Cambridge MBA Success and Wellbeing Coach and best-selling author, Dr Helena Kim, shares strategies to empower you as you deal with stress.
Stress: when the going gets tough, the tough get a break
Sometimes spurring us on, sometimes overwhelming us, stress is our most faithful companion throughout our careers. So, how can we make ourselves bigger and stronger than our stress? Visiting coaching psychologist and best-selling author Dr Helena Kim has been working with Cambridge MBA students for a while, and here reveals her strategies to take the sting out of stress.
Good stress vs bad stress
Stress is how our mind and body respond to a real or perceived threat in our environment. Stressors can be anything from daily hassles, negative life circumstances or chronic demands in a high-pressure career. Stressors trigger our fight, flight, or freeze defence mechanism. Let’s be clear, not all stress is bad. We need optimum amount of stress or stimulation to help us to feel motivated and prepare for action. It only becomes a problem when there is not enough, too much, or chronic stress. When there is not enough stimulation, we get bored and demotivated, and with too much or chronic stress, we exhaust the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism.
What types of stress response might an individual or an organisation experience?
In an individual, non-optimal or chronic stress response can manifest as these following symptoms; anxiety, depression, burn out, social withdrawal, diminished focus, motivation, apathy, impatience, low emotional intelligence, and illnesses. At the organisational level when stress is endemic, it will reveal itself in diminished employee morale and trust, a drop in productivity, absenteeism, and attrition.
What’s at the root of the phenomenon of human stress?
When we’re wrestling with stress, we are dealing with an existential root fear – the fear of inadequacy. In the face of a real or perceived threat or tension, we fight for our sense of significance, power, control, ability to manage and self. Some of us flee or freeze to avoid feeling inadequate enough to deal with the pressure or stress.
What can we do to head it off?
“Things are not going to get any better, but you will get better at handling things.”
We start with the basics, your body. You can head stress off by conditioning the body, brain, and mind. We can learn so much from athletes and the way they train and condition. The two obvious ways to calm the body and mind to prepare yourself for the stress of peak performance are mindfulness and meditation.
The easiest mindfulness technique is box breathing. Breath in for four seconds/counts. Hold for four. Breathe out for four counts. Hold for four. Repeat a few times.
Meditation doesn’t need to be long and silent. There are many effective one-minute guided mediations online you can try and test out. Both breathing and meditation practices have been scientifically proven to be very effective to relieve and sustain stress. However, it is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Stay hydrated and get moving!
On that beverage note, the University of Cambridge conducted a study that shows the importance of hydration and its effect on our cognitive performance and mood. Also, for decades, we’ve known how regular exercise benefits cognitive functioning, mental health, and mood. Recent research from University of Illinois tops that common wisdom about exercise and reassures us that we only need 20 minutes of walking to boost our brain chemistry. A 20-minute walk around the block instead of joining a gym? Music to our ears!
Speaking of which, recent studies using functional-MRI tell us listening to your favourite music stimulates the part of the brain that also lights up when we’re feeling empathic and self-aware (emotional intelligence).
Due to advanced brain imaging technology, we have more studies that show the direct link between proper sleep and effective cognition, which we need to make better decisions and manage stressful situations.
So, remember, a healthy body and brain are both needed for nimble cognitive performances to take action in stressful situations.
Rinse and repeat?
In training our muscles to get bigger and stronger when we add stress to the body to break down muscle tissue. It’s during recovery from this strain when the muscles develop. By progressively moving between stress and recovery, our strength increases. Our mind training works similarly. In 2022, Alyson Meister at IMD Business School and her collaborators found that ‘intentional recovery’ from stress is essential to sustain energy, performance, positive mood and overall productivity.
There are three simple ways to intentionally recover from stress to develop your mind muscle.
1. Micro breaks
Whether you are working from home, have a hybrid set up or are back at the office, break up your long day with short and intentional breaks that completely detach you from your work. Something beyond walking over and making yourself a quick cup of coffee. These breaks are not just so you can stop working, it’s an intentional activity to disengage you from your ‘work’ brain. Micro breaks can be 10-20 minutes long and can punctuate every two hours. For example, if you work from home and you love cooking, do your dinner prep or make yourself a nutritious snack. Take a walk outside the office/house or a gentle set on your stationary bike or rowing machine while listening to your favourite tunes. Remember, it’s a ‘micro’ break to detach for 10 short minutes just to cool your mind!
