How to use stress to your advantage

Stressed? A short deadline looming and another around the corner? Don’t panic, you can embrace pressure using some simple tools says Michelle Gibbings.

Pressure. Some people hate it, while other people thrive on it. While everyone reacts to pressure differently, what’s common is that pressure is part of the everyday working life of an EA. There’s the constant juggle of tasks, competing requests for attention, ever-shifting deadlines and expectations and likely a demanding boss. Understanding how to use pressure as a tool for progress is critical.

Find your Goldilocks zone

A certain amount of pressure is good for you because it helps motivate you to act and keeps you focused. This is because when you experience the right amount of challenge and interest, chemicals are released in your brain (noradrenaline and dopamine), making you more alert, motivated and ready to learn.

Researchers and educators often refer to this as the Goldilocks zone. This is the zone of optimal performance where you are working on a task or learning something that is neither too hard, nor too easy.

This zone has parallel ideas with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’, which is a state you experience when you have the right level of skill and the right amount of challenge. If one of those elements is missing, you’ll either end up anxious, bored or somewhere in-between.

Ask yourself:

  • What new skill am I learning?
  • How am I seeking to stretch my capabilities?
  • Am I looking out for opportunities to take on new experiences?

Pick your frame

You can’t control what happens to you every day. You can, however, choose your response by noticing your feelings, reactions and where you focus your attention. You can reflect or ruminate.

Whilst both practices require you to look back, the emphasis and focus is different. It’s easy to ruminate and become stressed. You run the scenario in your head again and again—trying to rewrite how the event unfolded. It becomes like a broken record that keeps spinning and there is no off switch.

When you ruminate, you aren’t being productive with your thoughts because the thinking process doesn’t reach a conclusion.

When you reflect, you think about the situation, focus on uncovering what you have learned, how you were feeling and identifying what you would do differently next time.

To focus on reflection, ask yourself:

  • How did I feel at the beginning, during and end of the situation, and why?
  • How did those feelings impact what I said and did?
  • What do I think was going on for the other person/people involved?
  • What would I do differently next time, and how would that change the outcome?

Welcome the growth

With any form of change there is a period of discomfort. In fact, if you aren’t feeling uncomfortable it’s pretty likely you aren’t doing or learning anything new. The discomfort you feel is your brain’s way of alerting you to the fact that you are doing something new. So rather than labelling the discomfort as ‘bad’, accept it and embrace it as a ‘good’ sign.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I being reactive or responsive?
  • Am I noticing how I am feeling and taking the time to stop, breathe, reflect and then respond?
  • What self-care practices (ie exercise, eating well, meditating, gratitude practices and the like) am I using to release the pressure valve?

As an EA pressure and stress are inevitable. Your success will be decided by whether you use those feelings to accelerate your growth and progress, or hold you back.