Managing Stressful Situations

Man stressing at work desk

The drop or churning in your stomach, the sweaty palms, the flushing of the face. Full-on signs that something or someone has just sent you on a path of worry, frustration, fear, or panic. While not always appreciated, our bodies send us instantaneous signals of our state of being.

The trouble with these reactions is that they served us well when we needed to outrun the saber tooth tiger, but most of us are not living in that environment today. Yet, our brains have not evolved with our change in circumstances. The outsized reaction is referred to as an Amygdala highjack.

So how do we “outrun” the highjacking of our thinking, reasoning brain when all we want to do is something oh so primitive, like punch a wall or shoot-off a scathing remark? By doing the thing we are least inclined to do…pause.

Pause and breathe.

Three deep breaths can be the difference between a productive response to stress and an unproductive reaction. 

“The first thing you have to know is yourself. A man who knows himself can step outside himself and watch his own reactions like an observer.”  – Adam Smith

Re-engage the Thinking Brain

Adam Smith’s wisdom is aspirational, since simply being able to re-engage our thinking, reasoning brain when under stress would be victory enough. 

The first step, to pause and breathe, gives us time to re-engage the thinking, reasoning brain. But once we do, what comes next?  The stressful situation is still present.

When we feel threatened it is because an underlying need is unsatisfied. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs identifies broad needs that we all share as humans. However, when it comes to needs in our daily lives, we all require different variations of these basic needs. 

Know Your Needs

So to Smith’s first point, “the first thing you have to know is yourself.” What do you know about your specific needs? 

Is it to be respected?
Is it to be part of the team?
Is it to know the plan of action? 
Or is it to be the one making the plan happen?
Do you prefer to reflect on the situation rather than jump into action?
Does organizing help you work your way out of stress? 

All of these, and more, are different human needs. More likely than not, the others involved in the stressful situation have different needs than you. So how can a solution be reached?   

Different Approaches

One person’s solve to a stressful situation may cause another person even greater stress. 

  • Person 1 “We need to take action!”  
  • Person 2 “Have we considered all the options?” 

And now there is interpersonal conflict on top of a stressful situation as one person is ready to jump into action and the other is concerned that all the alternatives, risks and outcomes have not been considered. 

What can one do? 

Just Breathe

Breathing helps us manage stressIt can be the hardest thing for us to do: 







This small break in the action is the one thing that can allow us to discover a possible solution. It provides space and the opportunity to explore.

Can you calmly share what your preferred solution is? Can the other person?

Can you agree that it is the two of you against the problem, not against each other?

Can you discuss and work toward a solution?

Perhaps in the moment you can. And if not, stepping away and agreeing to regroup is a productive way to clear minds and possibly save a professional relationship.   

Recognize Stress

Understanding your needs and how you react to different stress situations can help you develop responses that serve you and those around you better. And as Adam Smith said, “can step outside himself and watch his own reactions like an observer.” 

How do you recognize stress?  Listen to those physical signals your body sends and come to know your underlying needs. Needs is not a topic most teams or leaders talk about. But knowing they exist and identifying yours can provide a way to lessen stress for you and subsequently, those around you.   

Talk to me to learn more

Did we have a conversation about your Birkman Assessment? If so, email me to request your individualized Stress Management Report, newly released by Birkman in 2023. It identifies your possible stress reactions and the underlying needs, with steps to build resistance and avoid stress. 

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