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Can stress help you achieve your career goals?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The short answer is yes; stress can help you achieve your goals, BUT only with effective stress management. We all experience varying levels of stress throughout our lives, no matter our age, job, individual circumstances, or health status.

However, it’s especially true at work, where we spend an awful lot of our time. Whether you love or loathe your job, stress is ever-present but managed correctly; it can help you become a high performer enabling you to achieve your career goals, growth and overall career success. 

Stress Management helps us achieve our career goals. 

Think about world-class athletes. They have trained themselves to take control of their bodies and their brains, understanding what makes them work to their optimum capacity. While they train and compete, their bodies are under immense pressure, yet so is the brain.

However, successful athletes, such as Kelly Holmes, have been able to master the intricate balance of stress management. Holmes says,

“You need adrenaline, but too much and you are lost.”

When asked how much her physical skills mattered compared to her mental skills, her answer was immediate: 20/80. ‘In the 2004 Olympic 800 meters final, there was 0.2 seconds between the top four finishers,’ she said. ‘Our talent was roughly equal. We could all run fast, we were all strong and tough as each other.’ And so, 80 per cent of victory is in the mind. The difference lay in how some responded to the anxiety and pressure.

Kelly Holmes, High Performance by Jake Humphrey and Prof Damian Hughes.

The stress management Kelly Holmes achieved has enabled her to become a world-class athlete, achieving her career goals and success as an Olympian. But we don’t all have to be athletes to train our brains!

Learning to tame our stress for career success

We can all learn to calm and manage our stress levels with consistent discipline. Once we can do this, we discover an intense clarity and focus in becoming single-minded and achieving our career goals.

However, managed poorly, stress can be detrimental to our health and well-being, especially if we’re experiencing stress and anxiety over prolonged periods of time.

If you can learn to develop the skills to react positively to setbacks and challenges, you can begin to improve your overall well-being and resilience both at work and home. You’ll become better equipped to respond to adversity in the future, feeling confident that you can overcome obstacles. In small doses, stress can create a positive cycle that gives us the courage to take risks and the chance to flourish. 

Can stress management make us smarter?

Cognitive neuroscientist Ian Robertson, who presented the Ted talk “How Stress Makes Us Smarter”, believes that people who manage stress well are

“happier, less anxious, less depressed and smarter

And health psychologist Dr Kelly McGonigal, the author of ‘The Upside of Stress’, says,

“we’ve been told so often that when you are stressed, the only thing to do is calm down. You’re told to escape, which is so counterproductive. It’s all about using stress to your advantage”.

Dr McGonigal’s research highlighted that when people reassess how they think about stress, they become more capable of responding to it effectively.

What are the benefits of reframing stress as a positive?

Research into positive stress (also known as ‘eustress’) has shown that individuals with good stress management skills benefit from:

  • Increased confidence in themselves and their abilities.
  • A positive growth mindset.
  • More productive and efficient in tasks and decision making.
  • Highly motivated and increased morale.
  • Gain clarity and focus on goals and how to achieve them.
  • Heightened expectations of themselves and others.

When we feel good about our ability to deal with challenges, we’re empowered to push beyond our comfort zones and feel ever more determined and optimistic about our goals.

How should we manage stress at work?

Imagine you’re facing a challenge at work, like a fast turnaround on a project or making a presentation to senior managers or clients. Stress hormones cause your body to respond with physiological changes: your heart races, your breath quickens, and your blood pressure rises. Meanwhile, glucose floods your muscles, making you feel alert, while a rush of oxytocin inspires the need for connection with people who can help.

When you begin to acknowledge these feelings and experience them as exhilaration rather than as fear, they can boost your energy and mood, sharpen your focus, and ultimately enhance your ability to accomplish the career goals and success you’re striving towards.

The knock-on effects of stress management at work are widespread. Learning to master stress in one area can positively affect other aspects of your life. Whether it’s personal goals, relationships or your family and community life, mastering stress push you to seek fresh challenges, expand your horizons, enjoy new experiences, and ultimately enrich your life.

What strategies can turn stress into career success?

In the 1970s, psychologist and stress researcher Susan Kobasa studied the underlying personality traits of business executives who remained healthy despite ongoing work-related stress compared to those who developed health problems.

Her research identified three protective characteristics – challenge, control, commitment – which underpin modern thinking on effective strategies for coping well with stress:

  1. Challenge: Kobasa wrote

“Persons who feel positively about change are catalysts in their environment and are well practiced at responding to the unexpected”.

She described a mindset in which people viewed change as a development opportunity rather than a threat to their security and were motivated to embrace the energy of stress and use it to address problems.

  • Control: this characteristic highlighted the fact that individuals who coped well with stress were more likely to take active control and face their fears, believing and acting as if life experiences are controllable.

Feeling that your problems are out of control is one of the main causes of stress. Successful people tend to be more realistic about which issues are within their control and thus are empowered to find solutions by looking for alternative options and possibilities. 

  • Commitment: Kobasa found that people with a strong sense of purpose and intrinsic values in their life had a strengthened commitment to their goals even in the face of adversity.

Adopting these traits in your working life might look like: 

  • being willing to compromise
  • ensuring you delegate and prioritize
  • taking breaks and safeguarding a balanced home/work life
  • asking for help and being realistic about what you can and can’t commit to
  • breaking bad habits like perfectionism or over-control
  • striving for a positive mindset and realistic goals

Top tips for positive stress management

  • Recognize when stress is causing a problem and don’t ignore warning signs.
  • Use the resources you have available, whether that’s time management tools, mindfulness apps, or just asking friends, family and colleagues for help.
  • Prioritize sleep and diet to combat stress hormones and stay healthy.
  • Practice self-care and make time to relax.
  • Connect with others to prevent feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Remind yourself of your strengths and that you have beaten obstacles in the past.

Far from avoiding stress, we can actively welcome the way it rewires our brain with the knowledge and capacity to positively impact our career success while expanding into every other area of our lives.