As an antidote to stress, we often seek respite through activities that bring us meaning. After all a life full of meaning will help reduce stress. Right?
A team of researchers from Stanford and Florida State University found the opposite to be true. They asked a broad sample of U.S. adults to rate the following on a scale of one to 10: “Taking all things together, I feel my life is meaningful.” They then asked the same people to define the number of stressful events in their lives. Those people who considered their lives to be most meaningful also reported not the least number of stressful events, but the most.
It turns out that living your purpose and experiencing the meaning this brings significantly increases the level of stress in your life. In working with over 10,000 executives over the past 10 years I have watched person after person jump into very high-stress situations with greater clarity and confidence once they have identified their purpose.
Take Mac, for example, who was involved a major foundation’s response to the Ebola crisis. During the outbreak, he worked 12- to 14-hour days for months, totally energized, motivated and, at his best, serving as the interface between senior leadership and activities on the ground in West Africa. He has always loved taking on challenges that others run away from. In our work together, Mac has uncovered and embraced his purpose, which he brings to every situation he faces: “to continue the quest to slay giants and change the world.”
Mac encounters more stress when he steps into his purpose and leads from it. Yet he feels more alive, curious and courageous. This seeming paradox illustrates a little-known phenomenon about stress that helps us understand why people who consider their lives to be most meaningful, not only experience a higher level of stress, but also remain vibrant and energized despite it: Stress is good for us when we address it from our purpose.
Purpose describes the essence of who we are and what each of us bring to a situation that nobody else can. As the filter through which we see the world, purpose brings meaning to life’s challenges and re-calibrates our relationship to stress. I explain this in my new book, Leading From Purpose: Clarity and The Confidence to Act When it Matters Most.
Stress is created when there is a real or “perceived” threat to our well-being. There are several ways we respond. In the fight-or-flight response, the body produces more cortisol and adrenaline, triggering a higher heart rate, an increase in energy, heightened muscle preparedness, increased blood pressure, sweating and alertness –all needed to help us protect ourselves if we feel threatened. Then the fight-or-flight response makes us panic before a presentation, blank on an important exam or imagine the worst when waiting for medical test results. To keep us alive for the long term, the body makes short-term trade-offs like slowing down our digestive and immune systems. Extended levels of this type of stress are unhealthy.
There is a more effective approach to stress: the challenge response. Think of an athlete excelling in the final two minutes of a big event. When the pressure is on — everybody is counting on you and you deliver — you are operating from the challenge response.
The decisive factor in whether we react with the challenge response or the fight-or-flight response is our own internal assessment of our ability to address the situation. If you believe the situation you are facing overwhelms our abilities, you will have a fight-or-flight response. If you believe you can succeed, you will engage in a challenge response.
How can you turn the fight-or-flight response into a challenge response?
First, by discovering your purpose. The simplest way to do so is to ask, “Who am I when I am fully in the game, and what does that feel like?”
Second, by stepping into your purpose. One powerful way to access your purpose is to use a phrase that sums up its essence. Mac’s phrase, “to continue the quest to slay giants and change the world,” allows him to shift into the particular frame of mind it describes.
Third, by focusing on the resources available that are within your control. Having stepped into your purpose, this becomes far more intuitive. Purpose gives us clarity of vision, empowering us to see possibilities and giving us the confidence to act on them.
This is where stress — that scary thing that everyone says is bad for you — becomes good for you. Like the fight-or-flight response, the challenge response increases your heart rate. But now the speeding pulse makes you feel energized. Research shows that none of us are “calm” under pressure when we perform at our best. We may feel anxious when we operate from a challenge response — but also excited, optimistic and self-assured. The body still releases stress hormones, but in challenge response conditions, the hormones released are shown to aid post-stress recovery and help us learn from stressful encounters.
So when we respond to stress with the challenge response, we gain the energy we need to overcome the stressor and even benefit from the experience.
When leaders repeatedly choose to step into situations that trigger the challenge response, the brain learns from these experiences. Over time, it rewires itself to allow easier access to the challenge response. Psychologists refer to this as stress inoculation, and it is why so much of the training for high-stress professions, such as first responders, astronauts and military personnel, is based on simulated high-stress situations.
This is not to say that Mac and other individuals I have worked with don’t spend ample time in fight-or-flight mode in response to some situations. We all are wonderfully human, bombarded by stress every day. The difference is at some point these people decide to embrace the chaos that others are running away from; they are the purpose-driven leaders who say, “We are going to make this work.”
In this world of dramatic uncertainty, and the pressure to be present 24/7 across multiple time zones, one of the only things we have control over is our purpose, which gives us access to managing stress. Purpose, our unique gift that we bring to the world, gives us the clarity, focus and confidence to transform a constant threat into an opportunity.
So next time you really feel stressed, check the rearview mirror. Maybe your purpose is smiling back at you.
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