Helping people navigate the stress of uncertainty and prevent its debilitating effects during organizational change is a critical role for every change leader. That’s why making time to acknowledge the stress people experience and its impact will help you, your employees, and your organization create healthy and sustainable change.
Stress is Not an End State
Every change, regardless of how well planned, creates uncertainty. And uncertainty is stressful for every human being. How much stress we feel during change will depend on the number of changes we are experiencing, our perception of its complexity or size, and our readiness level.
The way we think and talk about stress also affects our ability to use stress. When we talk about stress as a destination or end state, e.g., “I am stressed,” or in terms of “good” and “bad,” we limit the potential energy of our stress response.
Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, notes, stress is not an end state; it is a response. Stress, or rather our stress response, is an internal system designed to mobilize other systems in the brain and body. It is how our brains and bodies signal us to pay attention because something is different in our environment.
He also notes, our stress response system is generic. There isn’t one stress response for one type of stressor and another type of response for a different stressor. Therefore, stress is not inherently good or bad.
We determine whether stress is good or bad. We do this based on the meaning we give to the event (stressor), which influences how we interpret the physiological and chemical changes that occur when a stress response is triggered.
Researchers at Harvard University taught students who were preparing to write their graduate entrance exam to reappraise their nervousness and anxiety about the exam and re-interpret the physiological symptoms as a signal they were ready for the exam. Test results showed these students scored higher than the control group. The students also stated it was their stress response on the exam day that helped their performance.
The bottom line is that we can control the amount, type, and nature of the stress we experience. Understanding our normal stress response and learning to work with it will help us maintain balance and stability during change.
Turning on the Stress Response is Automatic
Our stress response is part of our built-in survival mechanism. It was designed to engage automatically, unconsciously, and quickly whenever we perceived a threat to our survival. And it does that very well, especially in an acute situation. Like, when you pull your friend or child back onto the curve just as that car comes speeding through the crosswalk. Our unconscious brain can assess and initiate a response to a situation 500 milliseconds before our conscious brain has even registered that something has happened.
Although our emotional centre and unconscious brain can turn on our stress response, it can’t turn it off. Only our executive conscious centre of the brain can turn it off.
Turning off the Stress Response is a Manual Process
Therefore, after our stress response is triggered, turning down or turning off our stress response requires a manual process. We need to disengage from our default system and engage our executive control centre. In essence, we are moving our unconscious brain out of the driver’s seat and placing our brain’s conscious and executive functioning centre behind the wheel.
Dr. Andrew Huberman states that the ability to de-escalate stress is genetically pre-programmed into every human being. Clients and course participants are always a little skeptical when I tell them they are hard-wired to reduce stress. One reason is that knowing we have the built-in capability to de-escalate our stress response is one thing; using that capability is another.
In a previous post, I talked about the power of the pause to help us reduce stress. Below are three questions that can help you use the pause to connect and reduce the stress of change.
Three questions to help you tap into your built-in stress reduction capability.
- What physiological and emotional signals am I experiencing as stress?
- What old memories, beliefs or assumptions are influencing my response to this situation?
- Is there a different way for me to interpret the situation and the signals I am receiving?
Tapping into our built-in capability is not easy. It takes practice. But in my experience, it’s worth the effort.
 Jamieson, J., et al. (2013). “Improving Acute Stress Responses: The Power of Reappraisal.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 22(51): 51-56.
 Watkins, A. (2014). Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership. London United Kingdom, Kogan Page Limited.