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by Cynthia Howard | September 17, 2019


Stress is a primitive reaction hardwired into our nervous system. It is triggered by real threats and those imagined, like the worry that comes from self-doubt. Wondering if you have what it takes to do a job can quickly escalate into a full-blown stress reaction if you do not know how to manage these reactions.

Every day at work, in school, or at home, the stress reaction can change how you think, make decisions, and learn. The higher functions of your brain, responsible for perspective and judgment are inhibited by the primitive survival instinct, and you can get stuck in rumination or overthinking. Here are five strategies you can use to master stress:

1. Set up a 100-day plan. 

Identify your focus and then set up your plan. Review and revise every 10 days to make sure you are on track. When you start a new job, getting to know people on your team and key influencers is important. Set up meetings and opportunities to do that; write it out on your plan.

Include time for you to reboot, like working out and spending time with people who encourage you. Write out a plan for the most important things you can do to be successful.

2. Breathe.

I know you are breathing anyway; this time, do it deliberately. Every 90 minutes, your body goes through a cycle and attention levels off. Take 60 seconds and reboot with several rounds of gratitude breathing. Start with a count-of-four breath. Slowly breathe into a count of four; hold it for a count of four, and slowly exhale to a count of four.  Now when you breathe in, think of something you are grateful for and then exhale any frustration.

Do this for 60 seconds and easily release tension and frustration.

3. Move.

Engage in 15 minutes of exercise three times a week and you can help increase your productivity. Walk at lunch, dance when you get home, take the stairs, take advantage of any chance to get up and move.

4. Journal.

Keeping a journal is a powerful tool. Reflection is one of the ways you can learn from your experiences. There are many types of journals. One of the most effective is the Daily Review. At the end of the day, ask yourself three questions: What worked today? What didn’t? What’s next? Spend 5-15 minutes, no more, and write out your responses. Keep this journal as a record; spend a few minutes at the end of the week, month, and year looking for patterns and themes.

5. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention and staying in the present moment. The risk of overthinking, losing focus and walking around in a primitive survival stress reaction is real; mindfulness is your buffer. 

A moment is about three seconds. By learning to quiet your mind for three seconds, letting go of judgment and simply noticing your surroundings will increase your ability to concentrate. People report feeling happier, too, when they have a regular mindfulness practice. 

You can combine many of these suggestions and create your own high-performance ritual. Try this out: breathe deeply, using count-of-four breathing, and reboot your attention. Stay in the moment and allow your mind to notice what is happening around you. You can do this as you walk down the hall to a meeting, through the parking lot, into the cafeteria. You get the idea. 

Take a sip of water and do 15 seconds of gratitude breathing. You can do all of this in a minute and a half right before you go into a meeting. Use this before you write your Daily Review.

To be effective, managing stress is not something extra you do; rather, it is built into your day and part of your activity. Meet your next challenge aware and ready to take on whatever arises.

About Cynthia Howard, RN, CNC, PhD

Cynthia Howard ( is an executive coach, performance expert and the author of The Resilient Leader, Mindset Makeover: Uncover the Elephant in the Room. She researched stress and its consequences in performance during her PhD. In the past 20-plus years she has coached thousands of professionals, leaders and executives toward emotional agility and engaged leadership.