Manage Stress and Boost Your Well-Being

The idea that well-being is a crucial underpinning of good leadership has gained a great deal of attention in recent years. And it makes sense: physical health and positive emotions go a long way towards helping leaders be their best.

In 2017 Sierra Leadership reviewed the stress management literature, and we came across a real gem. It’s a Harvard Medical School Special Health Report called Stress Management: Enhance your well-being by reducing stress and boosting resilience.

I cannot recommend it highly enough. Many of the ideas are common sense, but having them all in one well-written resource, backed by evidence, is incredibly useful.

This blog summarizes a major section of the report, adding a few ideas of my own along the way.

Improve your diet

Your diet is a good place to begin. A major study found a clear correlation between a whole foods diet and reduced depression. By contrast, eating a lot of processed foods was linked to higher depression.

Harvard’s healthy eating plate provides a great visual guideline around current recommendations for eating. A diet made up largely of vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins, some fruits, and limited amounts of oils, caffeine and alcohol will help you stay healthy and perform better. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water.

Having changed to a better diet in the past year, I can say from personal experience that my mood is better, and my energy level is more consistent through the day. I used to have big drops in energy in the afternoon; that happens less now.

Get regular medium-intensity exercise

Getting some kind of exercise for 30 minutes a day has tremendous health benefits and helps reduce stress.

Exercise helps reduce stress at a physiological level. Even a little movement after a tense meeting–say, a walk around the building–helps eliminate stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol from your body. Exercise keeps you healthy, building up greater reserves for navigating stressful times. It also protects the brain against the effects of long-term stress. Like a healthy diet, exercise also improves your mood.

We all know that it’s a good idea to exercise, but that doesn’t always translate into following an exercise plan. One key is finding a form of exercise that you like. This may involve some experimenting until you land on something that you enjoy doing and look forward to. It also doesn’t have to be very intense; a brisk walk or even house cleaning counts.

Many people also find it helpful to make exercise social. If other people are involved, you’re more likely to follow through.

Rest and recharge

Evidence suggests that most of us are more productive if we take breaks every 90 to 120 minutes. Tony Schwartz integrates learnings from high-performing athletes into the corporate environment. He’s found that even short breaks can help us become more effective.

Moreover, it can be helpful to accumulate short, rejuvenating moments throughout the day, such as:

  • Stepping outside to stand in the sun
  • Taking a five-minute walk
  • Talking to a friendly colleague
  • Looking at photos of loved ones
  • Thinking optimistic thoughts
  • Remembering what you’re grateful for

Even though these things only take a few moments, they can recharge your batteries and boost your mood, making you more resilient to stress.

It’s also important to have actual time off. Some of the most successful—and happy—leaders that I’ve worked with have healthy self-discipline around work hours. They don’t work all the time. They find ways to carve out clear times when they are not working, to do things they enjoy, spend time with their loved ones and just have some unstructured down time. Believe it or not, some of them even watch television. Regular vacations and days off are important too, as is getting enough sleep.

Enjoy social support

Social support is a crucial way to boost resilience and manage stress. We are social creatures, and friendly social interaction helps us to be happier and healthier. It’s not just “nice to have”–it’s essential to our well-being. There’s also evidence that it may help us to live longer.

People who enjoy strong social networks are more resilient in general. The support, advice, and nurturing we gain through positive relationships help us navigate life’s most difficult challenges, while reassuring us that we’re not alone.

Do you have the kind of social networks and strong relationships that you want? If not, it’s worth investing more time and energy there.

Practice positive psychology

The field of positive psychology focuses on what helps people be happy, rather than studying dysfunction. It has contributed greatly to our understanding of well-being in recent decades. Here are some simple practices that anyone can do (for free!) that boost mood, increase resilience, reduce stress and improve health:

Cultivate gratitude and optimism

Cultivating gratitude can be transformative. One way to begin is to keep a gratitude journal. This doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. At some point each day, write for a few minutes about things that you’re grateful for. Focus on the good feelings you associate with those things as you go along.

A close cousin to gratitude, optimism involves cultivating an outlook that good things are coming. If gratitude gets you in touch with the positive things that are already in your life, optimism gets you focused on positive things to come. I believe that cultivating optimism also encourages us to see opportunities and make decisions that may make positive outcomes more likely. To move towards a more optimistic mindset, observe when you are anticipating a negative outcome, and instead consider what good might be coming.

Laugh often

Laughter is a great stress reducer. I’ve noticed that the most effective teams I’ve ever worked with professionally tend to have a good sense of fun and humor. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Laughter is a fast way for people to connect with each other, it makes us feel better and reduces stress.

Savor pleasurable experiences

This is literally the “stop and smell the roses” concept. It involves slowing down to recognize moments of pleasure, giving ourselves a little bit more space to enjoy positive experiences. This could mean slowing down to better enjoy the flavors of a good meal, the beauty of a sunset or the warm company of a good friend.

Be kind to others and yourself

If you need a boost, give someone else a boost. Research shows that those who help others may live happier, healthier lives.

You can also directly cultivate self-compassion. A simple way to do this is to try to change the way you talk to yourself in your head. Most of us have a pretty strong inner critic, talking to ourselves in ways that we would never imagine talking to someone else. With practice, you can change that voice. You can make it into a cheerleader, a more accepting and encouraging voice that will help your mood and your productivity. This is a great way to reduce stress from the inside out.

A Buddhist practice around self-love takes this one step further. Get very comfortable, relax and cultivate a feeling of loving kindness toward yourself. Try it. It feels great, and it’s good for you.

Journaling that focuses on progress you’ve made, can be uplifting. It gets you thinking about what you’ve accomplished. One major study revealed that tracking progress is extremely motivating for people in their work.

Improve your communication skills

Improving your communication skills can also lower stress. Being too passive or too aggressive can lead to stressful relationships, as can miscommunication.

Assertiveness–being clear and direct about your needs while also valuing the needs of others–helps with stress by increasing the likelihood that everyone gets their needs met.

Active listening involves listening deeply when others are talking, and summarizing or paraphrasing back in brief what you’ve heard. This is crucial for good leadership, but can also benefit individuals and teams at any level in an organization. If everyone on a team listens more deeply, it helps them work together better, improving productivity and reducing stress.

People tell me their families also appreciate it when they work on improving their communication skills.

Pick one thing

If you’re working to increase resilience and reduce stress, don’t try to change everything at once. You’ll just stress yourself out by doing that! Instead, choose one positive change to start with. Perhaps it’s your diet. Even there, don’t try to transform your diet overnight. What would it look like to take one positive step towards a healthier diet? Maybe it’s just adding a serving of vegetables each day. Do that for a few weeks, and then add another small change.

Or perhaps you have a good social network, but you don’t spend enough time with those people. Maybe in the next month you want to reach out to one or two additional people and set up a time for coffee.

Steady, incremental change is more likely to become permanent then sudden massive changes. Just make sure you stick with it.

For more tips on stress management, get the full Harvard Medical School Special Report. It’s well worth the purchase price.