Box of Crayons Blog


How to Best Prepare for Times of Stress

Everybody has those days where they feel a little more anxiety, a little more stress, than usual. I recently heard a quote that was attributed to a Navy SEAL: “Under stress, you sink to the level of your training.” Such a great concept. Under stress you default to those learned behaviours that you’ve been practising in training.

So how do you prepare to perform well under stress? Tune in below for a few quick tips.

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Full Transcript

So let’s have a quick conversation now about how to perform under stress because there are good days of course where you don’t feel stress but everybody has those days where they can feel some more anxiety, a little more stress, a little more fear perhaps. And to really understand what’s happening let’s go to neuroscience, the way the brain works, right away, and here’s a really basic neuroscience concept. Five times every second your brain is scanning the environment and it’s asking itself a fundamental question: “Is it safe here or is it dangerous? Is it a place or risk or is it a place of reward?” And you can guess that in a time of stress, the brain is basically going, “This is a place of danger. This is a place of risk.”

So what happens in a place of risk? Well, the. amygdala gets involved. That’s the fight or flight piece. So you’re hunkering down. Your field of vision narrows. Options close down. It’s all about survival. You got to assume everybody out there is probably against you rather than with you. And whilst that fight or flight reaction can be fantastic because it’s survival, it actually doesn’t always serve you that well, particularly if you’re actually trying to hold down a job in your organization, and you want to be productive and you want to collaborate and you want to bring your very best to the table.

So let’s talk about how, when that happens, when the neuroscience kicks in or when the stress kicks in, and you can feel yourself reacting, what you can do about that. And I read an article in the Harvard Business Review recently. It quoted the SEALs, so that’s the, you know, the elite military force from the U.S. that says, “Under stress you sink to the level of your training.” Such a great concept, which is to understand that under stress you default to those learned behaviours that you’ve been practicing in training. So I imagine that’s why SEALs and other military folks spend hours practicing dismantling and reassembling their weapons in the dark; it’s why athletes practice some things over and over and over again; it’s what Dan Coyle calls in his wonderful book, The Talent Code, “deep practice.” When you do deep practice, you embed those responses that you want so that under stress you can still perform at the necessary high level.

So how do you perform under stress? Well, let me give you three quick tips the best I can. The first is this. Actually, I’m going to give you four tips because another one’s just occurred to me. The first is this: Stay active. Actually when we’re in fight or flight moment, we tend to freeze, certainly initially, shoulders go up, we hold our breath, and doing all of that means that oxygen stops being in our prefrontal cortex, our conscious mind, and starts draining to the unconscious brain, the limbric brain straight away. So movement will do a number of things. One, it will force you to breathe, and by getting oxygen back in your system, you replenish the brain with oxygen and you just get to think better. Also, by moving, you literally start getting different perspectives about what’s going on. So if you’re feeling stressed, get up and move around. That’s going to help immediately.

The second thing is gather data. Figure out what’s true. When we’re under stress what we tend to do is we start imagining the worst. And actually starting to tease apart two different things, one is the data, the facts, the other is the judgment, what you’re making up about the facts. And you tend to have judgments about three different perspectives. You have judgments about the other person, the one that’s causing you the stress; you have judgments about yourself; and you have judgments about the situation at large. All of those are potentially useful but just don’t imagine that they’re the truth. The data is the truth. The judgments are how you’re interpreting the data.

One of the things that’s powerful about inquiring about the data, asking yourself, “What do I know to be true here? What’s the data?” is that it will actually ground you in reality and help see that sometimes the judgments you have may not be that useful, and often it’s your judgments that are causing a good deal of the stress.

The third thing, and I play this back to Dan Coyle who I mentioned before, is understand the concept of deep practice, meaning, if you can imagine stressful situations and you could imagine how you would like to respond in those situations, practice those responses in a mindful way. Break them down into small component parts. Practice them fast and slow and quickly and yeah, loudly and quietly, so you really start to build a trained response to the stressful situation. And Coyle’s deep practice gives you great insight to saying once you embed that learning, you’ll be able to perform at a higher level under stress.

And I think the fourth and final piece that I’d suggest to you is get good at creating options. Where we under stress, that vision narrows, we start seeing fewer options rather than more options, and that fewer options makes us more stressed. If can actually expand your options, potentially get five good ideas, then that’s going to help you manage stress. What’s going to help you expand options, well, some good coaching questions always help.

So let me give you a few right away. The place to start: So what ideas do you already have? Start decanting the ideas that are in your brain. You have more than you think, and you will know that by asking the second question that really helps here: And what else? So what ideas do you already have and what else, and what else could we do, and what else could we do? And then you could tap into some other great questions: What’s the fast thing to do? What’s the fun thing to do? What’s the safest thing to do? What’s the boldest thing to do? All of those will generate some options, so that when you’re under stress, rather than feeling panicked and like you have only one way of responding and you maybe don’t like to respond like that, you’ll see other alternatives and by seeing other alternatives, you’ll be able to feel a sense of control, regain the upper hand of the situation and definitely reduce your stress.

Four good tactics. All of which are going to help you manage yourself under stress. When you’re managing yourself under stress, you’re going to be doing less good work and more great work.


One Response to How to Best Prepare for Times of Stress

  • Mary

    I heard you on a podcast yesterday talking about coaching in ten minutes and asking the right questions, I just listened to this on managing under Stress. I have been looking for a number of years for some good coaching training and finally I have found it! I am inspired 🙂

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