Skip to content

How Leaders in High-Pressure Roles Manage Burnout and Stress

Executive leadership stress is an unwelcome yet often inevitable companion. While the ability to handle high-stress situations with grace and efficiency helps distinguish good leaders from the great, no one is immune. We sat down with Tina Greenbaum, CEO of Mastery Under Pressure, to get her wisdom regarding effectively managing stress.

Mastery Under Pressure

Greenbaum has honed her skills in helping entrepreneurs and their executive teams as a clinical psychotherapist and social worker. She’s the author of the book Mastery Under Pressure, which offers practical strategies to shift from limiting mindsets into high-performance action. 

When Stress Hits

About the brain and stress: When a stressor presents itself (financial worry, work conflict, marital problems, etc.), the primal region of our brain is activated, and once triggered, it influences the brain’s mid-region, also known as the limbic system or the amygdala. Here, it begins comprehending and interpreting incoming information, such as that stressor.

Once we are firing on all cylinders, the information swiftly travels to the prefrontal cortex, or the brain’s executive hub, responsible for rational thinking. The problem is when stress hits us hard, the prefrontal cortex goes offline, impeding our ability to think clearly. If you’re in a senior leadership role, your chronic stressors may be affecting your ability to think and, ultimately, your work performance.

Mindfulness and Body Awareness

The good news is that there are many simple strategies to reduce the impact of stress on cognitive function. Besides the brain, the body often signals stress before the mind, making body awareness vital for managing stress and maintaining mental wellness. 

The ancient practice of mindfulness, which Greenbaum defines as being aware of the present moment without judgment, is her prime tool to improve the mind-body connection. This is because each part of our body provides us valuable information when tuned in, a concept she illustrates through the example of chakras. 

Chakras are major energy centers in our bodies that correspond to our physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Yogis often talk about the seven different chakras coursing along our spinal column. When it comes to matters of the heart, for example, this area holds grief and memories of moments we’d rather not revisit—the experiences that have left a lasting mark. On the other hand, the stomach holds our sense of power and powerlessness, linked closely with our voice or lack thereof. 

When we pay attention to each area of our body, we receive meaningful biofeedback from these areas. In Greenbaum’s case, she faced breast cancer in the early 2000s. Throughout this time of her life, she could sense stress in her shoulders and neck and even trace the feeling back to her father and beyond. 

Rather than blame herself, How did I let this happen? she decided it was crucial to approach the situation with understanding, compassion, and grace. By tuning in to her body’s reaction to the extreme stress, she gained valuable feedback on her thoughts, emotions, and actions, thus, a deeper understanding of herself.

Practical Exercises for Managing Stress

Tina suggests this exercise to manage stress gracefully: Write down the challenges or tasks that cause you stress and identify your top stressors. Is it finances, family, or internal struggle? Once you’ve identified it, close your eyes and scan your body from head to toe to locate the physical sensation of this stressor. 

You may notice tightness or discomfort throughout specific areas of your body as you scan, such as the throat, chest, or hip areas. As soon as you locate your stressor, pause and reflect. Think: Where do I have control? Where do I lack control?

Fortunately, the answer is often within reach. Take a few minutes to focus solely on the physical sensation and allow yourself to feel it fully. This creates an opportunity in your body to realize the underlying stress that may influence you, allowing you to access its source and move forward. Utilize this exercise throughout your day to bring awareness to any hidden stressors you may encounter. 

As your awareness of your top stressor grows, you may also start to notice patterns or behaviors contributing to your stress. Once you know these patterns, take some time to reflect on how you can use this information to your benefit or reframe these patterns to start getting a different outcome. 

For example, you’re stressed because your work schedule is a mess, and it has been for days. Instead of approaching this task with your usual—rushing on your Tuesday lunch break to fix it—start taking proactive actions such as delegating scheduling to employees or blocking out time on your calendar each week to make time for yourself and others on your calendar. Change the patterns for different outcomes. Once you start implementing these changes, you’ll find yourself in an improved mental state, more control over how you feel, and better-managed stress.

It’s also helpful to create an action plan for addressing certain situations or devise a list of healthy coping strategies you can practice when feeling overwhelmed. 

Learning relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation can also help in a pinch. Even by taking slow, deep breaths, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system (ideally, this will be our primary operating mode). So, be attentive, respond with intensity if necessary, and then return to a calmer state. Training our breath is vital alongside mastering these other techniques like any other skill.

Focus and Productivity

Our peak level of focus typically lasts for approximately 90 minutes or up to two hours with some training. During this time, specific neurochemicals and neurotransmitters flow through our brain, enhancing our laser-like concentration. After an intense 90 minutes, we usually realize the need for a break. 

We step away, go for a walk, exercise, or simply wander in the garden. Engaging in any activity that diverts our focus like this allows our mind to expand and invites the activation of various neurotransmitters, which leads to fresh ideas and creativity. To manage your distractions and improve focus, practices like meditation and regular breaks let the brain expand and refresh, especially when stressed. When you become aware of this ‘break cycle’ and consciously acknowledge it, you open yourself up to experiencing more moments of flow and calm. 

The Truth About Meditation

A Zen-like state isn’t always the goal of meditation. Instead, it’s about focused concentration. The more you meditate, the better you become at pulling your focus back to attention when your mind wanders. Rather than a cluttered thought process filled with fleeting ideas, you enter a serene and tranquil space that welcomes new thoughts (and without judgment). Meditation provides enough calm for your mind to explore and expand.

Think about just one word to improve your focus, like peacelove, or serenity. You could also focus on a tangible object, like your pen. Whatever you choose, when you begin to focus, your brain aligns with your intention. The busy left side of the brain begins to quiet down, and the right side of the brain comes alive, which is where new ideas originate. Remember that the brain is a muscle, so the more you work it out with mindful practice, the more natural a state of relaxation becomes.

Personal Growth, Visualization, and Managing Fear

Visualization plays an essential role in our outcomes. By visualizing the outcome you want (relieved stress), you can create a mental blueprint your brain can follow. For instance, every time you need to give a presentation, sit and imagine how you want to deliver it to get yourself in the delivery mindset. If you will be in a big room, imagine your audience in front of you. If it’s online, still imagine the audience in front of you! Prepare yourself by finding calmness before the moment you say hello.

When it comes to fear, Greenbaum described it as “the only thing that gets smaller as you get closer.” While our natural tendency is to avoid anxiety, confronting it leads to a deep understanding of our chief motivations. Like stressors, fear can be identified through practices like a body scan.

While fear is terrifying, the only way past it is through it. Identifying and locating its source in your body will help you track it; tracking is everything when it comes to understanding patterns. Patterns fuel our behavior. Only a few repeating patterns will emerge, but once you grasp them, you’ll notice their recurrence in your behavior. Ah, there it is again. And again. And again. This empowers us to progress.

It is perfectly natural to want to avoid moving through fear. We divert our gaze and intentionally avert our attention, but fear can transform into our greatest ally when we do the opposite and muster the courage to confront it. If you never name the problem, you don’t know what it is. Name your fear to conquer it.