Is it just another trait for us women to feel bad about? Adding to our long list of things we could do better? “Don’t stress out!” used to be one of my husband’s go-to statements – that was until he finally caught on that it’s actually he who ended up with a stress overdose as a result.
As a female brain-based coach, I’m passionate about debunking the myths that impede my gender from achieving a higher sense of well-being, whether it be professionally or personally. As a result, my company APA Solutions, as well as our initiative the Woman Up Conference, have partnered with SheCAN! for Mindset Monday workshops in order to accomplish that goal. We’re planning on hosting events covering all different topics for their network, including The Impact of Stress on Your Life Decisions. (You can find more information regarding this event and SheCAN! membership here.) Stress is an important resource that, when used appropriately and with optimal levels, can be incredibly beneficial. My goal here is to challenge you to consider your personal threshold and make a determination if it’s actually impeding your ability to make a good decision or creating a normal fight-or-flight response.
Here’s what the science says: Every individual perceives stress differently. Something that alleviates one person’s stress level may cause an increase in someone else’s stress level. Some people are better able to cope than others, and some people are not impacted by it as severely as others. There are many people in the world who believe that stress has little to no impact on them at all (see graph below)! Although I hate to knock those superheroes down off of their pedestal – I have some news to share: the body and brain’s response to stress is consistent across all people. When we experience stress, we see a rise of cortisol (aka “the stress hormone”) in the bloodstream. Neurologically, that increase in cortisol correlates with circuitry in our brain dedicated to higher level thinking actually turning off in order to accommodate our primal fight-or-flight instincts. As a result, we have an individual unable to effectively make decisions, control their impulses, regulate their emotions and this fight-or-flight thought process is not one we are able to override. This is not the position we want to find ourselves in at work, where making decisions is what we spend the majority of our day doing. In addition to not being able to effectively make decisions when under stress, stress also has lasting, chronic effects on our health. These effects include lower-quality or less sleep, lower cognitive function, and a whole slew of health issues like depression, anxiety, and cardiovascular problems (to name a few).
Due to chronic stress in the workplace, we are seeing record levels of absenteeism and disengagement. A single stressful, five-minute exchange can result in potential days of ineffective work. For example: Say you have an annual performance review with your boss. You walk into the meeting confident that you’ve spent the last year effectively doing your job and even exceeding expectations. You have great relationships with your team members and have been consistently hitting all your targets. However, your boss fails to acknowledge all of the things you’ve done right and only focus on what you’ve done wrong, or could improve moving forward. You leave the review feeling confused, frustrated, undervalued, and stressed. This stress is now something you carry with you for the rest of the year until your next performance review, and impacts the way you communicate with not only your boss, but also your team members. Because the brain functions like a computer, we download the information about that experience and carry it with us into all of our future interactions with the people around us. If this happens enough times with enough people, it promotes a culture of fear, and that stressful experience becomes the benchmark to which we compare all future social exchanges.
Does that situation sound familiar? Don’t worry. All hope is not lost! By understanding the nuances of stress and how it impacts us as individuals, we can effectively collaborate with others to manage stress causes and responses. The biggest takeaway here is that stress is not something that only impacts women, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of the fact that we experience it. Science has given us the information we need to understand when we are reaching our stress thresholds, and in turn, how to respond appropriately. I encourage you to take a critical look at how stress impacts your life currently and see what small changes you can implement to use stress to your advantage. Instead of feeling bad or guilty about stress, let’s approach it from a place of empowerment! After all, it’s around whether we like it or not. Shouldn’t we focus on harnessing its power instead of rejecting its presence?
Want to learn more? Don’t stress! Our team of neuroleadership experts run workshops and speak onsite at organizations of all sizes, and in all different industries. Book us for your next training, or sign up for one of our upcoming Mindset Matters sessions!