Evil Stress and How to Deal With It

The Vanquishing Evil Management Initiative Pt. 4: Evil Stress and How to Deal With It

This is the fourth in a series of collaborative management articles by Andy Scantland & Tim Wenzel. Our goal is to call out harmful management & leadership practices that are damaging productivity and relationships. And to empower you with alternatives that will lead to happier and more productive teams.

In part 3 of this series, Tim talked about the differences between priorities in the security world between the Military/Law Enforcement sectors and the corporate sector.

He noted that Government service and law enforcement exist as a function of law. Their scope of work is defined by Executive Order and Law.

In the corporate world, security departments are not enforcement agents in the Corporate Governance Model. Instead, Security Policy often manifests itself in the form of best practices and guidelines which must be effectively communicated to the organization. And security leaders rely on the concept of influence and leading without authority. Tim called out how important it is to understand the value you bring and be able to express that to senior executives.

These changes, along with the strange new world of the pandemic we’re living in, can induce stress. Some stress can be good- when we stress a muscle within reasonable limits, we make it stronger. When we challenge people to be their best, we can raise their capabilities and confidence.

But stress, when it’s too severe or when it’s sustained over too long a time, can cause damage. It’s damaging to our health, to our sleep, to our decision making, our focus, and to our ability to effectively lead teams. This happens because, when we are under significant stress, we tend to turn to protective behaviors we learned early on, behaviors that may not serve us today. In other words, 

When we stress, we regress.

This all starts with the primary role of the brain: while our brains allow us to reason and sort things out on a daily basis, a key function of the brain is to keep us safe. The brain is constantly scanning the landscape for danger, so we’re actually predisposed to looking for what’s wrong. 

When we sense danger, our systems move away from creativity and resourcefulness and toward protection - this is the classic ‘fight or flight’ syndrome we hear about. And when we’re in this state, it’s terrifically challenging to be intentional, to be resourceful, to make calm, thoughtful decisions.

What can cause stress? Of course, we all have different things that feel stressful- some of us actually enjoy the adventure of not knowing what’s around the next curve; others become anxious if they don’t have the full and complete plan in front of them. We are all different, our circumstances can change how we feel stress, and no one style is best.

It’s important to note that our biological systems don’t really differentiate between physical and psychological stress. Our brains react much the same in either case. So stress can be driven by anything that threatens our physical safety but also anything that

  • threatens our psychological safety
  • comes as unexpected or throws off our identity 
  • we’re unprepared for which has some importance to us
  • represents the loss (or fear of loss) to us

You see this demonstrated in lots of ways, from a simple sense of overwhelming to micromanaging to arguments to physical violence. 

Our default in these situations is to act reflexively; to act on instinct rather than thought. The classic fight or flight syndrome works great in a truly dangerous situation but likely won’t be welcomed in most corporate environments ‘ 

What does that mean for us?

Step one is to be aware when we’re feeling stress. Pay attention to the thoughts that creep in and the physical sensation in your body when you feel stressed. Many people report a knot in their gut, tightness in the chest, tension in the neck, or a sudden headache. When we use the cues our body is sending us, and recognize what is happening, we have far better capability to control it.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.- Viktor E. Frankl

Here’s a link to a short, fun, and enlightening video from the Conscious Leadership Group which talks about what can happen and how to recognize it: Above the Line/Below the Line.

OK, So What Do I Do About It?

Many people in Security, Healthcare, and Emergency Services have a background in hyper-stressful situations so there’s a tendency to assume you can handle it. And that can be true until you’re in a new environment (like a corporate office) and feeling threatened in ways you aren’t used to (like a Board meeting, an important strategy discussion, or high-stakes presentation).

Further, as our Covid experience progresses through phases, almost all of us will find ourselves in new, challenging, possibly frightening situations. 

Find ways to stay present and resourceful; we want to lower the limbic response, stay aware of our options, remind ourselves of the control we have.  

Below are some steps you can take at the moment to return to a calmer, more centered place when stressed:

  1. Breathe- yes, deep breathing can have a remarkable impact. Here’s a link to a technique called Box Breathing- it takes about 30 seconds, it’s easy, and no one in the room needs to know you’re doing it: Box Breathing to reduce stress
  2. Remind yourself of your strengths and your experience. When have you moved through challenging times in the past? And what within you allowed to succeed in those situations?
  3. Bring yourself back to the moment. Fear can be described as ‘energy focused on things in the future we cannot control’.So, one technique is to refocus your thoughts on what is right in front of you. Consider: Why am I feeling this way right now? How can I return to calm? What is one step I can take right now to help resolve the situation? Fear tends to freeze us so getting into positive action can be helpful. Oftentimes, stress is created when we feel we’ve lost control. A simple strategy is to remind yourself what you have control over. A technique: make a list, on paper if possible but even in your head, of the things you have control over, the areas where you have the ability to make decisions and have authority over your life. By redirecting your energy toward what you can control vs. everything in the world you cannot, you often can get back on track.
  4. Look for a way to help someone else, even for a short time. By focusing outward on the welfare of others, we can often change how we’re perceiving our own situation.
  5. Self-compassion- this sounds squishy, I know. But give yourself a break. We all feel stress and we all stress about different things. So, let go of the self-talk that says you’re weak if you are having a hard time focusing; that’s just a story and it isn’t helpful. In fact, you’re being human.


Vanquishing the Evil 

As a leader, one evil appears when you do not recognize that you can control and alleviate the stress of others. When you don't recognize that it’s been prolonged without rest. When you don't recognize that it’s an expected characteristic of the environment that you create and allow. So, leaders need to look at the experience they're creating for their teams and look for ways to reduce stress and suffering.

So, the (capital E) EVIL, in this case, isn’t the stress; it’s our desire to ignore it when things feel wrong. When we learn how to avoid being triggered, when we’re able to stay calm in new and challenging situations, when we stay quick in our thinking, When we see others struggling and we are present for them, even if we cannot solve the issue for them. THEN we are growing as human beings and able to lead from a more powerful and authentic and inspiring place.


Originally published at LinkedIn: Andy Scantland on August 12, 2020.

*Image by Omni Matryx from Pixabay 


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