Choosing our Reaction in High Stress Situations

I recently facilitated a workshop at a client conference.  After the morning keynote address, I quickly ran back to my pre-setup room as I was starting 10 minutes. When I arrived, my agreed-upon expectations that the door would be locked by the hotel audio-visual team did not happen. The door was wide open and my laptop and other personal belongings were gone. I was in shock (!) and in the meantime, workshop participants were entering the room!

To say that I felt immense stress in that moment is a gross understatement. Yet I knew that the “show had to go on” and I had three choices based on a typical automatic stress response:

  • Fight: Express frustration, disgust and anger with the staff member who didn’t follow through on their word. As much as I was feeling those emotions, if I had used that approach I would have lost meaningful connection with the participants in the workshop and set myself up for a very forced and unauthentic workshop.
  • Freeze: Disregard my emotions and pretend nothing happened. While we often hear that the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach is as an effective way of dealing with stress, had I done that, I would have had to act my way through the session and there was no guarantee I’d have been able to deliver a successful 3.5 hour session in that mode (and participants would likely have seen right through me).
  • Flee: Leave the conference to escape the situation and the emotional impacts. Clearly, this was not an option.

My neurological system was on fire – what to do? I took a deep inhale and exhale to put out the emotional fire so I could think objectively. This allowed me to use the STAR model we teach in our Stress Management workshop – this was the fourth option.

  • Identify the Stress: In this moment of silence, I identified that the stress was caused by the hotel employee not locking the door, my laptop being stolen and no clear solution as I was about to facilitate the workshop.
  • Think about why it’s stressing me out: I like to be in control but can too easily trust people and override my gut feeling with the logic of another (I didn’t feel right leaving the laptop to begin with). My facilitation nightmare was about to come true!
  • How will I re-Act?: I chose not to act based on my automatic reactions and instead focused on what I could control. I let the other facilitators know that my laptop was stolen and fortunately, one had a spare and we were able to quickly get me re-set up and start on time.
  • What needs to be done to Reinforce the Act?: All seemed to be well, other than the human element. My fire was extinguished, but the coals were still red hot.  I knew this would impact my level of authenticity and connection with the workshop participants. When I am stressed out, I become more direct and controlling which leads to a disconnection with emotion, self and others, as well as my humanity.

I decided that vulnerability was needed. I shared with the group what happened and role-modeled what calming oneself down from a stressful experience looks like. After another couple of deep inhales and exhales, I re-focused on what could be done in the moment and intentionally put the stressful situation aside.

Utilizing the STAR model after my acknowledgement and acceptance of my emotion allowed me to pour water on the coals and be with what was happening in the now. I was not 100 percent at my best, but the workshop participants learned that even when we reach the peak of our stress, we can regain control. Our reaction can be a choice.

We all hit our stress limits at times and instead of reacting in the moment, take some time to acknowledge the emotion and then consider, now what?

Kwela’s Stress Management workshop teaches many strategies for building resilience to stress and managing its effects.

Glen Sollors, Partner