When Stress Disables Coping

Published: March 21, 2017

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.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.