How To Honor The Body When In A High-Stress Position?
Written by: Albana Vrioni, Executive Contributor Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Did you ever consider being an executive and having a sense of flow in your body? Feeling light and pain-free?
For most of my clients, this does not enter their agenda – at best is an afterthought, and at worst it sneaks in when their body pain has put a tax on their executive performance. Suddenly we understand that body and mind are not separate they operate as one system we cannot excel for long in our executive health at the expense of the body’s health. We cannot shine for long when body strength fades away.
And we certainly cannot enjoy the abundance of hard work in an executive career, when our body collapses.
How come brilliant people take their body fitness for granted?
It is a bit like the frog story, which ended up boiling as the temperature of the water raised gradually. Starting with a lot of stamina and resourcefulness, they slip into paying little attention to replenishing their energy in sustainable ways. This is often bound to our mindset, values and beliefs, and the habits we have installed day after day.
What can be done?
I talked with my colleague, Kaley Zeitouni, about what could help you honour your body when in a stressful position. Kaley is an Illness Recovery Coach who used the science of psychoneuroimmunology and mind-body wisdom from many sources to heal after 18 years of living with multiple sclerosis. The work she does with clients to alleviate illness can shed light on helping executives remain healthy while in high-stress positions.
Here is what Kaley shared with me in an interview:
Every change starts with awareness. What should our executive reader
know to elevate awareness of how stress affects the Body?
That’s indeed the very first step for any enduring change to happen. In order
to optimise our performance in a high-stress environment, it’s crucial to understand
how stress affects the body. One of the first things a doctor tells someone newly
diagnosed with neurological or auto-immune disease is “stress can exacerbate
symptoms.” It’s crucial to understand why that’s the case so that someone healthy
can stay healthy even in a stressful environment.
When a person experiences stress, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol. It
does this in order to “help” a person who is in a stressful situation. Our bodies were
built for extreme circumstances, such as a freezing winter in the mountains or being
in the jungle where we might be chased by a lion at any moment. In those situations,
stress is acute and cortisol activates the things we need in order to survive that
specific situation. If we hear a rustle in the bushes and know it might be a lion, the
fear we experience releases cortisol and adrenaline which then cause many
physiological changes, such as increased heart rate. This allows the body to go from
a resting state to running for our lives so that we can escape the lion.
While cortisol and other stress hormones protect us in an acute stress situation like
the one above, they wreak havoc on the body when they are continuously released.
Research shows that chronic stress, in other words, the ongoing release of cortisol
and other stress hormones, leads to pain, inflammation, digestive problems, vision
problems, sleep disturbance and so much more. In my work, I have yet to find an
executive who isn’t experiencing some of these issues, even if it’s just headaches.
Scientifically speaking, the body is doing what it’s “supposed to do” under the
circumstances so any symptoms are a result of how the body is naturally built.
So chronic stress is the mechanism that turns stress from vital to threatening
to our well-functioning. Since our readers are not about to leave their jobs, is
knowing this even helpful?
I hear you, it’s a bit oxymoronic for us to even have this conversation, Albana.
Thousands of studies show us what happens to every system in the body while
under stress, or what we call “fight or flight”. And the result is pretty serious. To
consider how to maintain peak performance and health while in a high-stress
position would seem impossible when we look at the science. That said, I’ve been in
this field long enough to know that anything is possible and I’m living proof of that. I
was working an 80 hr/week job when I began my healing journey. Once you know
the facts it might feel like an uphill battle but it is possible to maintain health with bite-
size tools that are easy to implement.
So, I hear you saying that knowing how this mechanism works helps us to
adjust our response to stress triggers and have control over its impact. What would
this conscious adjustment consist of?
Indeed. And it would essentially require looking at it as if we’re going on a
mission of making your body your best colleague. Here are the first four steps I
recommend for this mission:
1. Get Your Body On Board
It sounds strange but you need to think of your body as a separate entity with its own needs and desires. You and your body are a team. When beginning a new project with your business partner, you would talk through your vision, goals, distribution of work etc. You would talk it through to ensure you are on the same page. You need to do the same with your body.
