Sometimes even the best leaders do bad things. If I had to name a common culprit that causes those bad behaviors, I’d pin it on chronic stress. Stress in the workplace has become so normalized that it often goes unnoticed to its victims until bad behavior shows up. When that happens, a stress-infected leader can negatively impact everyone they are connected with, increasing the stress levels throughout an organization.
Even more disheartening news is that there are health impacts from chronic, long term stress as well. Your body is designed to handle short bursts of stress, not the kind of ongoing stress that happens in so many organizations and stretches into months and years. Chronic stress can cause depression, anxiety and loss of sleep, and when those are experienced over a months and years, they can take their toll physically (heart disease is one manifestation of long term pressure).
So how do you recognize stress before it’s too late?
Physically: You might notice faster and more shallow breathing, a heart rhythm that is not regular (some people might feel their heart rate increasing or skipping beats) and muscles that are continually tight and sore (neck, and lower back may show up due to stress).
Emotionally: You may begin feeling down and anxious. Sleep doesn’t come as easily and you awaken several times in a night, having trouble getting back to sleep. People might be avoiding you because you are grumpy or lashing out.
When you first notice these things, it’s time to do something. Even though much of the stress you experience is not caused by you, you can manage your reaction to it. You can begin doing so slowly with some things that can be fun. Start here with some small steps that you just might enjoy:
Breathe: Step away from work for a few minutes to breathe. A daily break of 2 minutes twice a day to take some of those life-altering deep belly breaths should find its place in your schedule (plug a reminder into your smart phone!). Find a quiet spot if you can, and then close your eyes. Inhale, and notice your breath going slowly and deeply into your diaphragm. Exhale slowly, repeat until you feel your mind and body relaxing. The research is clear about the positive impact of deep breathing on stress.
Exercise: How about 20 minutes of walking a day? No time? Break it up into smaller chunks: 10 minutes before work, 10 minutes on a break. Still no time? Okay, start smaller. Five minutes twice a day, and work up to 10 minutes twice a day when you can. Exercise releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, all-natural “highs” that your body produces and which fight stress and make you feel good.
Be grateful: Recent studies indicate that gratitude decreases some of the effects of stress, actually reducing inflammation, keeping artery plaque buildup at bay, and helping to maintain a healthy heart rhythm. Practicing gratitude can have a positive impact on depression, anxiety, and sleep. It only takes a minute a day to capture a few things or people that you are grateful for, and it will put a smile on your face.
Managing stress can be enjoyable and the results include better leadership and a healthy body, mind and soul.