Mark Westmoquette PhD, Astrophysicist, Zen Teacher, and Author, shares some helpful tips for dealing with the stress that inevitably comes with running a business.
Instead of combatting stress and anxiety, I find it more helpful to consider ways of becoming more resilient and improving our general mental fitness. Getting more mentally fit is akin to getting more physically fit – and you know to be a good leader, it’s essential you look after yourself both physically, mentally and emotionally so that you can effectively engage with your team.
Before we start going to the gym it’s useful to understand why our modern, sedentary lifestyle encourages a lack of physical fitness and what kind of activities might help get us in shape. Similarly, when it comes to improving our resiliency and mental fitness, it’s important to first understand how the body and mind respond to our modern, stressful lifestyle, which is full of demands our system was never built for, and what kind of practices help.
Firstly, it’s essential we acknowledge our animal ancestry. Humans are social mammals that evolved from apes, with biological systems that have their roots in the earliest aquatic creatures that lived millions of years ago. It’s thought that primitive fish evolved the first stress/fear response – when threatened by a predator they would go limp, causing them to appear dead and sink out of the predator’s line of sight. As life evolved further, a second stress reaction developed – what we now call the fight/flight response. Instead of just playing dead, a threat would cause the creature’s nervous system to mobilise its defences. As humans, we’ve inherited both these reactions: the immobilisation (feign death), and the mobilisation (flight/flight) response.
It is important to know that these reactions are hard-wired into our system. Whether we’re facing the oncoming teeth of a shark, someone questions our opinion in an important client meeting, or we can’t just find a parking space when we get home from work, our body will initiate some level of stress response. Assessment of the level of threat (be it physical, emotional or even existential) is called neuroception and is a brain faculty that operates under our conscious awareness. That means if it perceives we’re facing a threat it will activate a mobilisation response by preparing the body for a fight (by flushing the body with adrenaline, heating up the muscles, increasing the heart rate, and intensifying the awareness causing it to become somewhat tunnel-visioned – making lateral and creative thinking very hard). If it perceives an even greater threat, then it might initiate an immobilisation response (think stage fright).
However, just because these reactions are hard-wired, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Mammals in particular (including humans) have evolved a third kind of response known as our social engagement system which can act to regulate a stressed-out body. To be emotionally regulated means feeling calm, steady and settled, and being able to stop or otherwise temper our emotional responses in a way that that’s socially acceptable and doesn’t evoke further stress or fear. A stressful situation can easily send us towards emotional dysregulation. But equally, a series of micro-stresses over a period of time can also tip us towards emotional dysregulation – if we don’t manage to dissipate the build-up. That steady, settled feeling gradually (or suddenly) dissolves and we become less and less able to control our behaviour. When this happens, we can easily act inappropriately and do or say things that we might later regret.
So how do you stay regulated when the heat rises? The first step is to become aware of your sensations and feelings – that is, to practice being mindful.
Mindfulness means bringing a deliberate awareness to the external situation and to how you feel internally – noticing sensations, body posture, thoughts, memories and ideas. But it also means doing your best not to want what you find to be different. When being mindful, the intention is not to change your feelings, just to notice them and to put aside any thoughts about whether you like them or not – or think they’re crazy, out of proportion or a good/bad thing. That non-judgemental awareness is key. It is what gives you the information (you might say wisdom) to modulate or take conscious control of what happens next.
Staying regulated as you feel more stressed isn’t easy. It’s something that we all need to practice and build up to. In a stressful situation, it’s hard to find a way to let the initial upsurge of emotions settle (even a little) before reacting to it. And it’s harder still to remember to turn your attention inwards and become aware of your sensations and feelings.
Tips for building mental resiliency:
1. If you can, take a step out of the turbulent rapids – move away from the situation, get some distance and go somewhere quiet. Try to mentally zoom out of the situation and tune into what’s going on in your body. A relaxed, calm mind is better at thinking laterally and seeing the wider perspective.
2. Spend time with someone you trust who is more regulated than you. Their calm emotional state can ‘magnetise’ you to their level due to the highly attuned nature of our social engagement system. You don’t necessarily need to say anything – just being in the present can help.
3. Develop a habit of mindfulness. Having that sensitivity and awareness as a matter of course puts you in a much better place to notice the early warning signs of being pulled out of your regulated state. You can then adjust your behaviour much quicker. I’d suggest starting with doing a daily 10 min mindfulness meditation practice like the one described below.
4. Make an intention to listen more. To be a good leader means being a good listener, and the best place to practise this skill is with ourselves. Spend time listening to your inner monologue whilst doing your best not to censor or judge what you hear to be good or bad.
5. Don’t stop doing things that support your mental well-being. In times of stress, that time spent walking in the park, playing an instrument, going to bed early, chatting to friends or cooking a good meal, is so important for supporting your mental well-being and maintaining your emotional resiliency.
Any moment of pause during the hectic busyness of the day gives a chance for the build-up of stress hormones to subside. Without that, these hormones will have a negative effect on things like digestion, sex drive, immune system, muscle tension (which can lead to headaches, spasms, and other chronic issues). Mindfulness encourages more self-awareness – of our habits, thoughts, opinions and all those narratives we build about our lives. That willingness to acknowledge what you’re feeling and accept it with openness will spill out into your role as a leader, helping you create a more open, less judgemental, and compassionate working environment.
Counting the breath meditation practice:
Sitting on a chair, knees and feet separated, feet flat on the floor. Sit as upright as you can manage, hands resting, eyes lowered (open or closed), face relaxed.
Become aware of your breath at the lowest point in your body that you can feel it. Begin mentally counting your breath: in-breath, one, out-breath, two, in-breath, three, out-breath, four. And so on, up to ten – when you can start again at one. Allow any thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations to just come and go in the background. Anytime you get distracted or lose count, without any judgement, start again back at one.
Continue for 10 minutes, or longer if you want.