Make Stress your Friend

Why don’t we turn stress around and make it work for us, in stead of against us? The fact is, if you don’t manage stress, it manages you … and steals your joy.

“Stress is my fiend. It used to be my enemy, getting the better of me. But now it’s my helpful friend”. These were the triumphant words of a young man, who grew up in the rural Eastern Cape, but who now as a “General Foremen in training” on road building sites had to deal with a huge amount of responsibilities and complexities, far beyond his previous levels of coping abilities. It was one of those breakthrough moments I cannot forget.

Some years ago I was training this group of young upcoming leaders from previous disadvantaged backgrounds. They were simultaneously highly motivated and highly challenged. Their work environment was volatile and ever-changing, and their technical, financial, political and social challenges were huge. Their sense of self-efficacy quite low. So stress was an everyday thing. And the amount of stress made them protective, less open, creative, teachable and effective, and it some cases even sick. It also undermined their coping skills and slowed down their learning and development process. Of course they were high on stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) and all of them were in reactive mode: fight, flight, freeze or hide. Not good material for leadership, proactivity and responsibility.

So, what now?

The first challenge was to get them to embrace their situation as an opportunity, which it was. Secondly they had to make peace and deal with the realities that came with the opportunity. And lastly, they had to re-label stress as normal – something they can deal with and even use to your advantage. The changes were remarkable. Fearful and timid people became brave. Aggressive ones became calmer and more collaborative.

An interesting recent discovery was that when you stop stressing about the fact that you stress, you reduce your stress significantly and build your ability to deal with reality far better. Stress is helpful when it motivates and energises you, but not when it paralyses you. One simple helpful thing we can do for ourselves, is just a life decision: to live a less rushed life and make time for moments of kindness and calmness.

So here are my best five stress management tips:

  1. Look after yourself. Eat and sleep well. Exercise every day, even if it is just a brisk walk. Stop criticising yourself so much. Be loving and kind to yourself and build your self-confidence and courage by often celebrating your successes.
  2. Embrace stress as normal. Don’t fight it as an enemy. Treat it like an inner friend who wants to help you.
  3. Personalise and use stress. Hear what it has to say. Then talk back, e.g.: “Hi stress, welcome here today. What is it that you want to warn me about or help me with? Oh, the deadline. Yes, I know about it and will deal with it. Thank you for that. You can go and relax now”. (Of course you are actually talking to yourself. But this way is just very useful.)
  4. Face and solve your problems: Identify your challenges, set your goals for best outcomes, look for your best options, devise a plan, and then execute it. And then, choose to stop worrying about it.
  5. Daily quiet times (5-20 mins): Make sure you take regular time-out sessions to meditate, pray and reflect on life. E.g. you can start by stressing your whole body and then relax yourself from head to toe. Do some deep breathing exercises (in and out). Take your mind to nice relaxing places that you recall. Be grateful and say thank you for at least 3-5 great things in your life. And then invite joy, grace, love and appreciation into your heart.

I hope this can help. You can decide for yourself how you will do it, but again, the big thing is: if you don’t manage stress, it manages you – and steals your joy. By managing it, it becomes your helpful friend.

I celebrate your success and progress!