Reducing stress not only benefits your body, but it also makes you a more valuable leader.
By Christina Scalera
You are tired, weary and downright fatigued. You are not sure how you are going to get through another day, another client, another investor meeting. You are an executive, but you are human nonetheless. And even though your list of accomplishments reads longer than a Tolstoy novel, you might still find yourself dissatisfied with the amount of stress you face every day.
High stress levels are correlated with reduced productivity in the office. The great news is that you can help your body and become a better leader by reducing your stress-induced cortisol levels. To most, that sounds great, but many are left scratching their heads as to how they can achieve this goal. In my experience, clients come to me because they are busy and because they need solutions that work for them. As an ambitious executive, you likely believe that your around-the-clock stress can’t be managed with something simple. Instead, you imagine reducing stress would require big changes in your life and would likely rob you of the very circumstances that conspired to land your current leadership role.
This type of thinking is far from true – in fact, most busy people set themselves up to fail because they are taught that success stems from doing something intensely for a long time every day. For example, one executive I know set the goal to run a marathon without so much as owning a pair of running shoes. While it was certainly an ambitious goal, it set him up for disappointment and self-loathing if he had to miss a day of training. Instead of only seeing the value in a herculean end goal, you might learn to love the activity as well. It is the daily practice of an activity that gives you the ability to reduce your stress as well as prepare you for future stressors. So how do you deal with the two biggest obstacles (time and intensity) to a successful stress-relief solution?
First, you can reframe the way you view your time. Stress-relieving activities, such as practicing yoga, walking, meditating, napping, getting a massage, gardening, et cetera are not just more items on your ‘to do’ list, to be crossed off at the end of each day. Nor are these activities luxurious pastimes you should only do when you have time. These activities provide an environment and space for healing and nourishment. I call these activities self-care. They are as essential as food and water – you can live for a little while without taking care of yourself, but it will be a miserable existence that leads to a painful demise. Or… you can just ‘feed’ yourself every day and thrive.
Second, you can reframe the way you view the intensity with which you practice your activity/self-care. Do you have one minute free to yourself every day? No? I would argue you do if you have made it this far in the article. Instead of making it your goal to run a marathon in three months, it is just as noble to make it your goal to go for a walk for 10 minutes when you come home from work. The goal of a daily self-care practice is not to get in better shape (though frequently this is a side effect my clients enjoy), the goal is to enjoy a small bit of time that is just for you. “Busy” is a badge of honor many executives proudly display – but it does not have to be a shield used to push away opportunities for happiness. Doing something to reduce your stress every day is better than nothing, even if you can only do it for one minute today. And hey, you might just end up enjoying it enough to do it for five minutes tomorrow!
By reducing your stress levels through daily self-care, you add value to your company or firm as a leader. Taking care of yourself allows you to gain a greater understanding of who you are, because part of taking care of yourself means listening and trusting the way you feel. It means respecting these feelings and withdrawing from engagements when you need rest. It means pushing yourself harder in the office when you are working on a task, project or case you enjoy.
A side effect of taking care of yourself is the ability to discern what irritates you and what soothes you. Understanding this dichotomy allows you to approach important situations more mindfully. You see, you have this portion of your brain called the amygdala, sometimes called the lizard brain [http://vimeo.com/5895898]. It is this part of your brain that has kept humans alive for some four million years or so by turning on a fight or flight instinct and turning off rational decision-making when faced with external stressors. Why is this important? Have you ever been interrupted by an abrupt, terrible email? Maybe your boss has been terminated, or one of your employees has messed up (royally). Or maybe you did the worst thing imaginable in corporate culture and accidentally hit “Reply All.” The searing jolt that courses through your stomach and into your throat? Yep. That’s your lizard brain activating. You are now entering survival mode. The awareness you have cultivated through a daily self-care practice helps turn the lizard brain off, or at least allows you to take a step back from the situation and respond (rather than react). In yoga, this is called non-attachment, but in business, call this a trait of good leadership.
And how about that boost in productivity I promised you? Once you regularly offer yourself some self-care, you will soon start each day with a lower base line of stress than you would have otherwise. You will be better prepared to take on stressors as they come because you will have nurtured your body and mind back into good health. As Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines said, “…the principle challenge is a personal challenge.” Will you accept it?
As a private yoga instructor and wellness strategist, Christina Scalera, J.D.helps her US-based and international clients develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle. To learn more about Christina or to work with her, visit www.CarteBlancheWellness.com or email her at Connect@ExperienceCarteBlanche.com