Leading Through Extreme Stress

Leading Through Extreme Stress

I’ve been in hard, desperate places before, as I’m sure many of you have been. Feeling a lack of hope and helplessness is a miserable place to be, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. What can we do when we find ourselves in a storm that we can’t control? And what if we have a team to lead through the storm?

When we find ourselves in times of extreme stress, our reactions are based on fear. Our impulse is to tighten our focus when we should be opening it. Tightening your focus means you could miss out on opportunities that present themselves in unexpected places. (I covered this topic in my book, Lessons in Lifecircle Leadership.)

  1. Identify your triggers — what do you fear? Chances are it will relate to physical safety and/or security — you and/or loved ones getting ill, and/or security — losing your job, business closing, losing all of your finances. These fears all have one thing in common; they relate to an assault on the bottom rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy. This is important to understand because a quick review of psychology 101 tells us that if you’re struggling with losses in one of the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy, you’re going to struggling to accomplish anything but that. We don’t want to be crippled by fear, so what can we do?


  1. Ask yourself, “what is the worst thing that can happen?” The response you imagine may be heartbreaking, but that’s OK. Feel it. Acknowledge and identify the feelings you get when you imagine the scenario you fear the most — chances are you’ll feel fear, helplessness, and more. Don’t worry; I’m not going to leave you at this moment, feeling hopeless.


  1. There are three techniques you can use at this point — and any point you feel on the verge of becoming crippled by fear:
  • Anchor — a simple physical activity that feels right to you and is self-soothing. For me, since childhood, it’s tucking my thumbs into my palms and closing my fingers around them (like a cocoon, not a fist).
  • Breathe deeply — inhale, counting to four; then exhale, counting to six — repeat, if it feels right. Under stress, most of us breathe superficially — fast, shallow, and high in our chest. Try to breathe expansively in all directions — expanding your diaphragm out and up.
  • Repeat an affirmation, mantra, or meditative phrase. It could be as simple as “I’ve got this.”


  1. Come up with one thing you could do if your worst-case scenario evolved. “I’d lose everything” might become, “I’d start again with the lessons I’ve learned.”

In moments when I have felt stressed and fearful, using some simple grounding techniques like these have helped me keep my cool and lead through times of extreme stress. I’ve found that there’s always a way through, and the fact that you are reading this now is a testament to your strength and resilience.