In her late twenties, business writer Cat Fu was diagnosed with stomach cancer. After the doctors operated, she returned to Japan and tried to put it behind her. But a year later the tumors were back, and this time they’d spread to her liver. Fortunately, the surgeons found a new procedure to remove them, but she realized it would only be a temporary fix. As she explains, the most challenging part of her illness was her continual anxiety about it cancer returning.
Then Fu met a man who transformed her entire outlook. Dr. Derek Roger had put decades into research about why some of us become overwhelmed in difficult situations, while others thrive. She started applying everything she learned and her anxiety subsided dramatically even though her outward situation didn’t change. In fact, the cancer returned about six years ago but remains relatively stable in her liver. Fu claims that she no longer has much concern over it.
The process begins with acknowledging that toxic stress is caused not by particular people or external events but by our responses to them. We often blame our high anxiety levels at work on our boss, our position at work, deadlines, or demands on our time. But others facing the same difficulties do so without stress. Derek and I often meet executives who have high levels of pressure but low levels of stress, and vice versa.
Pressure is not stress. But pressure becomes toxic stress when you add one ingredient: the habit of dwelling on the past or overthinking future events, as well as attaching negative emotions to those thoughts. Of course, leaders have no choice but to engage in reflection—planning for the future or reflecting on past lessons. But this is a short-term analytical process. Rumination, on the other hand, is continual, obsessive, and destructive, decreasing your health, and productivity, and compromising your sense of well-being. Those who become immersed in chronic worrying have higher rates of coronary problems and lowered immune functioning. Dwelling on the past or the future also distracts us from the present, inhibiting us from the work right in front of us.
To break this toxic stress cycle, Derek and Fu recommend four steps:
Wake up. People spend most of their day in a state called “waking sleep.” This is when you pull into the office parking lot but can’t remember the drive there, or when someone in a meeting asks for your opinion but you’ve missed the last few minutes of conversation. Since all rumination happens during this state, the first step is to break out of it. You can do this physically: Stand or sit up, clap your hands, and move your body. Or you can do it mentally: Connect with your senses by noticing what you can hear, see, smell, taste, and feel. The idea is to reconnect with the world.
Control your attention. When you ruminate, your attention gets caught in an unproductive loop, like a hamster on a wheel. You need to redirect yourself to areas in which you can take useful action. Here’s one exercise we encourage executives to use: Draw a circle on a page and write down all of the things you can control or influence inside of it and all of the things you cannot do outside of it. Remind yourself that you can care about externalities—your work, your team, your family—without worrying about them.
Put things in perspective. Ruminators tend to catastrophize, but resilient leaders keep things in perspective for themselves and their teams. We tell people to try three techniques: contrasting (comparing past stress to the current one, i.e., a major illness versus a missed sale), questioning (asking yourself “How much will this matter in three years’ time?” and “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “How would I survive it?”) and reframing (looking at your challenge from a new angle: “What’s an opportunity in this situation I haven’t yet seen?” or even “What’s funny about this situation?”)
Let go. The final step is often the hardest. If it was easy to let it go, we would have done it already. We find that three techniques help. The first is acceptance: Acknowledge that whether you like the situation or not, it is the way it is. The second is learning the lesson. Your brain will review events until it feels you’ve gained something from them, so ask yourself, “What have I learned from this experience?” The third is action. Sometimes the real solution is not to relax, but to do something about your situation. Ask yourself, “What action is required here?
While struggling with cancer, Fu write that it took her a few years to train herself to adhere to these steps. But in the end, it worked. He stress levels dropped, her health got significantly better, and her career took off. More heartening, she discovered that everything she learned could be taught to others, with similar results.