We’re now in the thick of the holiday season, at time when stress can run high for practice owners. The relentless pressures of running your business combined with the social and family activities linked to the holidays can make this a difficult time. The strain of work-life balance—or lack thereof—can be particularly intense. Many practices operate on a calendar tax year, so this is also a time to anticipate buttoning up the current financial year, and budgeting for the next, which can produce no small amount of anxiety. And the end of the year is a natural time for reflection about what’s working—and what isn’t—in your business and your life.
I’ve talked about how mindset—a set of attitudes and beliefs that influence thinking, behaviors, choices, and reactions to circumstances—is at the core of everything you do as a practice owner. Now I’ll talk about how stress can affect your mindset. Even more important, I’ll discuss how you can use shifts in mindset to manage stress and even make it a useful tool.
The stress response
The human stress response is an ancient, primal reaction that evolved to help ensure survival through an immediate, intense, and focused response to the perception of threats. The brain’s amygdala, part of the limbic system that is responsible for emotional responsiveness, goes into overdrive—while prefrontal cortex, tasked with careful deliberation and judgment, takes a backseat. The limbic brain triggers the body’s flight-or-fight mode, a mode that’s energizing, but also depleting. The sources of your stress may not be truly existential—an overwhelming workload, financial pressures, challenges with staff, frustration at an inability to grow your business—but your body’s response to stress will be the same.
When you’re routinely under stress, that response happens over and over again, so often that much of the time you’re likely not even aware of it. Stress takes a physical and emotional toll, and also a cognitive one. Stress interferes with memory, decision making, and your ability to learn and digest information. It increases impulsivity and diminishes focus. If you’ve had the experience of struggling to tame a racing mind, losing precious minutes at work to a restless, anxious, distracted mood, making snap decisions in order to just move on to your next task, you’re familiar with the impact that stress has on how we perform our jobs. Research shows it’s not only chronic stress that undermines cognitive function. Short-term bouts of stress can also have these effects. Being truly productive with your time, and making thoughtful decisions and profitable plans while mired in stress is incredibly difficult. Which of course only engenders more stress, and the cycle escalates.
A different mindset for stress
You may not be able to do away with stress in your work life. But what if you could change the way you think about and respond to stress? Scientific research shows that the mindsets we employ in response to stress can have a powerful impact on how we navigate stressful experiences.
Apply the growth mindset to stress. The belief that you have the capacity to change the way you react to stress is a key first step. The growth mindset, remember, views abilities and skills as dynamic, able to be developed, changed, and strengthened with effort. Adopting a belief that you can change your approach to managing stress is evidence of a growth mindset in action.
Perceive stress as a challenge instead of a threat. When faced with a stressful situation, your fight-or-flight brain makes a quick series of assessments to determine the appropriate response. An overtaxed, over-worked mind can all too easily view every stressful moment as overwhelming, and beyond one’s capacity to cope. That’s a perception of a stressful situation as fundamentally threatening. But it’s possible to reframe the way we perceive many stressful situations. Viewing a difficult situation as a challenge rather than a threat involves assessing the situation and recognizing you have resources and skills to address it. It doesn’t make the stressor itself disappear—but it enables you to see your capacity to handle it.
This challenge mindset for stress isn’t only an important mental adjustment—it also creates beneficial physiological changes to the body’s stress response, including improved cardiovascular and hormonal reactions, and a boost to cognitive performance. Under pressure, the stress-is-a-challenge mindset can be motivating and focusing rather than defeated and overwhelmed.
Regard stress as enhancing, not debilitating. Not every stressful situation can be re-framed from a “threat” to a “challenge.” But even for threat-level stressors, a mindset shift is both possible and advantageous. New research from scientists at Stanford, Columbia and Duke universities indicates that for both threatening and challenging stress, adopting a mindset that “stress is enhancing” improves mood, boosts positive outlook, and increases your ability to think flexibly in response to the stressor.
We’re naturally adaptive thinkers, and as research shows, exposure to new information and different ways of thinking can change our mindsets quickly. As you move through the holiday season, toward rounding out one year and launching the next, be attentive to your stress and the mindsets you deploy to respond. Adopting new mindsets for stress is easier than you think, and can trigger a welcome surge of energy, motivation, and fresh thinking—just in time for the new year.