Stress is not a feeling. Stress is a series of physiological changes that occur as our bodies prepare us for a situation that is important to our survival. Our pupils dilate, our muscular strength increases and our breathing rate becomes more rapid. We are ready for action.
Stress is necessary for high performance. The physiological changes described above prime the body to perform at its best. Without them complacency, low arousal and poor focus can set in.
Our sporting heroes will tell you that their greatest moments occurred when under high stress. When the season was on the line, when under the greatest pressure, only then were they able to find the true boundaries of their talent and skill.
The executives operates in a very similar environment. They thrive on a crisis. An opportunity to flex their mental muscle and use their individual flair to create a result no one thought was possible. The executive who strives for greatness is constantly scanning their environment looking these opportunities. In a strange way they are constantly looking for stress.
The problem that executives encounter is that staying in this performance state for days on end has disastrous consequences. A recent Apollo Life Study found that 84% of executives and a staggering 100% of CEOs suffered from at least one stress related ailment such as insomnia, stomach ulcers, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or frequent headaches.
To become an Executive Athlete you must be able to control your physiological response to stress. The first step is to see stress as something that is beneficial, your bodies response to drive you to a new level of performance. The second is to be able to consciously use triggers, like the one described by Mark below, to slow their thinking and change their physiological response to stress.
“The forehead is where the danger zone is. This is where the hot flash goes and I can absolutely feel it. When that starts to flash, that’s not a good thing. So I think for me if I think ‘ok I have got a problem here’, I need to breathe this one through and I’ll actually visualise a white spot on my forehead. Because if it’s white it can’t go red.” – Mark Adams, Executive General Manager, Specialised Sales, NAB
Mark is one of four executives who is profiled in my book The Executive Athlete which will be released later this year.