Leading Through Toxic Stress

When the pandemic first struck, I penned a column about leading during times of emergency. The style of leadership needed during a crisis is wholly different than during periods of stability and certainty. Now that the pandemic is months old, without a clear end in sight, business leaders must turn their focus from leading during a crisis to helping teams manage the damaging mental effects of stress. To do this, it is important to know exactly what stress is, what causes it, and how the brain best manages it.

 

Stress is measured by the severity and duration of an unpleasant experience. If the event is severe enough, and lasts long enough, stress can cause harm to the brain; this is called chronic or toxic stress. During an everyday stressful event, the body releases cortisol; a hormone that helps our body chemistry to return to normal once the event has passed. Cortisol also helps regulate blood sugar, and controls the hippocampus, where memories are processed and stored. If stress is prolonged, too much cortisol causes the hippocampus to go out of whack, inhibiting our memory. Stress also causes the prefrontal cortex—the thinking center of the brain—to shrink; causing loss of cognitive function. While the prefrontal cortex shrinks, the amygdala—the reactive part of the brain—grows; making us even more susceptible to stress.

The brain can take almost any situation and adjust to it as the new normal. What is stressful at the outset can, a few months later, be considered perfectly acceptable; with a notable exception. The brain cannot seem to deem acceptable situations that are unpredictable and/or uncontrolled. Tragic events are eventually managed by the brain because we have control over how we deal with them, and there is a certainty about the outcome. One of life’s everyday stressors has never been shown to be manageable by the human brain is rush-hour traffic. Because we cannot control the traffic, and our time of arrival is always uncertain, no matter what calming techniques we try, rush-hour traffic sucks.

Luckily, the damage caused by stress can be reversed. The brain can regrow neural pathways and re-form new ones; a process called neuroplasticity. The younger the brain, the greater the plasticity, but older brains can regain function and manage stress by engaging in healthy activities. This is where good leadership comes in. Too many leaders think that stress can be managed simply by keeping their staff focused. “If we just focus on the work, and put our shoulders against the wheel, we can push through this crisis.” Yes, having something to focus on keeps the brain from wandering into destructive thoughts, but that is only a small part of managing stress.

We have all heard that regular exercise is healthy for the brain; and exercise has been shown to markedly reduce stress. However, beyond encouraging staff to get out of the chair every now and then, there is little a leader can do to facilitate exercise. There are two other stress relievers that managers can manage; social interaction, and purpose. Social interaction has been long ignored for its impact on productivity. In fact, many leaders consider social conversations to be anathema to getting work done. Recently a client said to me that her greatest frustration about video-based meetings was that “too much time was spent on people catching up on personal stuff.” The fact is, personal stuff in conversations has a positive effect on work output. It is not an interruption to work, it facilitates it.

The second stress reliever is just as important; purpose. The brain hates uncertainty and unpredictability because those conditions prevent accomplishing something that has meaning. So, focusing on the good work being done is a great stress reliever. A good leader can manage the current situation by 1) encouraging social interaction, 2) focusing on what the group can control, instead of lamenting over what is out of reach, 3) keeping doomsday predictions out of the conversation, and 4) exalting every achievement. A accomplishment that would have been considered small in the past takes on new light in this time where every purposeful action can keep stress at bay. Toxic stress is not something people can just get over. Good leaders take steps to conquer it.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

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