Today people are busier then ever, trying to accomplish as much as they possibly can. Many employees are spending nearly as much time at work as they do at home. Electronically, once we head home we are still connected to work. At some point in time the quality of our work tapers off and the possibility of error increases as the wheels begin to fall off.

One challenge that leaders and entrepreneurs contend with is the ability to tolerate the tension, stress, and overwhelm that comes with the territory. This post will offer some useful strategies to recognize and overcome stressful situations. These strategies can help keep people sane while preventing mistakes or perhaps costly industrial accidents.

As kids, all of us have played with toy airplanes with a rubber band driven propeller.

If their is no tension on the rubber band the propeller won’t spin and if there is too much it will break. When the tension is just right, all things seem to work quite well. We all have days where we can’t get moving, we have too much going on or things are just right.

On those days where unpleasant surprises sneak onto our to do list, there are some things we can do to stay cool, calm and collected. This is why many people dread Monday mornings. Effective leaders need to know how to function when this happens, as chaos in many jobs can be a frequent occurrence. Acknowledge that there are some events we have control over and others we don’t. You have to take things as they come and do the best that you can.

When things get stressful it is useful to recognize it and respond to it.

While that may sound simple and obvious, sometimes it is not. Often people recognize and ignore it while they continue to push forward. For example, have you ever experienced being hungry or having to use the bathroom when it was inconvenient or you were too busy to get up and do something about it? Stress can be the same way. We can become fixated and so obsessed with our goal that we tend to ignore things like well being, quality and safety. Sometimes we tend to keep our nose to the grindstone instead of easing off and recovering.

When running, if we go too far or fast, our nervous system sends clear signals that it is time to slow down or stop. If do too many pull ups, our muscles begin to burn informing us that we have exceeded our limit. If we encounter scalding hot water, our response is to immediately pull away from the source.

In aviation, pilots are trained to be aware of a situation called a stall. Stalls have nothing to do with the engine going out. The term is derived from the science of fluid mechanics where an aerodynamic surface is no longer effective. In essence if a wing is pointed too high above the horizon, it won’t have enough air flowing over it and it stops generating lift. When the pilot recognizes and feels the sluggishness and buffeting created by the stall, they release the back pressure on the flight controls. This lets the nose come down thus increasing airflow allowing the wing to return to normal flight.

Top Ten Tips

Workplace stress and overwhelm are more like an airplane stall than running or doing pull ups. Here are ten tips to help you recognize the tightness and tension of oncoming stress and some ideas on how to recover before things become problematic.

1. How Deep Are You Breathing?

Under stress our breathing shifts to become high and shallow. Our brain is no longer receiving the oxygen it needs to function and make effective decisions. When we are not breathing well, the letters earned in graduate school following our last name like, Ph.D, MD, and MA temporarily disappear!

Since we have to breathe to stay alive, in stressful times it often is difficult to keep track of just how well we are breathing. Train yourself to be mindful of when your breathing becomes shallow. Pause and take several slow deep diaphragmatic breaths. Square breathing means to inhale to a count of four, hold for four, exhale for four and hold for four. Continue to maintain a deeper breathing pattern until stress levels are reduced.

If you are stressing out in the car while driving to a potentially difficult meeting, find some music on the radio and sing along out loud. It is amazing how quickly singing improves your breathing before you arrive at your destination.

If you are talking with another person or presenting to a group of people, pay attention to their breathing patterns. If they are breathing high, the topic of conversation may be very stresssul for them. Non verbally shift their breathing pattern by deepening yours. If they are not getting enough oxygen, they won’t hear you or make effective decisions.

2. Change Your Location: If you are at your desk, get up and go someplace else for 10 to 15 minutes.

If you are attending a stressful meeting in a conference room, take a short walk outside before returning to your desk. Do not return until you are calm or in a neutral state. There are electronic fitness bands that measure the number of steps you take each day and also warn you if you have been sitting at your desk for too long.

If you have had a stressful day, you might consider taking a different route home. Diffuse the tension and stress before going home and sharing it with your family. Call to warn them that you have had a tough day and ask them to let you unwind upon arrival. Once home, take a shower (maybe cold) and change clothes to help you transition into a calm evening.

3. Change Your Body: Exercise is a fantastic way to change your body, breathing, location, metabolism and mental state.

A vigorous workout of 20 minutes or more will usually do the trick. It will give you more energy and a fresh perspective with which to tackle the challenges and issues at hand. Working out or walking at lunchtime is great if you can do it. If you are not exercising at least three times a week, it might be a good time to evaluate your exercise goals. Having a personal trainer can make a big difference.

