If you’re like me, you’ve read articles on meditation and mindfulness, or tried things like yoga and “green exercise” in order to reduce your stress levels. Yet even with all of these stress management techniques, we’ve found that leaders aren’t experiencing less stress. Some leaders actually feel more stressed than ever.

We need a better way, and the good news (maybe the best news you’ll see today) is that there’s a rigorously studied, science-based, proven method to help you and leaders like you experience less stress.

For the last 4 years I’ve been sharing the life’s work of an academic named Derek Roger, who‘s been studying stress since the early 1980s. Dr. Roger calls his process “The Challenge of Change,” a process that helps us discover the underlying cause of stress in our lives, and offers a set of practices proven to help people experience less stress.

One of the most important things I learned from this process is that stress is actually rumination about emotional upset. If you’re thinking over and over about events in the past or future and attaching negative emotion to those thoughts, you’re ruminating. The leaders I work with find this to be a powerful idea, because it means that stress is a thought in our heads, and we do it to ourselves. Pressure may be beyond our control, but rumination and stress aren’t.

When we work with leaders to help them become more resilient, we ask them to complete the Challenge of Change Profile, an assessment that helps them understand the habitual behaviors that either protects them from stress or makes them more vulnerable.

In one telling client exchange, my colleague Nick Petrie and I were working with an executive team, walking them through their individual scores on the Challenge of Change Profile. One of the scales measured is a person’s tendency to ruminate about emotionally upsetting events. Because they were a strong team, each person felt comfortable sharing their scores with each other. The CEO, by far, had the highest rumination score on the team.

I remember the CEO looking at everyone else’s score and asking (rather animatedly), “Why doesn’t anyone care as much as I do?” The COO, who had the lowest rumination score on the team said, “I care a lot. I’m just not going to ruminate about it.”

In that short exchange rests one of biggest struggles leaders face. Leaders who are high ruminators do so because they believe ruminating provides some value. They think it means they care, or that they’ll be prepared for the worse. The reality is that stress, what we have identified as rumination, is not the same as caring and preparation. All rumination gives you is a short, miserable, unproductive life.

Stressed out leaders act as if they have 2 jobs. One is the job they are paid to do, and the other is worrying about the job they are paid to do. Some of the clients I work with even give titles to these leaders like, “Chief Ruminating Officer,” “Director of Rumination,” or “Subject Matter Ruminator.” Resilient leaders don’t spend their time doing 2 jobs.

So how do we experience less stress? We need to ruminate less.

One of the best ways to do that is to focus on what’s directly in front of you, and what you can control.

I have a colleague who is a sports psychologist. She was working with a defensive lineman trying to make a pro football team, and she was able to be on the sidelines before he took the field for practice. She asked him, “What are you going to do out there?” His reply was a more colorful version of, “Kick some butt!”

She then started asking him a series of questions like, “What will you be watching for when the offense comes to the line? What will you be listening for from your defensive captain? How will you know when the offense is setting up a screen pass?”

It sounds simple, but she was reminding this player to refocus his attention on the things he could control.

In addition to helping leaders apply these practices, I’ve found they are also helpful when it comes to parenting. A few years ago I was helping my son with his math homework, and it devolved quickly into frustration and rumination. Seeing the pain on my son’s face, and frankly because I was willing to try anything at this point, I asked him to join me in the living room.

I told him we’re going to run in place, and he gave me that look of disdain and annoyance that parents of teenagers know very well. My hope was that running in place would help him stop ruminating and transfer his energy to the present moment. I told him to just give it a try, and while we were running in place I asked him some questions that I hoped were helping us to focus on what we could control.

I asked him what he was feeling, and what would make him feel better. We talked about taking the homework one problem at a time, and we came up with ideas on how to ask for help from his teacher. In this case it worked, and the homework time went much better. I remember thinking, “Damn! This stuff really works!” But I also remember thinking, “Don’t get cocky, what worked today might not work the same way tomorrow.”

There are no quick fixes when it comes to experiencing less stress. But learning to realize when you’re ruminating and focusing on the here and now can go a long way towards making sure you don’t become your company’s “Chief Rumination Officer.”


Interested in hosting your own resilience workshop in your organization or just have some questions about this work? Contact the author for details.

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