How You Handle Stress is Half of Success

Six Tips for Rolling with the Punches and Not Getting Stressed Out

Don Draper from AMC’s Mad Men

As a younger man, I was such a pain in the ass. If someone or something crossed me, I would go off the deep end and stay there for a good while.

My inability to deal with stress made me impulsive. Like the time I got so fed up with a work situation in Colorado, I quit, packed up my stuff, and drove to California that same day to take a new job.

But that was 20 years ago. Today, after years of practice, my recovery time for having a cool head after getting stressed about something is normally measured in seconds or minutes, not hours. My goal is to make it nano-seconds.

Look, most of us will never be like the Dalai Lama — imperturbable and equanimous in the face of any injustice or disturbance. For the rest of us, the question isn’t “Will we react?” but “How quickly will we realize we’re reacting ‘unskillfully’ and choose a difference response?”

Learning to react skillfully to stress is arguably more important than any hard skill you might learn at University. Why? Because people who know how to roll with the punches are fun to work with. Their grace under pressure is attractive. They are natural leaders. They tend to make better decisions. They are also surprisingly rare — and what’s rare is valuable.

Here are some simple techniques I use for snapping out of over-reacting to life’s stresses, hardships, and hurtful situations.

  1. Focus on Your Breath

If this sounds a little New Agey, it is. Just bear with me. We spend 99% of our lives completely unaware of our breath. It just happens unconsciously — much like our negative responses to tough situations. But as soon as we become aware of the air entering our lungs, we are snapped out of our heads and into our bodies. This brings us back to the present moment and often gives us perspective and awareness, which are the cornerstones of choosing a better response to stress.

This GIF from http://imgur.com/gallery/Huou7Gh can help you pace your breathing.

Sometimes just 10–20 seconds of focused breathing is enough to take us out of that emotional fight or flight state that has been triggered by something arguably much less threatening than a saber-toothed tiger.

2. Adjust Your Body Language

Guru Tony Robbins and Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy both agree that if you change your body language you can change your emotions. Basically, by puffing out your chest, pulling back your shoulders, placing your hands on your hips, and standing tall (or choosing any posture that resembles a superhero or athlete) you send a message to your body to feel stronger, calmer, and more confident.

Image from: http://bit.ly/2bu7rhk

I do this for 30–60 seconds anytime I feel stress start to tighten my chest and shorten my breath. Those are the physical manifestations of stress in my body. In your body, they might be tight shoulders, back, or jaw.

If I’m having a stressful phone call, I will literally stand up, puff my chest out, and put one hand on my hip like Superman. It is amazing how well this works.

3. Ask If It’s Something Within Your Control

It’s amazing how much time we spend worrying or fuming over stuff that is completely out of our control. Like the guy ten cars back in traffic leaning on his horn, having an overly negative response to something you can’t change only disrupts people around you and makes you look like an idiot.

My classic bad mood maker is long security lines at the airport when I’m invariably running late. “Ugh, why are these people taking so long?!” But guess what? Me getting annoyed at long lines at the airport is about as logical as getting annoyed at the sun for shining.

Ommmmm…

Could they create faster security processes or open more desks to check bags? Probably. But will my complaining to the person I’m traveling with make that happen right now? No way. It will most likely just make me look petulant and annoy him or her.

You can’t argue with what is. You can only accept it.

And the funny thing is all those people at the airport probably complain just as much about me as I fumble with my laptop, forget to take my belt off, or hop around as I try to untie my shoes.

ProTip: If it’s not literally within arm’s reach, I most often can’t change it. And if it’s another human being that’s within arm’s reach, I probably still can’t change it.

4. See the Absurdity in Things and Laugh at It

I try to think of life’s little frustrating (or infuriating) moments as vignettes from a Ben Stiller movie. Of course the taxi breaks down right at the exact moment you need to be at the most important meeting of your career. Of course your pants split open at the beginning of your sister’s wedding. Of course your boss walks in the one time all day you’ve opened Facebook. Of course you get chewing gum and dog shit all over your new pair of white sneakers…on your way to a hot date.

In these moments, all you can do is laugh at yourself. Everyone else is.

You’ll also find two amazing things happen when you handle moments like these with humor:

a) You feel like a champ. Like Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind gracefully laughing off all of Scarlett’s annoying rebukes.

Clark Gable as Rhett Butler.

b) Others are more attracted to you. Your calm presence in a situation where others would be flipping their shit is something we all admire and want to be around.

5. Ask Yourself “How Important Is it?”

No, really. In the grand scheme of things, how important is it that you’re late, that you’re disappointed, that some a-hole in the office took credit for your project, that your boyfriend forgot to pick up Parmesan cheese for the lasagna you’ve been working on all day?

Veruca Salt throwing a tantrum in Willy Wonka

You’re really going to throw a tantrum over this stuff?

Relative to the incredible suffering so many people around the world endure with grace on a daily basis (1 in 9 humans have no access to clean and safe drinking water, 4 in 5 live on less than $10 a day, and over half has no access to the internet), your problems are SOOOO insignificant.

So, c’mon. Chill the F out and get some perspective. (And, yes, I’m speaking to myself in this instance as much to anyone else…)

BONUS: Figure Out Your Typical Response Now and Be Ready for It

It’s always best to get gas before you really need it. In the same vein, there are things you can do right now to fill up the tank for the next time you are faced with a stressful situation.

We all have a predictable ways we react to stress and hardship. Some people (like me) get annoyed and blameful (which is normally a cover-up emotion for feeling helpless or not in control).

Others distract themselves with alcohol, excitement, social media, or porn. Why feel bad when you can feel numb?

Still others try to people please by overworking, being super mom, or being perfect in their physical appearance — working out compulsively, shopping for new clothes constantly, obsessing their make-up or grooming, etc.

Simply being aware of your typical response can start to dissolve it. You’ll see yourself doing the same old thing and say, “Oh, I’m doing that same old thing again…”


Well, that’s it. I’d love to hear what other methods you use for dealing with stress. Please post helpful tips for others (or any questions for me) below!


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Edward Sullivan is the founder and head coach at LeadWell.co — a boutique coaching and training organization that helps start-up CEOs and corporate executives navigate the challenges of leadership with authenticity. With offices in San Francisco and New York, LeadWell helps leaders and their teams optimize their performance and overcome obstacles to growth. He can be reached at edward@leadwell.co.