It’s 3.17am and you wake up with a start. Sitting bolt upright in bed. You wake up worrying that you have forgotten to complete that important task, that you missed a deadline and that you are in trouble at work. You can feel your heart beating so fast, and you have broken out into a sweat.
It feels so real, and it takes some time to realise that it was a dream, or indeed a nightmare. It takes a while for you to go back to sleep, if you are able to. The mind is racing and you feel exhausted.
Has this, or anything similar happened to you?
I have heard many versions of this story over the years in my work with stressed executives. I have also experienced this in roles where I have felt overwhelmed and where reaching the end of my ‘to-do’ list was completely impossible.
So - why does this happen? What is going on?
This is a classic stress dream, with your unconscious hard at work to try and process your experiences. While it does not feel effective at the time, we must take these experiences as a sure sign that we need to focus on the stress and really look after ourselves. Dreams often appear as unrelated, but are a product of our mind and are viewed as symbolic. Psychoanalysis finds the deeper meaning, desires and fears represented in our dreams, but that goes beyond the scope if this article.
This level of stress takes it’s toll on your body and mind simultaneously. Your nervous system is activated, just as it would be if there was an actual threat to your life. There are huge chemical reactions going on with the release of stress hormones to help ‘keep you safe’.
Of course, this was really useful when we lived in caves, and were in real danger from the tigers. In our modern world, our reactions to stress are arguably disproportionate as we are (thankfully) rarely in real danger from predators in our daily lives.
So when we experience ongoing stress, our body is continually cycling through the stress response, leaving us exhausted and sometimes feeling physically unwell. Of course, stress inevitably impacts our mood, and our level of functioning each day.
When we feel under threat, the front part of our brain (pre-frontal cortex) basically stops working efficiently. This leads to problems with learning, decision making, concentrating, problem solving - and most complex tasks.
Has your mind ever went blank during an interview? That is most likely because you are highly anxious and operating in survival mode. So great is our fear of humiliation or rejection, that we literally feel our lives are in danger.
Stressed leaders find it really difficult to support others at times, because we need to feel relatively stable in order to look after the needs of others. The more stressed we are, the more difficult we find it to look past our own nose. That is the reality. It is not selfish, or malicious. It is simply the order of things. Our own distress can be incredibly distracting.
So - what now?
I wanted to give stressed out leaders a moment to reflect on their own experience of stress, and how this impacts managing and supporting your team.
I also want to give every leader reading this the permission to look after their own emotional needs. I know the quote is overused and perhaps cheesy, but it is true - we simply cannot pour from an empty cup. Leaders need their needs met too, regardless of years of experience, job role, title or salary. Stress does not discriminate based on any of these variables.
Next, I want to give you 3 tips to manage your current stress:
1.) Identify and name your stressors. Write them down. Say them out loud. Tell someone you trust.
We know that trying to avoid the reality only serves to feed the problem, and therefore increase stress levels. You are not alone. There will likely be numerous people around you experiencing stress, especially as work culture and management greatly impact on employee wellbeing.
2.) Set yourself realistic goals today.
Placing huge pressure on ourselves and feeling that we did not ‘meet the goal’ only increases stress and can often impact on productivity. Prioritising is especially important when work feels overwhelming. Break everything into manageable chunks. If the mountain feels too high, we often do not even want to start climbing it.
3.) For those waking in the night scenarios, I always recommend having a notepad and pen beside your bed.
Write down any worries that keep you awake, or dreams that wake you up. Writing transforms our thoughts, and reduces the stress often associated with remembering the tasks or thoughts that occur during the night.
If this has resonated with you, I am currently creating digital products and training materials for leaders and line managers, so I would be interested in what you would like to see.
My new website is now launched so do pop by to have a look www.drelainesmith.com. I am delighted to now solely focusing on corporate wellbeing, and excited about my new projects.
I offer a package of four 1:1 sessions for stressed leaders and executives, where we develop a personalised stress management plan. You can find out more on my website, and get in touch https://www.drelainesmith.com/business-wellbeing-consultancy.
I also have a range of workplace wellbeing posters to support mental health at work https://www.drelainesmith.com/etsy-shop.