going on in your brain—and what to do about it

Self-compassion can help overcome acute stress, expert says

Editor's note: This story was updated on June 29, 2017.

Stress is unavoidable. But getting a handle on stress is possible if you take the time to understand how it works and adopt several simple strategies for calming your nerves, two experts write in the Harvard Business Review.

Get more done—with less stress

Where stress comes from and what it does to you

According to Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, you feel stressed when there is something in your environment you are trying to avoid—like an angry boss—but are unable to.

Monique Valcour, an executive coach, explains that stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which impairs working memory and your ability to make decisions. People under acute stress "develop tunnel vision, overlooking vitally important pieces of information," she writes.

Compounding the issue, many people interpret stress as a sign of weakness. "Instead of helping us to respond effectively," Valcour says, "the negative self-evaluation we heap on top of the stressful circumstances increases anxiety, erodes self-confidence, and undermines our ability to direct our attention to productive problem-solving."

Focus on the causes

Markman says that a key to feeling less stressed is to focus in on the causes, which "can help you to break the cycle of rumination—the pattern of negative thoughts that accompanies, and worsens, stress," in part by developing a plan to fix the underlying issues.

Markman also suggests reframing the situation. "If your daily work life is stressful, you may be focusing too much on what can go wrong," Markman writes. Instead, he suggests thinking about what you enjoy about work and what you want to achieve.

But when stress still gets the better of you, Markman suggests getting away from work for a few minutes and focusing on breathing to help calm down.

Focus on the effects

If you feel overwhelmed by stress, Valcour recommends focusing on its physical symptoms, from dry mouth and tension to heavy breathing, noting that "recognizing what's happening in the body is the first step to shifting what's happening in the mind."

Specifically, Valcour suggests using the RAIN method, which has been employed by meditation instructors to help shift the way people perceive their stressors.

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RAIN stands for:

  • Recognition: Pay attention to your physical and mental symptoms of anxiety;
  • Acceptance: Allow your stress response to be present, even if you are not happy about it, so you can let the feelings subside;
  • Investigation: Understand your thoughts and emotions by asking "what stories you are telling yourself";  and
  • Non-identification: "Having recognized, accepted, and explored the implications of your stress symptoms, the final step is to realize that although you are experiencing them, they do not define you," Valcour explains.

By following the RAIN method, people in highly stressful situations can develop self-compassion, which "enables us to look straight at the most daunting challenges we face in our lives without activating the stress response that can disable our ability to deal with them effectively," Valcour says (Markman, Harvard Business Review, 8/26; Valcour, Harvard Business Review, 8/27).

Help your leaders through stressful times

Organizations won't succeed in today's turbulent market without leaders who are energized and excited by their work. It's tempting to pursue leader engagement by addressing engagement drivers one-by-one, but this approach can lead to tired, generic solutions.

Check out our infographic to see five solvable leader engagement challenges that executives can and should address today—each with a corresponding strategy and best practices to implement it.

Download the Infographic


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