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Build Resilience by Knowing Your Stress Tells

business tips high performing teams personal development your best life Mar 15, 2022

IN EVERYDAY LIFE THERE IS STRESS. We hear the word stress and automatically equate it to something negative that will not be good for us or our performance. Recognize there is good stress and bad stress. In sport psych, we call it eustress and distress. In simple words: stress that is good for you that elicits your best performance (eustress) and stress that inhibits your ability to perform at your best (distress). 

When I was a young track and field athlete, I interpreted all stress as negative. I didn’t realize that I required a certain level of stress to get pumped up to perform. If I wasn’t a little bit nervous, I would be too flat. If I was over excited, stress turned to fear. I became afraid of losing and ran tight. This same phenomenon translates itself into the corporate world. It’s important to recognize when is stress pushing us over the top and negatively impacting our ability to lead. I often coach people to pay attention to the early tells that signify they are moving towards a point of distress.

Here are my five early signs that I am moving towards distress:

  1. I linger in the car before heading up the steps to work.
  2. My desk becomes cluttered.
  3. My email box is way behind.
  4. I lose track of things: keys, remote control or my wallet.
  5. I forget meetings.

I want you to take a moment to reflect on what might be your early signs that you are heading towards distress. These are the tells you need to pay attention to. If your noticeable behaviours are present, it’s likely that your stress might be limiting your ability to lead and perform at your best.

It’s important to name your early indicators so that you can take the necessary protective strategies to address them.

Here’s a few tricks that I’ve used to head off distress in my career:

  • When I find my desk is chaotic, it tells me I’m feeling overwhelmed. I block an afternoon in my schedule. Clean off my desk. File my papers. Go to my whiteboard and make a list of things I need to do. Once my space is orderly and I have a plan, my energy surges. I want to meet with my team and get after it.


  • When my inbox is deep and long (we’ve all been there), I know it’s time to get back to the three-folder system that an organizing consultant showed me years ago. It looks something like this: Action (To Do); Action (Pending); Action (To Contact). I sort through my email in the early morning when I’m fresh. I take it on in manageable chunks of time over the next few days--addressing the urgent and critical issues right away and filing the others. Cleaning out my inbox helps reduce my anxiety and moves me away from my distress. I feel less reluctance to return to work.


  • I clear away 20% of the meetings in my calendar over the next week or two to allow me the time to get caught up. I move the general update meetings and the coffee meetings--the ones that aren’t strategically important. And, I say no to new major projects. This is a hard one for me, but will have the most impact in allowing myself the bandwidth to find a little more balance. When I really commit to this step, my stress reduces dramatically and the quality of the work I can focus on improves. I feel better about my job and myself. 

If I don’t pay attention to these early signs, I end up in significant distress that manifests itself in ways that can have lasting effects on my health, wellbeing and career. 

When I was a young man, I got my first coaching job. I was so excited and nervous. I wanted to be perfect. I read every book I could. I watched every video on coaching I could. I worked like a dog, tirelessly recruiting talent. When the season started, I felt like I was ready for the opportunity. Lo and behold, we started the season off with 5 straight wins. This was like never done in program history. We never had 5 wins in a year, let alone the first 3 weeks of the season. As we kept winning, I kept feeling more and more pressure. My stress started to rise. I started to present symptoms. I was vomiting before games. I had diarrhea all week. I missed meals. I was losing weight. The skin on my palms started to peel. The pressure to win was overwhelming. I had passed the point where the competition and the job was good for me and good to me. 

Distress often comes as a result of being out of balance and having an unhealthy expectation of perfection. My goal of winning had drowned out everything else. I had missed the early tells and found myself in significant distress--when my skin was peeling, when I was vomiting, when I lost weight.

If you have passed by your early tells and find yourself in distress, it’s time to step back and seek help.

At times like these, you need to shift your focus to straightening up your basic needs—focus on your sleep, your nutrition, your exercise, and your key relationships. Your work or your goal has engulfed you. If you can’t actually get yourself to pull back and take these steps, seek professional help from your doctor and a counsellor. Nobody does anything alone. With concentrated effort and help, you can restore your balance and regain your ability to perform.

Remember folks, everyone encounters stress. In fact, a certain amount is needed to perform at our best.

It’s how we choose to interpret and respond to stress that will really set you apart.


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