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How to Use Your Stress for Good

Posted by rstapholz on
How to Use Your Stress for Good

This week’s article is provided by Deb Lewis, founder of Mentally Tough Women (MTW). It is a companion to her interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Mental Toughness: How to Embrace Stress for Greater Success that aired on Tuesday, July 6th.

Have you ever felt that SPECIAL SATISFACTION when you achieve what others thought impossible?

I graduated from West Point in the first class to EVER accept women.  174 years of them saying NO to all the women who wanted to attend and now our 62 women graduates from that first class have grown to over 5000 today.

It wasn’t easy. Important lessons rarely are. Those early days taught me a LOT.

Some years later, I was hand-picked to lead a $2.1 billion engineer construction program IN COMBAT!  Today, I’m very involved with non-profits, businesses, schools, and government offices to make it possible to work closely together to succeed under the toughest conditions. I lead a couple of non-profits, which include one with 4,200 members as Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars for Hawaii, and as Hawaii’s ambassador for the Military Women’s Memorial, encouraging women to sign up and share Herstory.

What’s been my KEY TO SUCCESS… that’s helped 1000s of women and men do AMAZING things EVERY day against the odds?

Answer: STRESS

It can break you, making your life miserable…or…

With the right training, YOU face whatever the future holds and enjoy what’s truly possible.

What better time to learn how to use stress to your advantage than today?

Think about the huge challenges we face -from climate change (drought, floods, melting ice caps & sea rise), to aggressive nations or combative groups to COVID and deadly variants.

Consider what’s happening to our businesses.

  • A Harvard Study found that in a recent recession only 9-10% of companies use adversity to their advantage. (Gulati – HBS)
  • A Harvard Business Review report found that 70-90% of business mergers and acquisitions fail. (HBR, 2019)
  • Gallup studies for 2020 indicate a workforce struggling to live up to its potential. Only 1 or 2 employees in 5 are engaged at work (highly involved), 43% are stressed out daily, and 15-20% are actively DISENGAGED (actively discouraging others to perform).

What employees in the US face at home:

  • 70% of adults have experienced a traumatic event – that’s Pre-COVID. (thenationalcouncil.org)
  • 50% of marriages end in divorce, and up to 73% for subsequent marriages. (worldpopulationreview.com)
  • 66% of people are seeking a real relationship, a meaningful partnership that is built on commitment and love (eHarmony)

When important issues at work and at home are wrapped in toxic and divisive perspectives, we magnify problems and solutions become elusive.

It’s natural to mistakenly view stress as a threat. In fact, we’re hard-wired and conditioned/soft-wired to do so. Threats trigger most people into survival-mode thinking.

In survival mode, unmet expectations are judged harshly and quickly. In this mode, a large range of options dramatically narrow to three strategies:  Fight, Flight (run away), or Shut Down (disengage).

It’s a lot like walking into a pie shop that normally offers 50 mouth-watering options. In survival mode, you narrow your options to three ordinary-looking pies…which you don’t realize until later. And those limited choices all make you sick.

A lack of stress skills can be easy to spot. Have you ever sat in a restaurant when someone you’re with has an issue with an order? How do they treat the server? Shouting or getting upset may get movement and lots of unintended consequences. Outcomes that exceed my expectations – never happen when I’m in survival mode!

In one case, a client enthusiastically signed up for both of my Extreme Stress and Stress Basics courses. Two weeks later, I noted she had not started either one. Upon questioning, she stated, “I’m in such a dark place. I really don’t think I have the energy or desire to even start because I won’t finish.”

Rather than be disappointed, I became excited and challenged her to watch just one of my 5 minutes videos. I promised she’d have more energy and feel better right away. Two weeks later, I checked back. and she shared, “I watched the video and finished both courses by the next day.”

I knew the toxic environment she worked in and asked if she wanted to talk more. She said, “I’m great now… really!” We did talk later. Her situation was even worse than I imagined. Today, she’s in a dream job.

With a better perspective and a few stress tools, you can walk through fire. And won’t waste time in survival mode whenever your emotions are triggered. Without that training and discipline to handle stress, it’s easy to forget the wisdom that’s available to us.

Remember when Wonder Woman took on the world after her early years of intense training? My own mental toughness journey in and out of the military continues to give me the power to transform incredibly difficult situations into opportunities and to help others do the same. It hasn’t gotten easier. I’ve gotten better!