2. Short exposure to nature
You don’t need to climb a mountain or go on a beach holiday. Regular short sit-downs on a bench in your garden or terrace or any green area, or a quick stroll around the park or along a tree lined road. This reminds me the Latin adage ‘solvitur ambulando’ which has been around for centuries and means to “solve things by walking around”. A famous historian, G M Trevelyan, memorably said “I have two doctors. My left leg and my right”. An intentional exposure to daylight, a window with a view or a break on the cafeteria balcony with a sky view will do.
3. Effortful or mastery experience
Taking on activities that require your time, dedication and focus seems counterintuitive to use to recover from stress. However, the same resources that would zap your energy at work will actually generate and replenish energy. Choose activities that are different from your usual yoga or gym, because sometimes you’re on that treadmill or downward dog but you’re still thinking about work. It’s the novelty and effort of using a different part of the brain that will distract and disconnect you from stress and work.
Words can make or break you
Choose your words wisely and how you feed your mind. Your words create your thoughts, your thoughts link with your emotions, and your emotions make up your mindset to dictate your behaviour. Ensure you are conditioning your mind with proactive and realistic words. So, when you tell yourself “This is soooooo stressful,” your mind will look at ‘stressful’ and look to escape to what is ‘not stressful’. Unfortunately, your mind still hears and will focus on the operative word “stressful” in both situations. You can reframe to say, “Yes, this is big, and I need to break this into smaller parts and do one part at a time.” Train your mind to ask moving questions. Saying static statements or asking static questions like “I am soooooo stressed out!” or “why can’t I snap out of this?” will keep you stuck. Try asking “What’s one small thing I can do now that can help me to move one step further?”
What’s the role of resilience?
Resilience is one of the key factors in dusting off and getting back on track. Resilience isn’t about managing stress but having belief in your ‘bounceability’ – regardless of what life throws at you, you trust yourself to bounce back. This ability is the major difference between people who fail and stay down and those who can sustain success. Once you have taken some time out to lick your wounds or recovered, look at what went wrong and well and what you can do differently next time. Try asking these three reset questions as you are bouncing: What will you keep doing? What will you stop doing? And What will you start doing? How you react to and recover from stress takes practice to become a doable habit, where you will see you are bigger and stronger than the stress.
How does dealing with stress differ from person to person?
Your coping mechanisms for stress may be linked to your personality type and how you like to process information. For example, extroverts and external processors – people who tend to think and talk at the same time – will need to talk out their stress with others. For introverts and internal processors, instead of socialising over a work lunch which can drain them, it may be helpful to have their ‘cave time’ to read or keep a status journal where they identify and express their stress in writing. For both, social contact is vital. Reach out to your friends, family, or colleagues whom you trust. Introverts may only need a phone call or a quick coffee with one person. Extroverts may need a longer or more regular social support. These social connections release oxytocin (the feel-good hormone) which increases our ability to emotionally cope.
As leaders, how do we ensure that dealing effectively with stress is an integral part of business culture?
Ensure your organisation is investing in nurturing and energising their employees. Introduce and implement wellbeing programmes such as lunchtime meditation, yoga, flexible workdays, mental health advocacies, status check-in meetings etc, and making micro breaks a routine. Leaders can role model stress management and self-care. Successful organisations hire external coaches and counsellors, so their employees have a safe place to learn how to identify stressors and emotional triggers, improve and revitalise.
Pilots and athletes are required to recover between assignments and rigorous training to sustain top mental and physical performance. The toughest part about stress is that it feels counterintuitive to take a break when things are piling on. Your body is ready for a break, but your mind is stubborn and thinks you should push through. So, you stay slog for hours in front of the monitor, schedule endless meetings and pull all-nighters? In 2023, we have enough research and industry insight about stress to know that self-care and intentional recovery are not only a good idea, but they are proven (and free!) tools.
Dr Helena Kim is an executive coach, interpersonal dynamics expert and Cognitive Behavioural specialist. Helena has worked with a wide range of blue-chip clients over her 25-year career. Through the Cambridge Judge Careers team, Helena helps MBA students with personal development and resilience-building in preparation for leadership.