Thinking Your Way Through Stress

By John Blattner Ph.D.

We think our way into stress—and the emotions and behaviors it triggers. Which means we have the ability to think our way out of it.

Helping people grow as leaders is core to the work I’ve been doing over the past three decades. While leadership development is a broad term that can address intellectual, strategic, organizational, or management skills, I believe that the most impactful area of development lies in helping people understand their behaviors—especially the ones that emerge in stressful situations.

I have worked with people stepping into new roles, teams striving to reach the next level of performance, and organizations re-forming around a new strategy. In these charged situations, identifying the desired shift in behaviors is just one part of the equation. To create lasting behavioral change, you also need to explore the ways stress impacts your thought process.

“The most impactful area of development lies in helping people understand their behaviors.”

For example, I did some work with a Senior Vice President of a large, global company. By his own admission, he struggled with time efficiency, and when I first met him, he was worn out from struggling to manage his many priorities. For example, he spent Sunday nights putting together reports to deliver to the company’s CEO. He didn’t like doing these reports. They took a lot of time (which he didn’t have much of), and because he didn’t like doing them, he procrastinated and then crammed to get them done. Sometimes he turned them in late. He resisted handing them off to someone else because he believed he could do them better and more quickly than anyone else. But this one task put him in a cycle where he was logging long hours, working during vacations, and reinforcing his self-perception that he didn’t know how to manage his time. The more we looked at the habits he had built around doing these reports and how they were impacting not just his work but his life, the clearer it became that he was operating in a state of distress.

Two types of stress

The term “stress” has been used in psychology since the 1950s, as the result of Hans Selye’s research on how our bodies react to demands placed on it. Seyle wrote that there are basically two types of stress: Eustress and Distress. Eustress (euphoria + stress) is the positive type of stress that increases our energy and gives us focus—akin to what athletes refer to as being “in the zone.” Distress (rooted in the Latin prefix dis, meaning bad) is the negative type of stress that disrupts our flow and drains our energy.

Physiologically, we can measure stress through the hormones that are released in our brains—cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone,” and epinephrine triggers the “fight-or-flight” stress response that sends blood to our limbs (and away from our heads) to help us navigate away from danger. But psychologically, the cause and effect of stress is harder to track because it triggers mind-body reactions that manifest in different ways for different people. What we identify as a stressful situation, and how we learn to respond to it, differs in each of us. Public speaking, for example, can throw one person into a state of anxiety and energize another person. We all experience stress on a daily basis, but how we handle it, mask it, or act out in the face of it is unique.

Thoughts. Emotions. Behaviors. Impact.

One of the most profound impacts of stress is that it changes the way you think. The executive in the example above had superior professional skills, so there was some truth in thinking that no one could do those reports better. But it was also a defensive response that was based on how he used control to counter stress and chronic worry. As a top leader in a large corporation, he should have been focusing on strategy and growing the business instead of sweating through Excel spreadsheets on a Sunday night. These reports had triggered a ripple effect: they took his attention away from leading, which reinforced his self-image of being inefficient with time, which put him into a cycle of negative thinking.

“Stress changes the way you think.”

The relationships between thoughts, emotions, and behavior are not always linear, but once we identified his triggers, we were then able to define the actions that could facilitate a shift. The most significant was getting him to delegate the reports to someone on his team. The impact of this one action was immediate, saving him eight hours of time a week—an extra day—which created more space for strategic thinking, reflection, and growth. More important, he felt energized, personally and professionally, because he was no longer operating in a state of distress. The experience of thinking positively about himself increased his overall energy.

Thinking styles are the levers for change

Too often, we identify behaviors we want to change without exploring their bigger context—the thoughts that drive them and the emotions that accompany them. Understanding our thinking styles is critical for making changes in behavior. The cause of poor time management might be related to control, satisfaction, interpersonal dynamics, or another dimension of how a person thinks. As such, the levers of behavior change aren’t the same for all people.

