If you’re a leader in the workplace, you will have undoubtably developed a good level of stress resilience to get to where you are. Yet, as a leader, you are also juggling a myriad of work-related responsibilities and pressures – mental, emotional, and physical – day in day out, not to mention the everyday strains of modern-day life.
It’s therefore critical that you keep on top of your stress levels and proactively work to not only manage stress but, more importantly, learn how to work with it.
In today’s post, I’m going to summarise 6 key areas to focus on as a leader and the concepts to embody so that you can feel and perform at your best in your high-pressured role.
1. Your Food & Eating Habits
Most people don’t realise quite how much food and eating habits impact overall stress levels.
What we’re really talking about is maintaining stable blood sugar levels through what, how and when you eat. When your blood sugar is too low or too high it’s a major stress on the body, which directly impacts how you function mentally, emotionally and physically.
Here are 3 of the most effective ways to stabilise your blood sugar:
Don’t skip breakfast – Our stress hormones are highest in the morning to wake us up, if you go too long without eating, your blood sugar will start to drop and stress hormones will increase. Having a good breakfast calms the nervous system and sets you up for the day.
Make breakfast protein heavy – protein slows the release of glucose into the blood stream and therefore fills you up for longer. You will feel calmer, yet more alert and focussed. Many of my clients are total converts to having protein for breakfast – give it go and see how different you feel!
Never consume pure carbs or stimulants alone, especially if you’ve left it too long to eat. You’ll create a blood sugar roller-coaster leaving you wired, then irritable, then drowsy with brain fog. A good rule of thumb is to eat every 4-5 hours and make sure you include protein and fat with every meal and snack.
2. A Consistent Planning Routine
You might be wondering exactly how a planning routine lowers stress levels? What you’re aiming to develop through a consistent planning routine is a proactive state.
When you’re in a proactive state you feel more in control and one step ahead of yourself. You are calmer, more considered and less reactive – this is a far less stressful way to operate.
A consistent routine of any kind also calms the nervous system. It’s an anchor point in what otherwise might be a demanding day where unexpected issues require you to switch into fire-fighting mode at any given moment.
There are several key planning tools that I recommend. For this article, I’m going to discuss a weekly planning routine and use it to explain how planning routines work to lower stress levels.
Firstly, it’s about planning in good time to cultivate that proactive state.
On a Friday at the end of the day, review and plan out the upcoming week loosely but plan Monday in detail. Then at the end of the day on the Monday plan out Tuesday in detail and so on for every day of the week.
This process allows you to fully switch off for the weekend and evenings because psychologically you can let go knowing you’re on top of everything. You’ll also sleep better and experience less morning anxiety.
Good planning also means you’re able to enforce better boundaries.
When you’re in a proactive state, you’re less caught off guard and it’s much easier to recognise what you need to prioritise. Whereas, if you’re in a reactive state when unexpected things happen, you’re more likely to make a rash decision.
In a similar vein, good planning also facilitates better delegation.
If you’ve mapped out your time and workflow in advance, you’re much more likely to see potential bottle necks and earmark the right people to help.
Yes, planning in this way requires dedication and time, but the benefits far outweigh the initial investment.
3. Priming Your Mindset
What many people don’t realise is that stress can pollute our perspective.
When stress hormones are released, they’re preparing us to fight or flight. In the modern-day world, this can work in our favour in short bursts making us sharper and laser-focused. But long-term it can skew our perspective to look at the world through the lens of fear always scanning for potential threats.
Furthermore, stressful thoughts (regardless of if they’re true or rational) release stress hormones because the body responds to thoughts as it would reality. This can create a vicious cycle keeping us more focussed on potential negative scenarios, which in turn may close us off to seeing opportunities and possibilities.
I mentioned earlier how our stress hormones are highest first thing in the morning. The morning is therefore the most important time to protect and prime your mind for positivity, optimism and opportunities, which will set the tone for the rest of your day.
There are many ways to do this, my personal favourite is listening to an inspiring, motivational podcast or audiobook while getting ready for the day. If you do this daily, you are essentially rewiring your brain for optimism and possibility as opposed to lack.
4. Using Movement to Destress
We know that physical activity is beneficial for our overall wellbeing, it’s one of the main factors in disease prevention and it also makes us feel good through the release of endorphins.
However, physical exertion also literally eats up stress hormones circulating in the body, which is why after exercising you typically feel calmer and can think more clearly.
Many of my clients have little time to exercise. While I always say it’s about priorities, if you are choosing to prioritise other areas of your life over-exercise, I’m here to tell you that you can still find ways to include some form of physical activity that works around your schedule.
For example, just 5-minutes of exercise a day doing sets of whole-body weight moves like push-ups, squats, lunges etc, can be very effective in reducing stress hormones, releasing endorphins and if done consistently you will also achieve good strength gains over time!
5. Time Doing ‘Nothing’
When was the last time you did absolutely nothing?
What we’re looking to achieve here is a mindful state: when you are completely absorbed in the moment and attuned to your senses, rather than thinking about the past or future.
Not only is mindfulness a stress-free state, but it’s also a state that enables unexpected insights, sparks of genius and higher levels of perception.
Have you ever had a brain-wave idea when in the shower, while walking in nature or lying on the beach on holiday?
Not only is time out and rest essential for your overall health and wellbeing but it also gives you a competitive advantage. I truly believe that you can collapse time in this way where something that might have taken you months of intentional strategizing could appear in a split-second moment when you create space for your subconscious mind to come up with the answers.
6. Stress As a Cycle
This final point ties all the previous points together.
Most people in the western world are living in a state of chronic stress. Yet our bodies simply aren’t designed to handle stress in this way.
We need to understand that stress is a cycle and learn to work it in this way otherwise we’ll likely experience health issues and ultimately burnout.
To better understand the cyclical nature of stress, let’s call the stressful part of the cycle the ‘expansion’ phase and the other is what we’ll call the ‘contraction’ phase.
With anything that is cyclical by nature, all elements are equally important, and you simply can’t have one without the other(s).
In the west, we typically celebrate the expansion phase and demonise the rest/contraction phase. But to successfully exploit the expansion phases we need to honour the contraction phase – it’s the refuel that enables high levels of expansion. The better the refuel the better the expansion.
Athletes rest as hard as they train. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t perform as well and would end up with injuries. You are a corporate athlete and so in principle, it’s the exact same model that you need to live by to feel and perform at your best.