1: Can we get better at handling stress and self-doubt?

The short answer? Yes.

Life comes at us fast. It’s a VUCA world out there full of “Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.” Our ability to navigate life successfully depends on our ability to move from a reactive mindset to a creative mindset, Dr. Daniel Friedland* writes in his wonderful book Leading Well from Within.  

“The state of reactivity associated with low-performance. . . generally includes the more reflexive and inflexible patterns of behavior influenced by the lower, survival-oriented regions of the brain, which are focused on self-preservation or self-gain,” Danny writes. “In contrast, the state of creativity associated with high-performance. . . facilitates awareness, social cooperation, and the cognitive flexibility to envision, strategize, and achieve [our] desired results.” 

Step one is to learn how to recognize our reactivity.  

2: We can respond to stressful situations in at least three different ways: (1) with a threat response – think “fight or flight;” (2) with a challenge response where we feel confident we have necessary resources to meet the challenge at hand, or (3) with a “tend-and-befriend” response in which we connect with others for increased support and resources to handle the challenge.

“When our threat response is activated and we are unaware of it,” Danny observes, “we can get lost in a spiral of reactivity—a dynamic interplay between our physiological responses, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.”

Many of these reactive responses are reflexive and subconscious, Danny notes. Our reactions are often “well-grooved patterns” of which we may be unaware. Many times our reaction is out of proportion with the situation at hand, leading us to say or do things that do more harm than good.  

The result? High stress and low performance. 

3: There is another option. Instead, we can work to increase our awareness and recognize our reactivity. With practice, we can modify our behavior before we harm ourselves and others. ” We can think of ourselves as “a social anthropologist or archeologist, compassionately unearthing [our] subconscious responses, approaching the dig with a fascination for what [we’ll] find.”

The place to start? Our bodies and our physical reactions. When stressful situations occur, our digestive system shuts down. Consequently, our mouths may become dry, and we feel a pit in our stomach.  

We are also wise to pay attention to our thoughts. When stress and self-doubt trigger a threat response, reactive thinking tends to fall into one of four buckets: 

o All the bad things that could happen 

o The regrets of our past – i.e., “if only” thoughts. For example, “If only I hadn’t made such a stupid investment. . .” Or, “If only I had not said that. . .” Or, “If only I hadn’t made such a mess of things . . .”

o What’s wrong with me. Often associated with painful self-judgment like “I’m a failure.” Or, “I’m an imposter.” Or, “It’s all my fault.”  

o What’s wrong with other people. Thoughts about what’s wrong with others manifest as a stream of judgment and criticism of people around us.

We also pay attention to our emotions and feelings. Danny notes the “big six” basic emotions are fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness. Feelings are the subjective experience of our emotions. Reactive emotions are potent drivers of what we do. In time, our ability to recognize how we are feeling keeps us from doing or saying something we may later regret.

The Key Question to ask: Is my reactivity likely to do myself and others more harm than good?

More tomorrow, when we look at steps we can take to manage our reactivity.


Reflection: In what ways do I respond to stress and self-doubt?

Action: Discuss with my spouse, friend, or colleague.

*Danny was my friend, mentor, and business coach. He passed away after a yearlong battle with brain cancer on October 30, 2021. To watch Danny’s memorial, click here. Note: service begins at 12:45 time marker. His sons remarks begin at 1:14:30.

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