When you’re stressed and anxious, you aren’t the only one who feels it. There’s a ripple effect that goes beyond you, especially if you’re in a leadership position. That’s what it’s important to know how to decrease stress and anxiety (and even prevent both) effectively.
It’s time to learn how to decrease stress and anxiety through mindfulness so that you can be a more effective leader and improve your company’s bottom line. Not only that, but decreasing stress and anxiety won’t just make you a better leader, it will also make you a better partner, parent, and friend.
Table of Contents
The Impact of Stress and Anxiety On You and Your Company
How Stress and Anxiety Hurts You
Stress causes your body to go into a fight or flight response. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can increase attention, focus, and motivate you to perform better.
But it’s not good when you’re subjected to chronic stress over the long-term because your body isn’t built to be under assault for so long. Chronic stress causes a host of negative health problems, including:
- immune system disruption, which increases your chances of getting sick;
- circadian rhythm disruption, making it harder to sleep (and further increasing stress and hurting your health); and
- hormonal imbalances, which wreak havoc on your emotional and physical well-being.
Stress isn’t something to wear as a badge of honor, nor should it be something you accept and do nothing about. Stress and anxiety can be reduced (and should be). Because you won’t be an effective leader if you’re negatively impacted by it.
The Ripple Effect of Stress and Anxiety That Impacts Everyone
A 2017 survey of 1,000 college-educated employees in the U.S. found that when leaders are stressed, there’s a negative ripple effect throughout the entire organization. Here’s what that survey found:
- Only 11 percent of employees of leaders considered stressed reported being engaged at work (and only 7% believed their stressed-out leaders were effective).
- Leaders who don’t manage stress constructively are perceived as harmful or ineffective by more than 50% of their employees.
- 79% of employees of resilient leaders wanted a more senior role in their organization.
If your employees see you as ineffective and harmful, then you ARE harming not just yourself but the entire organization and its employees. This is a recipe for distrust and a toxic culture. And the negative impact on company culture and morale will hurt the company’s bottom line.
Conversely, mentally resilient leaders who deal with stress constructively will have more loyal employees and hence a better company culture. That can only help the bottom line.
That’s why it’s so important for leaders to understand how to decrease stress and anxiety. It’s not just about your health, but the health of your company and it’s employees.
[Recommended Reading: Become More Self-Confident at Work To Improve Your Leadership: 5 Surprising Tips].
Serious About How to Reduce Stress and Anxiety? Understand What Mindfulness Is (and Isn’t)
Before we jump into how to reduce stress and anxiety through mindfulness, it’s important to understand what it really is and how it works. Otherwise, it won’t work very well (or at all). There’s a lot of confusing information about what mindfulness is – and some really bad advice on how to use it.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness seems to have various definitions, depending on who you talk to. Here are a few:
- Paying attention to the present moment;
- Letting go of judgment and not taking things for granted;
- Being aware of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and your environment; and
- Paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judgment.
I prefer a definition put forth by a consensus of mindfulness researches almost 15 years ago, which is:
The self-regulation of attention while adopting an orientation in the present moment characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
This is specific and clear yet also a broad viewpoint of what mindfulness really is. I like it’s two-pronged emphasis on (1) self-regulation of attention and (2) being present while adopting a curious, open, and accepting attitude.
Self-Regulation of Attention
Self-regulation of attention is often glaringly missing from most people’s definition of mindfulness. . . but it shouldn’t be. This component is important for increased mental awareness. It’s also what keeps you from getting caught up in your thoughts and allowing them to run away from you.
And that’s the point for mindfulness – to notice and acknowledge your thoughts when they wander and then to bring them back to your focal point. If you’re not self-regulating your attention, then you’re not really practicing mindfulness.
Being Present With Curiosity, Openness, and Awareness
The second part of the definition above involves curiosity, openness, and acceptance while in the present moment. This nonjudgmental way of being in the present moment is what helps you bring more of your subconscious out into the open. And it also encourages openness and acceptance of others (which in my view – especially in the current cultural climate – is a good thing).
