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Zoning in and out of stress

While it’s normal to navigate varying levels of stress every day, taking steps to manage that stress is key.
Aaron De Smet

Delivers growth, innovation, and organizational agility and is an expert on culture change, leadership development, team effectiveness, capability building, and transformation

Vlad, an ambitious young executive, moved to Singapore for a new role. Although he felt exhausted after his last challenging project, he was eager for the new challenge and wanted to hit the ground running. Vlad worked long hours and increasingly neglected himself. He skipped meals, stopped exercising, and failed to get enough sleep. He powered through the holidays instead of taking time to recover. Eventually, his body decided enough was enough: Vlad suffered a severe panic attack and had to take nine weeks off work. Vlad’s story is just one of many.

We all navigate varying levels of stress every day, especially amid the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is normal and happens consciously and unconsciously. But if we don’t take steps to mitigate stress, it saps our effectiveness and can even make us fall ill, like Vlad.

The first step to managing stress is to become aware of the three main zones of being: the Comfort Zone, the Adaptive Zone, and the Danger Zone. By practicing the idea of Deliberate Calm, we can learn to navigate these zones in a way to work for us rather than against us. 

The Comfort Zone is characterized by feelings of safety and comfort. In this zone, we may find ourselves in different modes of complacency or distraction, deep focus and flow, or rest and recovery, where we process intense experiences. This is not a zone where we learn new things but rather leverage what we already know.

When we experience rapid change, stress builds and we move into the Adaptive Zone. From here, we have two paths. When stress becomes negative, it can push us into a protective mode where we deploy defense mechanisms, get tunnel vision, and cling to what we know. However, if we can become aware of these negative effects, then magic can happen by pivoting into a positive state of stress, e.g., by adopting a different mindset. A positive experience is one where we are challenged while preserving some sense of safety, letting us unlock a learning mode of growth and high performance. However, although the learning mode allows us to work under severe stress, we still must allow ample time for recovery and returning to the Comfort Zone.

If we subject ourselves to negative stress for too long, we run the risk of falling into the Danger Zone of burnout and trauma. Survival instinct takes over and our ability to choose another mode diminishes rapidly. This is what happened to Vlad when he kept going without taking time for self-care.

Vlad has since learned that when he finds himself in the Adaptive Zone, he can choose to unlock the learning mode. Entering the learning mode is a result of self-discovery and, with the appropriate mindset, can be accomplished without a harrowing passage through the Danger Zone.

We can achieve this awareness and self-discovery by cultivating Deliberate Calm. Do this by proactively and in the moment checking in with yourself regularly. Perform mindfulness and breathing techniques, meditate, or exercise. Note your thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself, “What mode am I in right now, and what do I need at this moment?”

As stress increases and you find yourself in the Adaptive Zone, be aware if you find yourself slipping into the protective mode. Take action to return to the learning mode and find ways to re-energize and refuel. The Danger Zone should be avoided at all costs; we should aim to stay in the positive modes as much as possible.

Practicing Deliberate Calm can help you become aware and act, avoiding repeating Vlad’s lesson of becoming another casualty of runaway stress.

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