TV, newspapers, magazines, books, radio, social media, and daily conversations bombard our beliefs, conversations, and choices we make every day. Recognize that a growing number of people refuse to listen to or restrict the “News” they receive or have even sworn off social media entirely. It comes down to how well you handle life’s challenges, no matter how tough things get. Stress isn’t bad. It’s how you deal with stress that matters.

 Do YOU want to stand out as a better leader? If so, your real test won’t happen when things go as planned. It’s those moments when a turn of events tests you – disappoints, frustrates or potentially angers you and those around you. With survival-mode thinking, keep in mind that:

Once you go negative, you break the trust and shake the foundation of your relationships.

What you do matters. When you’re lucky enough to be placed in leadership roles, use them to make a difference. The more challenging the job, the bigger your potential impact.

Go to our website Mentallytoughwomen.com to find out more about MTW’s Powerful Stress Tools. You’ll enjoy being tested to your limits!

Use stress to fuel your success

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the Author

Colonel Deb Lewis is a West Point graduate from its first class with women. A retired Army Colonel and Harvard MBA, Deb commanded three US Army Corps of Engineer Districts, including a $2.1B reconstruction program in combat. She survived the 9/11 Pentagon attack while serving on the Joint Staff antiterrorism team. Colonel Deb’s experiences leading while under fire inspired her unique ‘Mentally Tough Women’ (MTW) program. MTW prepares women (and enlightened men) to handle more stress – not de-stress – in good times and times of crisis. Once you ‘Armor Up’ with mental toughness, your daily battles turn into sweet victories.

Photo by Diego González on Unsplash


Posted by Editor on

Renita Kalhorn Head Shot-VA

Leadership and performance training expert Renita Kalhorn, MBA, joined me on “Turn the Page” to discuss “How to get a Mental Six Pack.” Renita teaches entrepreneur CEOs and their teams, and Navy SEAL candidates the mental toughness skills that are essential to optimal performance under pressure.

After the show, she elaborated on some of the core principles that underlay peak performance strategies, which relate to how we manage our thoughts and emotions. Renita shares:

“Whatever we do now, we’ve “trained” ourselves to do through repetition. Changing our behavior takes retraining.”

“Emotions are chemical reactions in our body, so we can become “addicted” to stress, anxiety, frustration, and other emotions, just like any chemical substance. We can continue to have the same emotional patterns or reactions, regardless of our circumstances, because we “crave” the emotional fix. Even if it’s not pleasant, it’s familiar and it reminds us of our identity.”

“Going through our day without processing the emotions that come out of our thoughts/interactions with others, will keep us from being present and productive. It’s like driving with the parking brake on.”

Renita offers strategies through which you can retrain yourself to be more productive:

“One client was a rock star in business development, bringing in $25M deals. She had a lot of stress and anxiety around maintaining a high level of performance and it was affecting her health and relationships. No matter what the circumstances were, there was always something to be anxious about: an upcoming negotiation, getting a promotion, getting a bonus, a new deal. She created a strategy to be more mindful (meditation, petting her cat, gratitude journal) and, on particularly stressful days, brought PRESENT MOMENT AWARENESS by simply noticing what she was doing using “I am” statements: “I am preparing a proposal.” “I am walking to the subway.”

“Because our thoughts are so ephemeral and yet feel so real, it’s important to CONCRETIZE them. When clients have lots of chatter from their inner critic in “high stakes” moments, such as important meetings and negotiations, I suggest they give that voice a name, and even find a mascot to represent it, that will help them to take it less seriously. Mine is a pink duck with an afro; one client’s is a porcelain alligator wearing red high heels. Have conversations with your mascot as if it’s another character – this helps create distance from the critical voice and enables you to see that there are other interpretations of what’s happening.”

“Start noticing when you’re going around and around in a thought loop or maintaining a negative emotion. Ask: “Is this a good investment of my energy? If I had to pay a $1 for each of these thoughts, would it be worth it?” One person who attended my “mental six pack” presentation said he had a colleague who would periodically email for help in solving essentially the same problem. Each time he got the email, he would be annoyed, but would answer the email without addressing the source of the annoyance. While it would require upfront thinking and energy, a better investment would be to take thirty minutes and have a conversation with the person to get at the essence of the issue: e.g. Does he even realize that he’s asking variations of the same question?!”

Renita recommends “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create A New One” by Dr. Joe Dispenza

Learn more about Renita’s leadership and peak performance training by visiting her website, and listen to her “Mental Toughness for Mavericks” podcast featuring Navy SEAL Mark Divine, self-disruption expert Whitney Johnson, and performance psychologist Dr. Sian Beilock.

Access my conversation with Renita, through which she shares THREE STEPS to developing a mental six pack!

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