Talk through any upcoming stressors, give the body a heads up and especially let it know how long to expect to be running on all cylinders.
An essential part of getting your body on board with your aspirations is to connect to your why. Your “why” needs to be something that is also meaningful to the body. (Trust me, I understand how weird this sounds but it has changed so many lives that it’s worth it!) Your body represents the deepest part of you.
Having massive wealth is not a motivator for the body. The kind of “why” that will inspire your body to work with your needs to be something deeper and connected to sense of purpose and personal mission. It might be something like “improving access to higher education for the low-income communities,” “advancing the way we use technology so that people have more time with family,” “being a symbol of female empowerment for young women.” Keep your body in the conversation of your vision and goals, and make sure your goals are aligned with your higher purpose.
For example, I had a client Sarah, a high performing executive who after maternity leave started having terrible migraines when considering going back to work. She loved her job but her body was telling her something. After a few sessions, we realised she wanted to work for herself and serve as a consultant to executives rather than by the executive. Her body calmed down when she got aligned with her higher truth. She stopped having migraines and still got to have a fulfilling career.
Remember to also thank your body when it does work well and allow you to live your mission!
2. Regularly Reset your Nervous System
Remember how the rustling of the bushes sends the signal to the body that we’re being chased by the lion? So does a tough conversation with your boss, or the stressof an upcoming deadline. You don’twant your body to interpret each of these moments throughout your workday as a life-threatening threat. In order to reduce the stress response from these triggers, and avoid being in “fight or flight” you need to reset the nervous system a few times a day.
The easiest way to do this is with a few slow deep breaths. Put your hands on your stomach, covering the bottom of your rib cage. Breathe slowly and feel the ribs and lungs expand. Slowly and fully empty the lungs when you exhale, squeezing the abdomen to really empty out. Doing this a few times activates the vagus nerve which is responsible for the “rest and digest” system of the body. You might be thinking that you don’t have time to pause and do this. It takes 60 seconds to reset the nervous system and if you don’t take that 60 seconds at least once a day now, your body will force you to pause for much longer than that later. According to a 2019 study, almost 50% of executives in Canada were diagnosed with a chronic condition. While that isn’t more than the average population, executives also have a much higher need for optimum health making it even more important that you work with your body so that it will work with you.
This type of practice seems small but made all the difference for Lisa; a professor at a top university in the US who found herself in the ER with neurological symptoms. She reached out to me during her diagnostic process and immediately started implementing tools to calm down the nervous system. She has regained all of her abilities (she couldn’t walk or use her hands), avoided a diagnosis, and was recently promoted to Director of her department. By ensuring she keeps her nervous system balanced throughout the day, she is achieving her dreams while maintaining her vitality.
3. Focus the Mind
As an executive, you are holding many plates in the air at once. While this makes you good at your job, it takes a severe toll on the body. The brain generates new cells and activates repair in the body when the mind is clear and calm. This does not mean you have to think about anything. It means you have to focus on one thing. When we focus our mind on one item at a time, the brain has space to work at optimum capacity. This is why people who meditate report more efficient workflow and increased decision-making ability. A great way to achieve this in your work life is to be intentional about each thing you do. Before the meeting set your intention for the meeting. For example, My intention is to be fully present and keep everyone engaged in a way that they bring their best ideas to the table. That means you aren’t in the meeting thinking about the 10 things you need to do after the meeting. You are solely focused on the topic of the meeting during the meeting. Do this for each segment of your day and you will see your life change, your work improves, and of course, your body relax.
4. Un-stuck Your Feelings
The body stores every feeling we have unless we process it in a healthy way. Executives are masters at hiding emotions and compartmentalising. We pride ourselves on it. I remember being proud of how I could hide my emotions during an important meeting. Today my clients would laugh reading that knowing how detrimental that is to the system. Because any feeling we don’t process gets stored
in our cells and if it builds up, there’s no telling what can happen. That doesn’t mean you need to have a breakdown at the Board meeting. It means you need a safe space to feel your feelings in a healthy way. Somatic techniques are usually the most effective, so I recommend finding a local practitioner. That hour a week could actually save your life, and certainly your career.