Nicholas Petrie, a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, devotes much of his professional life teaching leaders how to keep the pressures of their lives from morphing into stress.
The good news is that it can be done.
Petrie should know. He’s had to deal with one of life’s great stressors – cancer. And he had to do it three times.
Fortunately, cancer was not his only teacher.
He credits Dr. Derek Roger, who had spent 30 years researching why some people in difficult situations become overwhelmed and others don’t, with changing his outlook. “He taught me everything he’d learned, and as I started applying it, my anxiety subsided, even though my situation didn’t change.
“In fact, the cancer came back about five years ago and remains relatively stable in my liver. But I no longer worry about it. Derek became my mentor, and over the past 10 years we have trained thousands of leaders to overcome their stress.”
“The process starts with understanding that stress is caused not by other people or external events, but by your reactions to them,” Petrie says.
“In the workplace, many people blame their high anxiety levels on a boss, job, deadlines, or competing commitments for their time. But peers who face the same challenges do so without stress,” he explains. As it turns out, some people experience little pressure but have high levels of stress, while others have lots of pressure but feel very little stress.
Petrie says pressure becomes stress when you “add one ingredient: rumination -- the tendency to keep rethinking past or future events while attaching negative emotion to those thoughts.”
Obviously, leaders have to practice reflection — with regard both to planning for the future and reviewing past lessons. But Petrie says when done properly that’s “an analytical, short-term process, with positive fallout.”
In contrast, “rumination is ongoing and destructive, diminishing your health, productivity, and well-being,” he explained.
The impact on one’s health can be terminal. “Chronic worriers show increased incidence of coronary problems and suppressed immune functioning,” Petrie notes. "To break this stress-inducing habit, Derek and I recommend four steps:"
1. Wake up. People spend most of their day in a state called “waking sleep.” This is when you pull into the office parking lot but can’t remember the drive there, or when someone in a meeting asks for your opinion but you’ve missed the last few minutes of conversation. Since all rumination happens during this state, the first step is to break out of it. You can do this physically: Stand or sit up, clap your hands, and move your body. Or you can do it mentally: Connect with your senses by noticing what you can hear, see, smell, taste, and feel. The idea is to reconnect with the world.
2. Control your attention. When you ruminate, your attention gets caught in an unproductive loop, like a hamster on a wheel. You need to redirect yourself to areas in which you can take useful action. Here’s one exercise we encourage executives to use: Draw a circle on a page, and write down all of the things you can control or influence inside of it and all of the things you cannot outside of it. Remind yourself that you can care about externalities — your work, your team, your family — without worrying about them.
3. Put things in perspective. Ruminators tend to catastrophize, but resilient leaders keep things in perspective for themselves and their teams. We tell people to try three techniques:
- contrasting -- comparing a past stress to the current one, for example, a major illness versus a missed sale;
- questioning -- asking yourself “How much will this matter in three years’ time?” and “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “How would I survive it?”; and,
- reframing -- looking at your challenge from a new angle: “What’s an opportunity in this situation I haven’t yet seen?” or even “What’s funny about this situation?”
4. Let go. The final step is often the hardest. If it was easy to let it go, we would have done it already. We find that three techniques help:
- accept -- acknowledge that whether you like the situation or not, it is the way it is;
- learn the lesson -- your brain will review events until it feels you’ve gained something from them, so ask yourself, “What have I learned from this experience?”
- take action -- sometimes the real solution is not to relax, but to do something about your situation. Ask yourself, “What action is required here?
“While struggling with cancer, it took me a couple of years to train myself to follow these steps,” Petrie admits. “But ultimately it worked. My stress levels went down, my health improved, and my career took off.”
The believer’s edge
We believe all of the techniques Petrie suggests can be more effective and efficient if employed from the perspective of a Christian believer.
When you know that God loves you unconditionally, you have a lot of options to rumination. You know that whatever you did wrong – if you did anything wrong – it is not the end of the world or of your ultimate worth.
You are free to prayerfully reflect on things, to learn from your mistakes, and to act with greater wisdom and charity going forward.
That’s putting things in perspective. And it’s easier to let go when you can trust that God is ultimately in charge and madly in love with you.
Work on those habits that help remind you that God loves you and wants what’s best for you. Then everything Petrie proposes will come easier – and you should experience much less stress no matter how pressure-packed your life gets from time to time.