Very recently I was reminded about how good it felt to be pushed to my absolute limit and forced to draw on just about every one of my personal resources. And no, I’m not talking about boot camp. It certainly didn’t feel good at the time – or in the lead up to the event itself. In fact, in the lead up to what I’d imagined was going to be the “mother of all awful meetings” and one that was likely to have a significant impact on my professional direction, I experienced such extreme stress that I felt nauseated and edgy. I felt like I might explode. I felt like my throat would collapse and I would be so starved of oxygen that I would mummify right where I sat. In fact, despite providing stress and anxiety management strategies to hundreds of people over the past decade, in those moments I forgot to implement any of them. By the time the big event was upon me, I had worked myself into such a state that I had created catastrophic scenarios in my head that were so absurd, a colleague suggested I become a screen-writer because “nobody could make up these ridiculous outcomes”.
Yet, when the meeting started I experienced a wave of calm. It was almost the opposite of the flushes of sweat and bile that I had felt in the preceding days. That was when I realised that all the worry, energy, and sanity that I had spent building up this meeting in my head had been largely unnecessary. Of course, there was an element of what I term ‘positive stress’ involved as well, which assisted me in suitably preparing for the meeting. Overall, however, the degree to which I had let the panic build could only be described as a vast overreaction. When the meeting was finished, I felt like I had achieved the equivalent of running the City to Surf (which is unlikely to ever happen) and experienced a flush of personal pride and relief that I had not felt in a long time.
4 Tips on Stress Management
This prompted me to think about how we can all creatively harness the power of positive stress and manage emotional distress for future business events. Here are my top four tips on stress management:
List your achievements
During times of extreme stress it can be difficult to readily identify your strengths. Often, overwhelming feelings of distress lead to a sense of doubt that some refer to as feeling ‘like a fraud’. But, you’re not a fraud, you’re a woman with experience and skills that you have developed over time. By listing your achievements in writing, you are developing both a succinct ready-reckoner of your abilities that will remind you exactly why you are qualified to undertake whatever the stressful event is, and evidence of your previous successes. I suggest folding this list and taking it with you in your pocket or handbag, as a tactile comfort.
Journal how you feel immediately afterwards
This will be helpful for the next time you are faced with a stressful challenge. As I described above, the overwhelming feelings following the successful completion of a stressful event is typically a mix of positivity and relief. In the lead-up, however, it is extremely difficult to remember this. By journaling your feelings immediately following your successful completion of a stressful event, you are producing an authentic record of achievement with which to prompt your future-self that you’ve already made it through past stressful experiences. This can actually be far more effective than hearing others tell us “you’ll make it through, you’ve done it before” for the simple fact that it is experientially written by ourselves.
Often overwhelming feelings of distress lead to a sense of doubt that some refer to as feeling ‘like a fraud’. But, you’re not a fraud, you’re a woman with experience and skills that you have developed over time.
Challenge the most absurd possible outcome you can imagine
You have already imagined it, why not put it into words and take it on? This could take the form of writing, drawing, or talking about it with a friend or family member. What is the realistic likelihood of this outcome happening? What evidence do you have? Most of us have a tendency to rapidly magnify fears or come up with a myriad of potential negative outcomes for any scenario. Typically, what you will find is that the more you explore your absurdist possibilities, you will be able to rationalise and re-gain perspective. In my case, my most absurd fear was being sued for providing factual evidence in an appropriate peer setting and ending up being picked apart on The Project or Sixty Minutes – the likelihood of that happening was minimal, and by challenging it, I was able to re-gain focus and perspective without being crippled by a ridiculous mind-trick.
Get your groove on
Everyone has a ‘power song’, mine is Gold by Spandeau Ballet. A power song is like a theme tune, a song that builds your confidence the more you listen to it. Listen to this song as many times as you need to in the lead-up to your stressful event – play it on your iPod, in your head, hum along with it – keep it going subconsciously. This will assist in not only distracting you from your distress, but also reinforcing those positive feelings about yourself that your power song promotes.
Obviously this advice is aimed at providing generalised tips in a humorous manner, and if you experience ongoing distress I recommend that you speak with your GP or psychologist for more specific strategies, as well as reviewing the useful online resources at www.beyondblue.org.au.
Lauren is a Rehabilitation Counsellor and Career Development Consultant, with close to 15 years of experience across the two fields. She is the founder of Headstrong Women, a specialist women’s career development service, and thrives on innovation and creativity to empower women to reach their potential. Find out more at www.headstrongwomen.com.au or on Facebook.