If you believe there’s a “right” or “wrong” way of thinking (or have negative judgments about your thoughts and feelings), then you won’t be open to exploring them. And that likely means ignoring and pushing them down instead of processing through them and getting past them. Part of the beauty of being mindful is what happens as a result of it: you’re more likely to work through difficult emotions, feelings, fears, and beliefs so that you can let go and move on.
Common Misconceptions, Myths & Misunderstandings About Mindfulness
Although there’s a lot of information about mindfulness and it’s benefits, I still find that many professionals don’t believe it works or falsely believe that it won’t work for them. This is due to some common misconceptions, myths, and misunderstandings about what mindfulness is, how to use it, and how it works.
Here are a 5 common misunderstandings about mindfulness that I would like to dispel:
Mindfulness Myth #1: Mindfulness is woo-woo.
There’s nothing woo-woo about being mindful. Although it’s not the panacea of happiness and positivity some like to claim (what is?), there are numerous science-backed benefits to mindfulness. Besides, there are many ways to practice it. You get to choose which type of practice feels right to you.
Besides, you already have the ability to self-regulate yourself and the capacity to be present, open, aware, and curious. What’s woo-woo about that?
Mindfulness Myth #2: You don’t have time to practice mindfulness.
Most people who believe they don’t have time to practice mindfulness incorrectly think that mindfulness is about meditating for long periods of time. Although meditation is one way to practice mindfulness, it’s not the only way. And you don’t have to spend an hour – or even 30 minutes – meditating to get benefits.
Besides, there are many ways to practice mindfulness, many of which can be done in couple of minutes.
[Recommended Reading: Feel Too Busy to Take a Break? 3 Tips for Resting Without Guilt].
Mindfulness Myth #3: You’re not good at clearing your mind, so can’t meditate.
Meditation is NOT about clearing your mind. When you meditate, it’s expected that your mind will wander. That’s when the self-regulation of attention kicks in. All you have to do is acknowledge that your mind has wandered and bring your attention back to your focal point.
Mindfulness Myth #4: Mindfulness sounds complicated and yet another thing you have to add to your to-do list.
There’s nothing exotic or complicated about being mindful. It’s something you already do (although probably not well if you don’t practice it intentionally). Mindfulness isn’t about adding more to your plate – it’s really a mental shift in how you live and a way of being.
As noted above, (1) your brain already has the capacity to be present and self-regulate and (2) most mindfulness exercises can be done in a matter of minutes. It’s time to stop using this as an excuse not to practice mindfulness.
[Recommended Reading: if you keep pushing self-care to the bottom of your to-do list, then read about how to take it OFF your to-do list altogether in 5 Reasons You Feel Guilty About Taking Care of Yourself (and What to Do About It)].
Mindfulness Myth #5: Mindfulness is about changing your beliefs.
Mindfulness is absolutely not about changing your beliefs or who you are. It’s about becoming more aware of your beliefs, thoughts, fears, and feelings. You (and only you) get to choose what to do with them.
You don’t need to change who you are or how you behave to be mindful. That doesn’t mean that mindfulness won’t affect you in a positive way (it will). But again, it’s you who determines what happens.
Why Use Mindfulness for Reducing Stress and Anxiety?
Incorporating mindfulness into your life has several benefits when it comes to reducing your stress and anxiety levels and being an effective leader:
Benefit #1: Mindfulness decreases emotional reactions and enhances thoughtful response.
Mindfulness helps you to become more aware of your thoughts and feelings, so that you can process them and not be held hostage by them. It actually trains your brain to be less emotionally reactive and to instead calm down so that you can think more clearly.
This will will result in a more thoughtful response and stop you from lashing out in frustration, anger, or fear. It will make you a much more effective leader.
This Viktor Frankl quote gets to the heart of this concept:
“Between stimulus and response there’s a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Mindfulness gives you the power to choose.
