Understanding & Managing the Stress Response

stress responseOur last post was devoted to the emotional side of performance reviews. Even those of us who welcome feedback feel anxious just before our review, and managers often feel stressed out when preparing to deliver feedback that is less than 100% positive. That stress and anxiety can spark fight/flight/freeze, the hard-wired stress response we share with all human beings. (Click here to re-read the article and see definitions.) I promised I would devote this post to coping mechanisms for stress management, so here are three tips:

1. The first step is realizing you actually ARE feeling stressed or anxious because if you are, it WILL impact your behavior. Recently I role-played with one of my coaching clients who has to deliver a difficult performance review. The written review was done but she was nervous about the face-to-face, and that showed up in her voice (higher pitch, run-on sentences, fast pace, filler) and in her content (too much detail.) She saw and heard it clearly when we watched her practice video. Recognizing the impact that anxiety has on her delivery, she’s going to keep practicing using her smartphone to ensure she comes across the way she needs to next week.

2. Next, remember that the fight/flight/freeze response inhibits our ability to think clearly. To maintain cognitive functioning, you must slow your heart rate. How? Breathe slowly and deeply through your nose, and on the exhale consciously relax the places in your body where you hold tension, such as your neck or jaw. This technique is not only helpful during a performance review. It’s great during stressful meetings or even when you’re stuck in traffic. It’s a technique you can practice and apply whenever needed.

3. Finally, allow yourself to acknowledge and accept your feelings as valid. Pretending they aren’t there and it’s “business as usual” is not helpful or realistic. Our feelings are neither right nor wrong. It’s the behavior that springs from those feelings that can get us into trouble and impede our effectiveness. Whether you’re the employee or the manager, it is far better to get real with yourself so you know what you’re dealing with and can manage it in the moment. So, before going into the potentially stressful situation, take a quiet moment to reflect. Ask yourself:

– How am I feeling right now?
– If I’m anxious, how does that usually manifest itself in my behavior? What should I be especially mindful of?
– Do I know how other people in this situation might be feeling? How should I prepare for that?
– Am I in control of my emotions, or is there a risk that my emotions will control me? Which stress-reduction techniques will help me minimize that risk? (One of my coaching clients runs 2 miles on his treadmill before coming to the office on a stress-packed day.)

Self-awareness is the key to self-management, and when we are prepared, we can enter any situation with more confidence.