Sunday, December 7, 2008

Stressed Out?

Learn how to accept and adapt to your present reality to alleviate stress.

Since childhood, Labor Day has always marked the end of summer fun and the back-to-school and work routine that comes with it.

For adults, the back-to-school routine can be a welcomed change (kids getting out of the house!), but it is often filled with a let’s-get-back-to-work serious note. And, of course, a certain amount of stress.

I recently read a brilliant definition of stress in Ekhart Tolle's much-acclaimed book "The Power of Now". He writes that stress occurs when we are too focused on either the past or the future state, with little regard for the present moment. In other words, when we are stressed out it is usually when we want to be somewhere else other than the present. WOW!

Think about it for a moment. You are stressed out in traffic. Why? Because you don't want to be stuck behind some truck, you would rather be in your living room relaxing. We get stressed out at work because we know we have 30 more things to do by next week. Or, we’re stressed because we should have spoken up in that important meeting last week.

Tolle advocates, and I agree, that if we focus on the moment in front of us and suspend our focus on the past or the future, then we would not be stressed. I have tried this and it works. When I know that I have many things to accomplish, I try to focus my attention on the one thing that I am doing now, as opposed to concentrating on the future things that also need to get done. The present moment is the time we have now for getting things done. Focus your attention here and not on future or past tasks.

This is an important leadership skill to develop.

It reminds me of a story I heard regarding prisoners of war. Apparently, after the Vietnam War, surviving prisoners of war were psychologically analyzed. What researchers learned was that the freed prisoners all shared something in common - their attitudes toward their current reality weren’t pessimistic or optimistic. No, the survivors were realists when dealing with their current reality of being a prisoner of war and the pain, agony and unknown associated with it.

You see, pessimists didn't survive because they focused on the things they should have done and they gave up early, hence their fate. Optimists didn't survive because they believed that things would get better tomorrow and when they didn't, they began to lose hope. Realists took each day as it came and dealt with their present reality. They minimized stress and focused on the present task at hand.

With so much unknown (i.e. organizational changes in strategy or corporate downsizing), being a part of the corporate ranks can make one feel like a prisoner. It is no surprise that leaders are expected to adapt to change and help others manage change for themselves.
Change that is out of our control and involuntary is stressful. We seem to want to hang on to the past, or project a different future. Learning how to accept the present moment helps us alleviate stress.

Athletes demonstrate this well. They don't know what their opponent's next move will be, but they are focused on being able to respond effectively to that moment with little regard for the past or the future. They are alert and able to adapt to change quickly. This is realism in action. This is a successful leadership skill.

Laura Lopez is a performance strategist, leadership specialist and branding expert with more than 20 years of corporate leadership experience. Most recently, Laura Lopez was a vice president with The Coca-Cola Company. Laura's book, The Connected and Committed Leader, is available via her Web site at, at your local bookstore or on As the owner of her own business, Laura helps companies and business associations achieve more sustainable business results through the power of leveraging diverse talent with effective leadership and branding. She is available for speeches, workshops and customized programs. Laura can be contacted via her Web site at:

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