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Benefit #2: Mindfulness will help you be more open and accepting.
Part of the practice of mindfulness involves being open, curious, and accepting (and to stay away from judgment). This is an important quality to have when it comes to creating a healthy company culture and being more innovative.
As a leader, you must be open to the ideas and opinions of others. You even need to be open to people challenging your ideas. Although you won’t always adopt the opinions of others, being open to hearing them will make you a more effective and innovative leader. And it will also create trust.
Another benefit is that it helps you to be more understanding and compassionate. You’re better able to understand people (even if you don’t agree with them) when you’re open, curious, and nonjudgmental.
Benefit #3: Mindfulness will teach you to be more present in the moment.
The practice of mindfulness accentuates being present in the moment. To pay attention to not just what’s going on within you, but also to your bodily sensations and to the people and environment around you.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from prospective and new clients is that they want to be more present – both at work and at home. They feel like their mind often wanders, which makes them less productive and makes them feel less connected (and guilty for it).
Mindfulness helps to train your brain to be more present and aware of your current environment. Over time, a regular mindfulness practice will help you to become more aware when your mind wanders and to refocus quickly. And it also helps you to stay more focused in the first place.
Benefit #4: Mindfulness will get you out of auto-pilot so that you can enjoy life more.
One of the benefits of mindfulness I’ve been most surprised by is how much it’s helped me enjoy the little things. What I used to take for granted – and might not have even noticed – I now pay closer attention to. This has helped me to see my life (and my place in the world) differently. And it’s made my life more enjoyable.
There’s something about noticing the beauty in other people and our natural environment that keeps things in perspective. This helps you to keep a more positive outlook and is a natural stress and anxiety manager.
Benefit #5: Mindfulness stops your stress response, makes you more aware of stress triggers, and increases resiliency to stress.
There are science-backed benefits to utilizing certain mindfulness practices when it comes to reduction and prevention of stress. First, note that all of the previous 4 benefits will reduce your stress and anxiety levels. Being more accepting, open, and present while being less reactive and in auto-pilot have obvious stress-reducing benefits.
But there’s more to it than that. A regular mindfulness practice lowers your stress response in the amygdala. When you go into fight or flight mode, it’s difficult to get out of it without invoking mindfulness practices. In fact, it’s likely that you already utilize mindfulness for this purpose without realizing it through slow breathing, journaling, or tensing and relaxing your muscles.
Mindfulness also helps you to prevent stress by becoming more aware of triggers. Finally, mindfulness meditation has proven benefits relating to reduction and stress resiliency.
[Recommended Reading: To help you be more resilient, prioritize play. Learn how by reading Why Taking Time to Play Without Guilt Is Important to Your Success and Happiness].
How to Decrease Stress and Anxiety Through Mindfulness
As mentioned above, there are LOTS of ways to use mindfulness for stress reduction and prevention. I want to go over 5 of them today:
Meditation is the most recognized form of mindfulness. Unfortunately for many, it’s also the most daunting. There’s something about sitting still and trying to focus on one thing that feels strange (even scary). But it isn’t – all you need to do is try something simple.
Even better is that you can practice meditation actively while exercising (such as when walking, running, swimming, doing yoga, or riding a bike). You don’t have to be seated to meditate.
Getting Started: A Simple Meditation
Here’s how to get started with a simple seated breath meditation:
- Go somewhere that is quiet and where you can relax. Do NOT take your phone or turn any electronics on.
- Set a timer for however long you want to meditate. You can go for just 5 minutes if you’ve never done it before. I recommend building up to 10-12 minutes on a regular basis.
- Sit comfortably. You don’t have to sit on the floor if you don’t want to. Just be sure that you’re comfortable, your spine is straight and you’re stable.
- Straighten your spine naturally. Rest your head and shoulders comfortably and sit naturally straight. The point is to not slouch (not to be stiff and uncomfortable).