If you are preparing for a stressful event, like a meeting or interview, pay attention to how you are standing. By standing big and tall, you can increase the production of testosterone five minutes before the event. Amy Cuddy from Harvard Business School has a three minute instructional video explaining how to utilize what she calls a power-pose.

You can reduce tension with isometric exercises. Tighten and release your fist, arm and leg muscles a few times. Go into the restroom and make funny faces in the mirror. Change your voice by making strange sounds or singing. Carefully and gently move your eyes around inside your eye sockets, look in every direction. Having a bottle of lubricating eye drops is very useful for this and for those who spend their days in front of a computer terminal. Take breaks by getting away from the screen at regular intervals.

If you are angry, fully cool off before continuing any further conversations or discussions. Draft, but do not send any emails. Our tendency when angry is to want to resolve the problem now, so that the emotions go away. Yet when angry we are breathing high and in an un-resourceful state, so we tend to make things even worse. Next time you are angry, keep track of how long it takes you to calm down. Operating from anger is a excellent way to ruin everything you have worked for, including your family and career.

4. Thinking Speed: Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist at Princeton, wrote a book called Thinking Fast and Slow.

He indicates that people do tasks at two different speeds. Some tasks can be performed more effectively at a faster speed and some at a slower speed. While under stress, our tendency is to think too fast when we need to slow down. Sometimes a simple shift into a lower gear can get you through a stressful situation. There is some logic to the Lewis Carroll quote “the hurrier I go, the behinder I get”, and John Wooden’s quote “if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

5. Diet: During times of stress, we may crave comfort foods.

While eating a couple of Oreo’s is a nice treat, eating a couple every 15 minutes is not. Staying on a healthy diet and eating right helps our body to get through the stressful times. Make sure to keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Summer and perspiration can increase water loss. This is also a good time to monitor your caffein and alcohol intake. Once the crisis is over, or the victory is in hand, reward yourself with that extra cup of coffee or celebratory glass of champagne. As they say, everything in moderation.

6. Sleep: A power nap can be as short as 6-10 minutes long.

Many companies are encouraging workday naps to help increase employee freshness, creativity, competence and safety. Make sure you are getting enough quality sleep every night. One good way to measure sleep quality is based on how easy it is to get up on the mornings you have to go to work.

7.Proactively-Plan-Organize-Prioritize-Prepare-Practice: If you systematically do all of these, it is the best possible prevention for surprise, crisis and overwhelm.

Professional football teams spend their entire week doing this, all for one performance on Sunday.

If you have a meeting, coffee or lunch, don’t be on time, be early! Being late is reactive, embarrassing and shoots holes in your credibility. Take something to read or do while you are waiting. In our electronic world it is easy to take a device to work on. Once the meeting begins, turn off the device and give 100% of your attention to the person in front of you. In most cities it is hard to predict how bad the traffic will be, so be 15-30 minutes early. Confirming your meeting the day before, or the morning of, is a great way to prevent hiccups from occurring.

Most everyone has a to do list. Do you have to stop list? Peter Drucker suggested this to maintain a clear list of priorities and keep that number small. Planned abandonment helps leaders to eliminate things that waste their time. Unsubscribe from publications and email lists that you are not reading. Anything that can free up more time is a useful thing.

At tax time, it is so much faster to prepare when you have kept up with the bookkeeping all year long. Remembering details when they happen is easier than trying to reconstruct them several months later. Most everyone hates doing them, but they are not that hard if you just have the discipline to keep up and document expenses as they occur.

8. Turn Negatives Into Positives: Many people are heavily invested in negative outcomes just to win, be right or to make a point.

Life is too short and time is too scarce to invest in win lose situations. While negatives provide opportunities for growth, learning and skill development, they are intended to be experiences from which to recover, not experiences to extend.

When you encounter a negative situation stop the downward spiral and work to create a win win situation. Great leadership is about achieving success through other people winning. In mose cases the group is more important than the individual. Turning things around is often not so hard if someone has the courage to let go and makes a concerted effort.

9. Embrace Conflict: In life, conflict is uncomfortable and inevitable.

Don’t be afraid of it, don’t avoid it, stay calm and work through it. The road to success is paved with speed bumps along the way. Keep moving over them, one by one, until you reach your destination.

10. Negotiation Is Everything: Sometimes you have to negotiate with yourself.

Anytime there is more than one person involved, the only way to create fair, respectful, win win situations is by knowing how to effectively negotiate. All strong relationships are built and maintained on this foundation. If you are not a good negotiator, the time to start is now!

By using these tools, we can do our best to effectively manage and improve stressful situations while achieving greater levels of accomplishment. When we know how to influence the speed of the merry go round, it doesn’t have to wreak havoc on us.