Success Under Stress

Success Under Stress
On Friday, January 9th, the New York Society of Association Executives Special Interest Group for Executive Women in Nonprofits met at the offices of the International Council of Shopping Centers. This group of CEOs and leaders in associations and nonprofits had been lured away from their desks by the prospect of talking about a defining issue ...

On Friday, January 9th, the New York Society of Association Executives Special Interest Group for Executive Women in Nonprofits met at the offices of the International Council of Shopping Centers. This group of CEOs and leaders in associations and nonprofits had been lured away from their desks by the prospect of talking about a defining issue for many of us—stress and how to manage it.

Any association executive can tell you that stress is a constant in all of our lives, of course. Work, health, money, parents, children, everything is a potential source of pressure and there’s no way to make it magically disappear. Sharon Melnick PhD, the session’s facilitator, taught us that what we CAN do is manage our own reactions, decreasing the negative effects of stress on our minds, bodies, and interactions with others.

Dr. Melnick is a business psychologist who has spent years researching tools and techniques for managing stress and increasing resilience. She has written the book about it and shared with us a few of foundational principles and tools to help.

The Control Divide
Every situation has factors that fall into one or the other side of the control divide—they either are or are not under your control. Of course it’s old news that “you can only control what you can control” but maybe there’s more under your control than you realized? Understanding what is on your side of the control divide--and what is NOT--is the first place to start.

You are not responsible for other people’s reactions and behaviors. It may be a fundamental shift in perspective for some of us, but key to taking control of what’s appropriate.

The 50% Rule: Be Impeccable for Your 50%
But what about the part that you CAN control? Dr. Melnick’s advice is to focus your attention on the 50% of any situation that you can control, and be 100% responsible for it each and every time. Be really effective at your end and watch your confidence build. Let the other half, the half you can’t control, go. This is a simple but very powerful principle that can bring order to what seems like chaos. If anything goes on a post-it note on your bulletin board, this is it.

Control Your Physiology
Stress and its negative effects are experienced internally. So it’s critical to care for ourselves mentally and physically. But how, when the pressure is swirling around us? Dr. Melnick offered some tips to manage our physical responses to high-pressure situations as well.

  • Mind follows breath. To cool off when the pressure is on Melnick suggests her secret weapon to calm yourself and others: a “cooling breath.” Breathe in slowly through pursed lips as if through a straw, so that cool air runs along the top of your tongue. You’ll feel the refreshment and calm, but evidently it also calms those in the immediate vicinity. She claims this works even on crying babies!
  • Sprint/Recovery. Working hard means you need to recover! Take recovery breaks after 90 minutes of concentration. Even three minutes of deep breaths can rejuvenate and relax effectively. Take intentional breaths of a few seconds in, few seconds hold, and then 2X the few seconds out (“ratio breathing”). For example: 5 in, 5 hold, 10 out. Place your hands together, fingertips to fingertips and palms apart, to balance the left and right sides of your brain, and then breathe in this way for a few minutes. Be sure to turn off your phone before starting, though!
  • Locate your “off” button. Achieving a mental reset is critical to success under pressure. Downtime is what lets us be creative, intuitive, and locate our genius. Exactly how this looks for each person is different—it might be an invigorating walk, a weekend with a pile of books, or a two-week vacation twice a year—but everyone needs time on a regular basis in which to regroup and reset. Find yours and protect it, make it sacred.
  • Sleep better at night: Perhaps the most exciting tip we learned was the secret to getting back to sleep in 3 minutes when your brain is active at 2 a.m. The trick? Cover your right nostril and breathe through your left. In 3-5 minutes you will be relaxed and back off to dreamland. (This has something to so with the parasympathetic nervous system, but whatever, it works!)

Intentionality is the antidote to stress. Handling stress under pressure means nurturing your ability to be resilient rather than reactive, to always be ready for the next challenge. Take control where you can, let go more than you probably do now, take care of yourself always.