Life today is unimaginable without stress. From the moment we are up in the morning, till we hit the sack, there are innumerable things that cross our paths. They trigger a plethora of reactions and emotions, which, furthermore, are connected to our memories, perceptions, or our personality.
Simply put, stress is a biological reaction to a change in one’s environment. Therefore, the more complex our world gets, the more our environment changes, stimulating us to react. Now imagine going through that every day, sometimes expectedly, sometimes not — no wonder, we feel stressed out.
Stress has thus become a bad word, while all along, it is really only misunderstood!
Leveraging Stress — It’s an Ally!
Yep, you read that right. Stress can be a great friend to us, providing us with many insights about ourselves. What it does is, it shakes us up and tells us where to stop, what our limits are, and what boundaries we need to set and assert. Stress is really our body making us aware of our inner workings. When we burn out, we essentially fail to listen to all these signals of the body. When we do not pause and listen to stress, our vocal, expressive friend, we lose out on the opportunities to notice and become more self-aware of the impact stress has on each of us.
To turn this around, pursuing self-awareness can enhance how we manage stress. By being self-aware, we are in a better position to recognize our limits, to understand if we are on the ‘right path’, and then to play to our strengths accordingly.
It also helps us accept our limits. Women, for example, are repeatedly told they can’t “have it all”. Well, I would like to point out that’s true for everyone, not just women. We all have only 24 hours in a day, and each of us have a certain mental and physical bandwidth at various stages of life. Stretch that beyond its elasticity, and not only do we suffer, but the tasks at hand and our relationships suffer too. Quite simply if we try to be everywhere, we are, in essence, nowhere. If everything’s important, then, in effect, nothing becomes important. And if we try to do everything, then basically, we do nothing.
We need to prioritize, and through self-awareness, our mind tells us enough about ourselves to enable prioritizing. Once we do this, we feel less stressed out, and stress doesn’t remain a bad thing anymore, but merely an indicator of what we can handle.
Reframing Stress to Beat It
Of course, that doesn’t mean managing stress is easy. Stress can trigger strong emotions and stir up our inner world. Yet, by being self-aware, we can recognize these emotions and channel their energy into performing better.
The key then, is to pivot ourselves towards interpreting stress as a positive, helpful force in our lives. Just internalizing this thought — that stress is our friend — has its own benefits; studies like this and this one show that when we perceive stress as positive and helpful, we actually feel less stressed out. When we do not take stress as a threat, and instead embrace it, we respond and perform better, and even live longer.
A shining example of what wonders stress can do when it is embraced as a friend is tennis champion Roger Federer. The 20 Grand Slam winner once admitted how nerve-wracking it could be to kick off the Wimbledon series.
“The entire atmosphere changes at Wimbledon, and you realise the eyes are on you,” he said. “That naturally makes you a bit nervous.”
But then he goes on to say — “It’s always a lot to ask for from the players, but I love it. It’s a massive honour. You try to do your best. I’m looking forward to it. It’s exciting.” And just like that, Federer gracefully flipped stress from being a factor potentially holding him back, to motivating and exciting him. He recognized the stress, and honoured and befriended it, but allowed his excitement to dominate the situation.
Accepting stress as a normal, natural part of one’s life, and not fretting over it can work wonders. Rewording our expression of stress can be a good place to begin. Instead of “threat”, let’s use “opportunity.” Instead of “discouraging”, let’s say “a reminder of our limits”. Instead of seeing a “hurdle”, let’s start “slowing down”. Just as Roger Federer, we could flip “nervous” to “excited”, and focus on restoring, recharging and rewarding ourselves everytime stress tries to drain us.
Only when we grow to accept stress, do we garner the skills and mindset to manage it. Stress comes in thousands of shapes, colours, sizes, and situations, but each time, we must ask ourselves three things: what can I like/love about this? What can I learn from this? What can I leverage from this? Only when we have these inner conversations and become reflective do we manage stress better, which further enriches those inner conversations. It is a self-nourishing circle.
Stress to Build the Leader Within
Through self-aware leaders who understand and embrace stress, we can allow space for confidence, clarity and better leadership in today’s world. Self-awareness and stress management are lifelong pursuits into finding the coordinates of our inner worlds.
As millennials begin to steadily climb up at a rapidly evolving workplace, their need to develop such mindful leadership is increasing. Through GPS GO, our aim is to support millennials in chalking out their own paths, finding their inner coordinates and their leader within. Positively managing stress is tied to long term performance, success and fulfilment. Flipping our view of stress enriches this journey.
Gulnar Vaswani is a Diversity & Inclusion consultant, thought–leader, board advisor and executive coach to CEOs. Social scientist meets spiritual warrior, Gulnar is re-imagining leadership for the 21st century. Her latest initiative, GPS GO, is a unique program empowering millennials to find their inner coordinates and harness their leadership abilities, with the larger social dynamics in mind. Follow GPS GO on Instagram (gps_go) for mindful musings and updates!