This article was originally published here on Forbes.com.
Warning: The Goal Isn’t To Eliminate Stress
In my work with executives and managers across industries, I often hear stories about people feeling as though they’re teetering on the edge of a breakdown, more commonly called burnout, from extreme or chronic stress. All too often, they’ll imagine that the solution is to eliminate stress as much as possible. I absolutely understand the need to avoid burnout, but eliminating all stress should not be the goal.
Stress will always be there if you are striving to achieve more, and you’re operating at the edges of the envelope. The key is to figure out what’s within your Span of Control when you’re facing situations that challenge your ability to cope with stress.
As a fighter pilot, my closest companions were pressure and stress. In training, we affectionately referred to Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, as “the Pressure Cooker.”
Only a handful of those who made it through graduation and earned their commission would eventually go on to earn those prized golden Naval Aviator wings. And only an extremely small percentage of those people would go on to become aircraft carrier fighter pilots. Legends like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and John McCain all went through AOCS successfully.
Our drill instructors were charged with finding out who could hack it and who couldn’t. In truth, they were trying to break us, both physically and psychologically. They were finding our pressure points and attempting to exert as much force on those points as possible. That’s because they had just sixteen weeks to train and turn out commissioned officers ready to lead and succeed in military aviation! It was imperative for them to identify the people who could and couldn’t work through the physical and mental stress of the challenges we were guaranteed to face.
The rigor, the attention to detail, and the relentless pace and accountability within that environment, set the tone for what would be expected of us farther down the road. In order to survive in naval aviation, we absolutely had to succeed at all three, especially when operating under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
The training was aimed at developing the instincts and discipline to remain focused on what mattered most, to be able to pay attention to detail under extreme circumstances, and to rely on teamwork, trust, and mutual support.
By focusing on our individual and collective pressure points, our training was essentially testing our capacity to avoid breakdown. But it was also developing that capacity.
Many of us do everything within our power to avoid or to mitigate chronic or acute stress: we work out, we eat lots of fruits and vegetables, we do mindfulness training, think positively, meditate. You name it; we’re doing it. But these habits and exercises end up not working for a lot of people.
That’s why I want to make the case for learning how to absorb the blows and harness adrenaline when it comes to countering potentially overwhelming stress.
How to increase your capacity to endure
The first steps toward developing resilience in relation to significant stress are:
- Focus on what you can control: Instead of catastrophizing or shutting down, notice what is within your power to control and take charge of those things (your Span of Control).
- Take the opportunity to train yourself: Always viewing stress negatively can have detrimental consequences. See what happens when you start telling yourself that stress is an opportunity to be tougher and more resilient.
If you can do those two things? You’ve got a shot. Learning how to absorb the blows and harness your adrenaline to focus on your Span of Control can help counter overwhelming stress and build your capacity to endure.