27 September 2023

Keeping your head in stressful moments

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May Busch* has some advice for those stressful moments that are certain to multiply as we come face-to-face with the ‘new normal’.

As a young banker, I secured a meeting with Gareth, the powerful gatekeeper at one of the most iconic companies in the Chicago area.

It was also going to be my first meeting as the lead banker on an account.

Even though I had spent a week preparing, I was pretty nervous as Gareth ushered me and a colleague into his office.

Despite my nerves, the meeting started well and my confidence grew, but then it happened.

Garth leaned forward and asked me a question I hadn’t anticipated.

Caught off guard, I started blathering out an answer. Any answer. I couldn’t think straight.

After what seemed like an eternity, my colleague jumped in to provide his perspective.

That 60-second interruption was crucial for me to regain my composure so I could finish the meeting strong.

Just as a ‘break in the action’ helped me regain my footing in the meeting, the same concept can help you in times of stress.

Life in the ‘new normal’ has more stress than ever, yet you can still thrive as long as you have strategies to combat its negative effects.

To help you do that, I’m going to share one of my favourite strategies to help you stay composed no matter what’s going on around you.

I call this the Pattern Interrupt.

Think of it as a safety valve from stress. One that helps you get back on track.

It’s like rebooting your laptop when your screen is frozen.

Similarly, when you find yourself in a negative pattern of thinking or behaviour, you need to interrupt that pattern to get back to a more constructive situation.

Knowing how to stop the negative pattern and give yourself some room to regroup and regain composure means you can show up as your best self no matter what happens around you.

In these stressful times, being able to perform at your best is a true differentiator.

While others fall into the trap of getting mired in the negatives, you’ll be able to make good decisions, think strategically and create better outcomes.

You’ll have better interactions with stakeholders and build stronger relationships with clients.

You’ll be able to spot opportunities to set yourself up for success and show you’re ready for the next level in your career.

There are two kinds of situations where Pattern Interrupts are crucial.

First, when there’s a sudden stressor like being put on the spot in a meeting or being pressured into making a decision when you don’t have all the facts.

Second, when you’re under ongoing stress like uncertainty about job prospects or having too much to do and too little time in which to do it.

If your stressful moment is sudden, then the key is to manage your brain in the moment by doing something physical.

So if you’re able to get up and have a change of scenery, do that.

That’s why people talk about how helpful it is to go for a run or take a walk outside when you’re stressed.

Let’s say you’re in a meeting and can’t just get up and leave.

The good news is you still have options. First and foremost is to breathe.

Slow, rhythmic breathing has been proven to reset your brain. The beauty is you are managing your mental state on the spot without anyone else knowing.

One of my former colleagues, Gail was a great role model for this.

Whenever something stressful was going on, she would pause and take a few deep breaths.

Most people thought she was just thinking, but instead she was breathing so she could think clearly.

You could also sit up straighter, stretch or roll your shoulders all without leaving your chair.

If you’re at an in-person meeting with refreshments on a side table, you could get up and pour yourself a glass of whatever’s on offer.

For ongoing stress like the situation most of us are facing these days in the new normal, anticipate and build breaks into your day before you need them.

If you wait until things feel desperate, it takes longer to recover.

Even a five-minute break every hour or two can do wonders for your mental state.

Carve out larger blocks of time when you can engage in activities that energise you.

Think about what you enjoy doing, like looking at art, reading a novel, listening to music, chatting with friends, being in nature or dancing in the kitchen (my personal favourite).

Then build a few into each day or week. You can think of them as rewards for doing a focused period of work.

There’s no one right way or right time for Pattern Interrupts. It depends on you and your situation.

A great way to start is by noticing when you’re falling into a negative pattern of thinking or behaviour.

Check in with yourself regularly to see when you feel stressed, negative, disengaged or fatigued.

Once you start noticing how you’re feeling in the moment, you’ll be better equipped to know when to interrupt yourself.

Experiment with various timings and rhythms and discover what works best.

No matter how strong and resilient you are, you’re still human.

Human beings can’t keep grinding out work hour after hour without needing a break.

So if you’re thinking that you can just tough it out until things are back to normal, realise this: Things aren’t going back to the way they used to be.

So this is the time to make adjustments to how you operate and keep making adjustments.

Pattern Interrupts are one of the strategies that can help you stay composed and keep your bearings in the face of uncertainty and change.

*May Busch works with smart entrepreneurs and top managements to build their businesses. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared on May Busch’s blogsite.

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