Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on happiness and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Global thought leader in happiness, Tal Ben-Shahar, shared last week that the top reason he is brought into companies is high levels of stress.

What Harvard taught these Triangle leaders for life: Part II

What is stress and is it always a bad thing?

 Popular culture has us believe that stress is killing us.  Social psychologist Modupe Akinola, Columbia Business School Professor of Leadership and Ethics, has researched how to turn stress into a force for good. We can retrain our brain to overcome stress when it matters most.  As human beings, we are wired for our preservation to have a fight or flight response to stress.  When danger is near, we protect ourselves.

The trouble arrives when we can’t turn off the protection and reset our system. Chronic stress is what leads to health issues like high blood pressure and compromised immune systems.

Akinola explains that when we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous system gets activated. It’s that part of our body that tells us, do you need to fight or do you need to flee this situation? And when that happens, we get adrenaline, dopamine, cortisol, all of the resources we need physiologically to move, act, and do what we need to do to stay safe. This process is a very adaptive one, so that when you’re done with the stressor, ideally your body wants to go back to its resting state where those hormones decrease, and you get back to resting and relaxing. That is a normal physiological response to an acute stressor.

But one of the problems is when we are overactivated and too attentive to threats, these levels of dopamine, cortisol and adrenaline stay elevated. And this chronic stress cycle is what leads to health problems and disease.

Dr. Akinola discusses mindset & stress – helping talk Chris Hemsworth off a skyscraper. (Credit: Disney)

Mindful breathing

Akinola was recently brought in to coach Thor star Chris Hemsworth for his National Geographic docu-series, Limitless, where he had to walk across a crane 900 feet up in the air onto a rooftop of a downtown Sydney skyscraper.

Her definition of stress is when the demands of a situation exceed the resources a person has available to cope with it. These resources could include external support, people cheering us on and people teaching us.

She provided a host of resources allowing Hemsworth to walk across that narrow crane high up in the clouds including breathing techniques that lowered his heart rate from 142 beats per minute to 86.

Similarly, though much closer to the ground, when I started to feel butterflies during my piano performance this past Sunday, I told myself to take a deep breath. It immediately helped.

The stress inducing crane walk [credit: Disney]

Why “Calm Down” is the wrong thing to say

 Last year, I traveled to give a HappinessWorks program to a group in a large auditorium.  The client assigned an individual to assist me during my program.  As she was helping put on my wireless mic, she said “why are you so nervous? There is no reason to be nervous, you need to calm down!”  I explained to her that I always get nervous before I speak or perform, it’s a sign that I care.

If you are planning on hosting a dear friend from college who you haven’t seen in two decades at your home, you may experience a bit of anxiety.  This is because you care about them.   Akinola agrees.  The first step in blessing stress is acknowledging the presence of stress. Rather than telling the person to calm down, instead acknowledge the stress. Situations tend to cause anxiety when we care about the outcome.

Akinola encourages Hemsworth to have an enhancing mindset. Research shows that the walls of your blood vessels are more likely to dilate than constrict, with a stress enhancing mindset. Society’s dominant narrative is that we should deny, reduce and avoid stress.  Stress is unavoidable in our life; we grow the most from challenging times. Instead of fighting stress, we would benefit by welcoming stress, and use it in a way that’s designed to help us.

Alia Crum, psychologist and principal investigator of the Stanford Mind and Body Lab found in her research that stress can make you stronger and more motivated if we change our perception about stress and understand how it impacts us.

Last month, I traveled to Boston to throw a party for my sister’s 60th birthday.  The day before the celebration, I suggested we start to prepare for the party.  My sister’s family said that we had plenty of time since the party didn’t start until 5pm. On the day of the party, my nephew came home from college and announced, as he sat down at his computer, “I have work to do.  Besides, I perform best under pressure.  I will start to prep at 4pm.”

His comments stressed me out more, so I continued to straighten up. Then I realized that my nephew knew himself and what worked best for him. A senior at Harvard, he has excelled in most everything he has set out to do.  He knows how to use stress to his benefit, including party prep.

Try “I’m excited!” instead

My performance psychology teacher, Noa Kageyama, on faculty at Juilliard, cited research of karaoke singers who were asked “How are you feeling?” prior to performing.  One group was told to answer “I am excited,” another group with “I am anxious” and the control group was not asked.

In reading my most recent HBS alumni bulletin, I realized the researcher Noa cited is Harvard Professor Alison Wood Brooks.  Her seminal 2013 research, revealed that rather than thinking “calm down” or “I’m nervous”, reframing the butterflies by saying “I’m excited” is what delivers the best performance.

In recently winning over my inner critic,  I now know to work on not grimacing when I make a mistake in a piano performance. I also have reframed my introductions to my pieces from “Thank you for being patient with me…” to “I’m excited to give you my progress to date…”  My Presto Piano group is hearing quite often from me on just how excited I am to play for them!

Happiness & human performance: Winning the inner game

Rest and Recovery

Poor health or injury in the form of strained muscles is from not making time for recovery. Just as we need to alternate muscle groups in the gym or take rest days, the same is true for our work.  In Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, Dan Buettner shared with us the regions of the world that have the most centenarians. One is Loma Linda, California where Seventh-day Adventists take a 24-hour Sabbath of total rest with the other days focused on exercise, eating a mostly plant based diet, spending time with others, and giving back.

As leaders, we must recognize our teams need rest after intense sprints.  Driving your people into the ground will not offer a good long term return.

Asking employees what causes stress for them and then acknowledging these stressors is a good step toward offering recovery and offering resources.  Back to the definition of stress, if employees believe their resources are greater than their challenges, their stress will be alleviated.

As leaders, understanding what stresses out your people is an important first step. Then offering resources to help.  Akinola concludes,  “We need to do more to help people, naturally and structurally, get back to a state of homeostasis.”

How are you helping your people get back to homeostasis?

About Grace Ueng

Grace is a strategy consultant,  leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth. Her company offers workshops to move teams forward: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn. Transformative companies hire Grace to deliver her HappinessWorks™ program to boost performance. Join her Happiness & Leadership community and learn to be a happier and better leader:

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