If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a member of the working world, it’s that stress is inevitable. But a new, online stress management course taught by an integrative neuroscientist and executive director of The American Institute of Stress on LinkedIn Learning taught me that it isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, there are ways to use it to your advantage.
As I settled into my chair, I buckled up and listened to instructor Dr. Heidi Hanna, Ph.D. (who is also the CEO and founder of coaching and consulting company SYNERGY) give me a new perspective on stress. Here are just a few things I took away from the experience.
What stress really is— and what it’s not
“Stress is simply the gap between demand and capacity. Or maybe more specifically, it’s what happens in that gap between demand and capacity,” Hanna says in the course.
She also talks about how we shouldn’t think of it as positive or negative, but that it just impacts us in different ways, depending on a variety of factors.
Hanna talks about how stress “can become addictive,” and that some of her clients claim that they rely on their stress to keep going, and freak out when they believe she’s going to eliminate it.
But she urges course-takers to think about this idea, saying that, “stress isn’t bad, right? Stress is just information and energy we can use to make adjustments. Stress becomes a problem when we feel helpless to do anything about it, when we’ve got too much of it at once, or when it goes on for too long.”
Managing stress and using it to your advantage
Hanna talks about how stress helps you keep your eye on the ball in terms of your priorities.
She says that if we think we can bring about “change,” we can use the “energy of stress” as a means to move forward.
She went on to describe how to use stress to get ahead. Her formula is to “assess” (figure out more about the situation), then to “appreciate” (to take comfort in the idea that your stress is trying to benefit you, and you care about what you’re stressed about, or to be grateful for something else in your life). The third step is to “adjust,” or “take one small action step” to make progress, and to briefly pause to spend time “recharging your own battery.”
Hanna also taught course participants a “brain recharge process” where you repeatedly breathe in for 5 beats, then out for that long, thinking about your breath, to feel more calm. The next step is to feel thankful for something or someone. Lastly, you “focus,” or to “bring your attention to what matters most to you” at that time.
How to prevent stress from getting the best of you at work
“As managers and leaders, one of the best ways we can help other people navigate stress more effectively is to help them to define it more clearly and to unpack the contributing factors that cause them to feel like they don’t have the resources they need to cope,” Hanna says in the course.
She recommends doing an “energy audit” by taking note of different factors like “time,” “creativity,” “purpose,” “money,” “fun” and “social support” for example, among others, in an effort to get clear on how you feel in these realms by assigning each one a number from 0 (none) to 10 (at capacity). These also aren’t fixed areas.
Participants can then come up with one small way to shore up specific areas (this information can be shared within groups). This exercise can be done continuously.
In the same workplace vein, Hanna later talks how to improve where we work emphasizing certain things that influence how we feel (such as “noise, “colors” and “movement” and more).
“These sensory cues can all shift our brain to feel either more calm and confident or getting triggered to be on high alert,” Hanna continues.
She later mentions how to cut down on “distractions” in open offices, and how “to build in positive capacity cues to help balance the load of stress and stimulation,” such as being a proponent of “walking or standing meetings,” “having active spaces,” areas where people can get work done in without much noise (like an office with a door and a window) and more.