Stress: The Silent Killer
I was surprised and dismayed to read recently that suicide rates in Minnesota have risen to their highest level in 20 years, with the biggest increase among men ages 55 to 59. According to the Minnesota Department of Health’s analysis of suicide data collected from 2011 death certificates, our state had a 13 percent increase in the number of suicides from 2010 to 2011, with a rate of 12.4 per 100,000 residents. Sadly, this increase mirrors a national trend reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While I am not a mental health professional, I am a middle-aged man (at least I think I’m middle-aged) who understands that stress and pressures at work can at times be overwhelming. A profound fear and unease about job loss and financial ruin now exists in all socioeconomic segments of our society. I believe that many of the recent suicides are because people lost most, if not all, of their accumulated wealth during the Great Recession. At every stage of life, people are feeling pressure, from couples arguing over finances to parents wondering how they will pay for their kids’ educations to the elderly who believe they will outlive their shrunken assets. Those who are still employed feel survivor guilt—and worry about being the next to get the hatchet.
Psychotherapist Mira Kirshenbaum, author of The Emotional Energy Factor, wrote, “People feel a deep, existential stress—a sense of having shifted into an unreal nightmare world in which everything familiar has turned menacing.”
Controlling stress is difficult but not impossible, and over the years I’ve learned a few techniques that can be helpful. (These techniques are not meant to deal with serious depression, which must be addressed with the help of a mental health professional.)
1. Recognize that stress is normal
Let me be the first to admit that at times I get overwhelmed. For example, my life is turned upside down on many days: when a judge sets a date for a trial starting on short notice or I’m unexpectedly summoned to give a deposition or a client needs me to testify in court without much warning. These things can instantly rearrange my schedule and cause a lot of stress.
I can either tell myself that I’m going to have a meltdown or I can choose to rearrange my schedule and accept the fact that stress is normal. Many executives ignore stress or live in denial of it, but my observation is that this coping mechanism just makes it worse.
2. Learn that being stressed is a choice
I’ve been told that I am a “carrier of stress,” meaning that I don’t get stressed, but instead I give it to others. Maybe that’s what my father meant when he told me when I was a young boy that I should never run for public office. When I asked him to clarify, he told me that I wear my feelings.
In other words, I don’t hide it when my world is crashing around me, but reach out to others to talk about the issue at hand, do what I can to resolve the problem, then make the choice to let it go. When we are stressed, we trigger our body’s natural flight-or-fight reaction and prime ourselves to fend off the danger. Unless we can intervene in this mind-body feedback loop, our stress levels will likely escalate. Interrupting this loop is not easy, but my days go better when I remind myself that being stressed is a choice.
3. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize
Another coping mechanism I’ve cultivated is to constantly prioritize and reprioritize. Keep things in perspective and focus only on what’s truly critical to get done right away. Sometimes that also means having the courage to say “no” or “not right now.”
Executives don’t have a structured 8-to-5 schedule, and if my life is an indication, it’s almost a 24/7 job. If I’m not careful, it’s easy for work to overtake everything else in my life, at the expense of my family and other organizations I’m involved in. I also work at keeping my health a priority and finding peace in my religious life. Don’t let work be the only priority.
4. Become a better communicator
One of the best methods for controlling stress is thorough communication of deadlines and expectations. With my client projects, I create timelines for major and minor deliverables, including who is doing what and by when. That way, everybody is on the same page and has made a commitment up front that they will own for the entire project. This helps alleviate everyone’s stress levels.
Communication is a key skill of management, and also ensures that you are setting reasonable expectations of others and being realistic about your resources, which includes time. Time is an asset that should neither be squandered nor overused!
5. Focus on the big picture
I heard an analogy recently about two brothers walking across a snow-covered field. As they walked, the little brother kept his eyes down, occasionally glancing at the tracks behind him. The big brother kept his eyes on the journey ahead. Of course, the little brother’s tracks meandered, while the big brother’s were straight as an arrow. Lesson: Keep your head up and focused forward, and your journey will be smoother.
A certain amount of stress is necessary to push us to perform at a high level. My hope, however, is that more people learn how to control or reframe their stress so they can enjoy their lives and not pass the tipping point that allows stress to harm them.
Mark W. Sheffert (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance, and litigation advisory firm.