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When Stress Crosses the Line to Become Anxiety or Depression

February 24, 2016

As leaders, we are no strangers to stress. But if you feel your stress has been mounting and becoming a regular way of life, there might be something more happening for you.

I think back on my own leadership journey and how I felt I had work-life balance that was envied by many of my friends for years, yet I was feeling stressed inside. I had a quickly escalating career and lots of friends. My social and work calendar was booked three months in advance on a continuous cycle. I thought I was happy, yet something inside of me didn’t feel quite right. After some reflection, I realized despite having great balance, I had too much of everything going on in my life – both work and social, leaving little time for me to sit and just do nothing. Our batteries need time to recharge. To be their best, our brains need to have time to just drift without planning, organizing or brainstorming.

For me, one of the first signs something was off inside of me was my inability to fall asleep at night. My mind would be busy thinking and wasn’t shutting off. And then after a few hours of tossing and turning, I would begin to get frustrated that I wasn’t falling asleep and that would only make things worse. But, my brain was needing time to decompress and process my day. I wasn’t giving it time throughout the day due to my busy schedule so it was taking what it could get… and that was the stillness of the night.

What happens when we are always go-go-go is we can get into this place of everything feeling like top priority and that we are constantly on the move. This narrows our perspective and when things go wrong in our lives, as will happen from time-to-time, it can feel like a desperate situation and make us miserable inside. This daily dose of adrenaline that is released from these regular feelings of stress depletes our health, energy and yes, even our brain power and brain size.

When stress becomes an ongoing way of life, it does cross into the mental health arena often taking the form of anxiety or depression. What many leaders don’t stop to realize is that this is unhealthy for both your personal and professional lives. Leaders tend to be strong, independent, highly skilled individuals and it can feel like a weakness to see that there is some anxiety or depression eroding their quality of life. And at many times, they can still feel normal and strong. Anxiety is not just for the weak, it happens to ‘normal,’ high-performing leaders.

If you think you may be feeling anxiety or depression in your life, don’t accept it as a regular way of being as part of the package of being a senior leader. It is not.

How to Improve the Quality of Your Life Despite the Responsibilities of Being A Leader:

1. Several times a day, stop what you are doing and just practice deep breathing for a few minutes. This triggers to your brain to relax and also helps give you a mental break. Mindfulness has been life-changing for me in my own life and career. This stuff is life changing! I saw a need to help other leaders with the stresses they face, which led me to create the group and one-on-one coaching program, Mindfulness Leading and Living.

2. Regular exercise. Studies on exercise show that it can be as effective as anti-depressant medication. Make regular exercise a part of your life.
3. Get outside. Research shows that when we spend 30 minutes in nature it can significantly lower our cortisol levels and help elevate our moods. This effect has been shown to last throughout the day.
4. Talk to someone. Find a good friend, trained coach or psychologist who can help you work through these feelings of anxiety or depression that pop up from time to time. The more we share our feelings, the less power these difficult emotions have over us.
5. Talk to your doctor. Your doctor can advise you of the best options for you. If your brain chemicals are off balance, finding the right anti-depressant for a period of time may help bring you back in line.
6. Spend time helping others. We can get so caught up in our own lives that we can get lost in the greater reason why we are on this Earth, to help and love each other. When you extend a hand in a purely altruistic way to someone else, it releases feel good chemicals and helps you get out of your head about the day-to-day grind and focus on the bigger stuff in life.

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