A small amount of stress can focus you and push you to perform at your highest and improve your leadership.  But if you let it get out of control, you risk burnout and serious health issues.

While we know this intellectually, it is harder for us to manage our stress effectively.

Finding the middle ground, a state where you can utilise stress to encourage your mental sharpness but not wear out the body and mind is where most leaders want to be.  Fortunately, you can train your brain to get there, and even leverage stress in high-stakes situations.

It starts with understanding the roles of two hormones – adrenaline and cortisol and how they relate to stress.

Adrenaline and Cortisol

Whenever your body perceives a threat, such as receiving an angry email or having a person yelling at you, it releases a surge of adrenaline and cortisol into your system.

·         Adrenaline

Increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and gives you an energy boost – think of how you would feel jumping out of a plane.  That is adrenaline coursing through your veins.

·         Cortisol

Suppresses functions that are obstructive in fight-or-flight situations, such as digestive and reproductive systems, and sends signals to the parts of the brain that control mood, motivation and fear.

Together, they combine to be a game-changer in high stakes situations.  Think of an athlete waiting at the start line of the 400m in the Olympics.  Or a doctor at the end of a trauma trolley making decisions for his team trying to revive a person who just had a cardiac arrest. 

Stress can refine your focus to a thrilling degree.  That’s why deadlines and time pressure is so effective in motivating performance.  Cortisol enables above-average productivity, while adrenaline gives you the energy to push your physical and mental capabilities.

A Double-Edged Sword

However, staying level headed while stressed can be a challenge.  And the same two hormones are to blame.  The detrimental hazards to your health emerge when you let it go on for too long, or in situations, it isn’t needed. 

When your body kicks into survival mode, 99.9% of the time, you are not in a life or death situation.  Most of the time, you are merely having an awkward or difficult conversation with someone.  In this case, you are dealing with a hardwired instinct or lousy habit that provokes the stress response.

If you don’t find techniques to recover from demanding situations, you’re subjecting your body to an overexposure of adrenaline and cortisol.  This chronic stress exposure increases your risk of anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep issues, and memory and concentration impairment.

Strategies to Decrease Stress

Humans already have a mechanism for managing stress as it is happening. 

This is the ability to breathe deeply.  It is a short-term strategy but a powerful one. 

Big deep belly breathing helps to sync your heart rate and blood pressure and breathing.  This helps you stay clear-headed under pressure.  Take note of the type of breathing you are doing when you are stressed next time.  It will be shallow, focused in your throat and upper chest.  You need to stop and take some big deep belly breaths.

In the longer term, you need to train your brain to take advantage of stress’s positives while learning how to manage its negatives.

You can do this with a three-pronged approach.


This trains your breathing and ability to stay mentally grounded in tough situations.  There are plenty of apps available to offer you the basics in breathing meditation.  The key to this practice is consistency.  Even if it is only 5 minutes a day.


Visualise yourself overcoming obstacles.  This gives you the perspective you need to realise that your stressors aren’t life or death situations.  Endurance athletes swear by this technique. Months before a race they will visualise all potential obstacles as well as finishing the event.  It helps them keep going when everyone else would give up.

Positive self-talk

This practice can help you to reframe the energy you are feeling.  The physical feelings of stress, such as tingling, heat, butterfly’s can be reframed into excitement and capitalised on as energy to spur you onwards.

Practising all three actions daily can help you manage the very nature of stress.  The person who understands and knows how to utilise stress energy into focus and opportunity, but also be able to turn it off when not required, will be the person with the advantage over other leaders.

© Human Resources Global

Categories: Leadership


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