Personally, I use a tool that analyzes nineteen different thinking styles or patterns associated with stress. It helps people see how they respond to stress, and the ways they create and maintain stress for themselves. While we are tool-neutral at Brimstone, this instrument provides useful data that helps a person hold a mirror up to the way she or he thinks. How dependent are you on approval? Do you view your past positively or negatively? Are you fueled by realistic or unrealistic expectations? How oriented are you to goals? How competitive are you? Do you set priorities? While this is a straightforward tool, it is also a powerful one in that it points out the areas where your thinking makes you more vulnerable to stress.

“You can act your way into new ways of thinking.”

For example, another leader who scored low in time utilization was a woman with incredibly high intelligence and strategic capabilities. She was wired to think competitively rather than collaboratively, which made it hard for her to connect with her peers. As a historically high performer, when she felt that she couldn’t drive change or exert more influence, she entered into a state of distress where she then separated herself from her peers and tried to drive the action through force of will. You can act your way into new ways of thinking, so the work we did focused on her engaging socially with her colleagues, without always bringing things back to the business. With greater awareness of her competitive tendencies, she looked for reasons to collaborate with her peers. Through these interactions, the friction she experienced in getting things done started to recede. She achieved this through thinking differently—consciously reframing her negative thoughts around collaboration and inserting positive thoughts in their place.

Another leader I worked with was being held back by his positive self-image. He loved getting in front of customers and his dynamic personality and ability to read a room was unmatched in his organization. But he had stalled out on his growth as a leader because his lack of organizational skills prevented great meetings from developing into deeper relationships. When he got busy, he didn’t tie up loose ends and he let things slip through the cracks. As we explored the stress this behavior caused him, we saw that his past view of himself was extremely high—which fueled his confidence along with unrealistic expectations of what he could do. To grow, he simply had to acknowledge that he couldn’t be good at everything. With this new thought, he brought in someone to help out with the operational side of his work, which reduced his stress and raised his performance significantly.

Stress is part of growth

Stress is inherent in change. As your role or your organization evolves, you’re going to experience stress. It might push you to new levels of performance, but if you don’t understand how stress changes your thoughts, triggers emotions, and manifests in behaviors, it can take over. I have worked with people who operate regularly in a state of distress without realizing it. They’ve slowly adapted to how it feels, and with the mindset of a distance runner, they keep pushing on. The problem here is that while a marathon has a finish line, our minds are always turning, awake or asleep. I’ve seen people leave the roles they’ve worked in for their entire careers not because they can’t do the job, but because the daily stress finally wears them down.

Stress becomes part of your growth only when you take the time to explore it—how your thinking style changes in different situations, what emotions come up, and what behaviors you gravitate toward. There’s a tremendous value in having someone help you in this exploration, be it a coach or a trusted advisor. But even without someone’s help, you can take a few simple steps to identify how stress impacts you:

  1. Make a list of what you like to do and the things that give you joy.
  2. Make another list about what stresses you out and causes your self-perception to dip.
  3. Reflect on the ways you think, feel, and behave with regard to the different items on your lists, and write down what you come up with.
  4. Do you track your sleep?
  5. Are you eating healthy foods?
  6. How much exercise time do you create?

These reflections will help you spot the difference between how eustress and distress show up in your life, and how they bleed into each other. I have worked with people who were paralyzed before giving a presentation or going rock climbing for the first time—but then once they were into the experience, they found it exhilarating.

Much has been written about stress over the years, and this article touches on just one part of the topic. But if there is one thing I hope you take away, it is that stress is a state of mind. We think our way into stress—and the emotions and behaviors it triggers. Which means that, with a picture of how stress shows up in our lives, we have the ability to think our way out of it. As difficult as change can be, it all starts with your thinking.

John Blattner, Ph.D. is an experienced organizational consultant and licensed clinical psychologist, with over three decades of experience helping individuals and organizations to manage change and further develop their unique strengths. In addition to his work with Brimstone, John leads his own management consulting practice where he has partnered with C-level executives to develop their leadership abilities, led national and international organizations through strategic planning and development cycles, and designed and executed professional development programs for Fortune 500 companies and educational institutions.


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