- Rest your arms parallel to your upper body, with your hands in a comfortable position on top of your legs. This will help you be more natural, comfortable, and not too stiff.
- Close your eyes or gaze slightly downward (and slightly drop your chin). You don’t have to close your eyes (although you can if you want to).
- Start with a simple breath meditation by focusing on your breathing. Pay attention to how it feels going in and out of your nose, throat, or chest. Or count your breaths in and out to 10 (and start over). Pick one thing to focus on and go with it.
- Any time you realize that your mind has wandered, notice and acknowledge it. You can say a word inside your head such as “wandered” if you want. Then, bring your attention back to your breath (whatever you were focusing on before) and start over again.
- Keep doing this over and over until done.
Mindful noticing will help you to become more aware of your surroundings and your bodily sensations. And it will help train your mind to be more present and to notice the small things in life. Here are a few exercises to give a try:
- Mindfully eat. For the first 5 minutes of a meal (or even longer if you want), pay close attention to what you’re eating. How does it smell, taste, look, and feel? Appreciate your food when on the plate and each bite. Chew slowly and enjoy yourself.
- Mindfully walk. Take a walk and pay close attention to what you see, hear, smell, and sense. Name the colors and textures that you see. Pick up a leaf or a blade of grass and really notice it. Don’t label or categorize but instead try to view everything as though you’re a young child. Any time you notice your mind has wandered, bring your mind back to the present and keep going.
Mindful Awareness of Feelings & Thoughts
There are two exercises that I recommend for this. One relates to you and the other is to observe the thoughts and feelings of others. Here’s what to do:
- Name your own thoughts. Stop and name the thoughts and feelings that you’re having throughout the day. You might want to set a calendar reminder to do this (I recommend doing it 2-3 times per day). Get curious about how you feel and what you’re thinking (and remember not to judge yourself). You might want to keep a journal to record what you find. Over time, this will help you to become more aware of what’s going on inside of you (and better able to deal with negative thoughts).
- Identify the feelings and emotions of strangers. Observe strangers and identify the feelings and emotions they’re having. Pay attention to their behavior, speech patterns, voice inflection, and even body language. You can do this anywhere – at a stoplight, in a restaurant, when standing in line for coffee, and on the subway. This will increase your social and emotional IQ. Think about how much better a leader you’d be if you more intuitively could read people and understood their emotional reactions and responses.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Muscles typically tighten when you’re stressed and anxious. This exercise will not only help you to relieve the tension, but also to reduce your stress levels and to become more aware of where stress manifests itself in you body. To practice muscle relaxation:
- Sit comfortably or lie down.
- Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply through you nose for a minute.
- Tense the muscles in your feet and count to 10. Then, slowly release that tension for a count of 30.
- Next, move up to your calves and do the same thing. Keep going through various muscle groups throughout your body until you reach your head.
- Don’t forget to keep breathing throughout!
Did you know that writing down what’s stressing you out can help reduce stress levels? The reason this works is because it helps you to calm down, organize your thoughts, and process through your emotions. And that often leads your mind to finding potential solutions that might not have been so obvious before.
I recommend setting a timer for 10 minutes (5 minutes works too) for this exercise. Then start writing into a journal or on a piece of paper. Write down what’s going on and then start asking questions, such as:
- What triggered your stress?
- How do you feel about it?
- What do you believe about the situation or what led to it?
- How do you want to deal with it?
- What fears are showing up?
Keep going until your timer goes off.
It’s Time To Get Started
By utilizing the techniques above you’ll not only learn how to manage and relieve stress, but you’ll also become more self and socially-aware and a better leader for it. Not only that, but you’ll be happier, healthier, and a better all-around person.
Ready to take this even further? Download 5-Minute Stress Solutions, a step-by-step guide to 8 strategies that’ll help you: (1) drastically reduce stress, (2) take control of your thoughts, and (3) increase mental resilience. By implementing these strategies, you’ll feel (1) less stressed, (2) calmer and more self-confident, and (3) more in control of your life.
Until next time…