When Stress Disables Coping

Effective decision-making is harder under stressful conditions. Our body chemistry mobilizes as if there’s a crisis and the most primitive part of the brain takes over. Rather than calmly weighing options and considering past experiences, we react in the moment at a maturity level we might later regret. Adaptable leaders know how to reboot the central nervous system to maintain poise and clarity. Try these tips the next time your coping is disabled.

Breathe with your diaphragm: This is simply the fastest way to reverse the fight-flight response and return the body to a normal state. A helpful chain reaction unfolds in which thousands of psychophysiological functions align for optimal decision quality.

Slow down your brain: Fast brain cycles are designed for crisis responsiveness but happen at the expense of access to memory (e.g. tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, going blank on an exam, etc.). Even a one-minute meditation slows thinking sufficiently to reopen the advantage of study, learning, and previous experience.

Use your values as a compass: It’s nice to have something anchored when seas become turbulent. Personal and organizational mission and value statements offer reliable guides when navigating a storm. Treated as a checklist, our values become a filter and methodology for maintaining direction during uncertain times.

Think, write, talk: These mutually validating activities rely on different parts of the brain. Once you’ve given thorough consideration to a difficult situation, writing provides an integrative advantage. Upon reaching clarity, test conclusions in conversations with trusted colleagues, consultants, and mentors.

Become familiar with “the zone”: Insufficient stress subtracts from performance. Too much stress disables decision-making. There is a sweet spot in any endeavor that is characterized by effortlessness. Learning the physical, emotional, and cognitive markers of “the zone” bookmarks the state for future reference.

Healthy organizations embrace change even when it’s occurring quickly and unexpectedly. Employees watch their leaders closely when tension rises. Willingness to follow a leader during stressful times is driven by trust and safety. The ability to slow the world down when change is happening rapidly is a rare leadership competency.