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Leadership

Staying Strong Under Stress

How to keep a clear head and act as your best self when stress is trying to bring out the worst in you.


I’m not generally a stressed person, but I do get anxious on occasion. You can ask any member of the Behance Team who’s seen me before a big product launch or other major event. My attention to detail, normally a strength, can become a compulsive need to verify everything. If I’m not careful, my drive to be helpful can backfire.

In tough situations, with fires ablaze, certain strengths have the tendency to become weaknesses. For example, under stress, a natural and healthy tendency toward neatness and organization can turn compulsive. Smart people with great questions can become ruthless interrogators. Those who take pride in their laser-like focus can become too micro and miss the big picture.When handled improperly, stress acts like kryptonite. It causes your superpowers to turn against you; and, if you’re not careful, your stress can defeat you. While you can’t avoid stress, you can calibrate your reaction to it:

1. Ground your decisions in procedure.

Under stress, we often make decisions more quickly and with less information than usual – the perfect setup for disaster. The best way to avoid this trigger response is to have a procedure in place. Ideally, one than forces you to walk through the steps and get the information you need prior to taking action.

Many great development and technology teams, including our own team at Behance, maintain an “emergency sheet” that explains what to do if a website or key system goes down. The emergency sheet is prepared in advance and kept updated with simple step-by-step instructions for what to do first, who to notify, and how to proceed when the site goes down.

Having a clear procedure for solving certain problems prevents brash decisions and ill-conceived solutions. The trick is to learn from mistakes made under stress and, afterwards, develop a procedure to follow the next time around.

Under stress, we often make decisions more quickly and with less information than usual – the perfect setup for disaster.

2. Stay open.

For good reason, stress makes you defensive. Unfortunately, defensiveness makes you less open and alert to the resources and information around you. When I get stressed, I instinctively become more self-reliant. (Perhaps it is my fear of failure that makes me put my head down and try to solve things all by myself?)Ironically, at the times when it’s most important for us to consult our colleagues and absorb the opinions of others, we’re inclined to isolate ourselves. To offset this tendency, I make special efforts to engage people around me in times of stress. I pose more questions than usual. If I’m working under severe time constraints – drafting quick emails and attempting a quick solution – I remind myself to request a “gut check” from someone else on my team before taking action.

At the times when it’s most important for us to consult our colleagues and absorb the opinions of others, we’re inclined to isolate ourselves.

3. Don’t regress.

If you’re not careful, stress will conjure up the very worst of your natural impulses – paranoia, selfishness, and short-sightedness, among them. You’re also liable to misinterpret peoples’ intentions and ignore the help that you need.This is because stress is a natural consequence of the struggle against our primal tendencies. The instinct to run away from danger, or to fend for oneself at the expense of others, is in our ancestral DNA – what Seth Godin calls our “lizard brain.”  We need to be aware of these deeply ingrained tendencies and push ourselves to keep evolving.

Great leadership requires a deep sense of self-awareness and a willingness to, when necessary, transform yourself. I say “transform” because your default behaviors, many of which can be destructive, will need to change.For better or worse, the most critical decisions are often made during the most challenging times. By being aware of how stress tweaks your perspective, you can learn how to draw strength from crises rather than being overwhelmed or defeated by them.

How Do You Handle Stress?

What’s in your playbook when it comes to managing and creating under stress?

Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is a general partner for Benchmark Capital. Previously, he was Adobe’s Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (25)
  • Relationship Coaching

    Meditation is especially
    effective in the reduction of stress as it works to manage both the physical
    indicators and emotional strain of stress. Meditation works in its ability to
    train our minds to clear away distractions that interfere with thought clarity,
    meditation relaxes our mind and enhances its ability to recover. Continued
    meditation conditions our mind to better control emotional anxiety. Meditation
    works because meditation is medicine for the mind, body and soul.

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  • गायत्री कुडाळकर

    Great article

  • Christopher Wesley

    Love the tips, I make sure my weekly work schedule is solid, so that when I get overwhelmed I can look at it and have an idea what I should be working on.

  • Gabrielle

    I know exactly what you mean by my being helpful backfiring. I meditate, but don’t spend all day in the clouds. I have to work sometime :). I have a daily routine and if I’m feeling anxious, I’ll take a deep breath, step back and question why I want to change this or that. Perhaps I haven’t given it enough time to work. I do ground myself in procedure too and follow a system that I’ve set up while staying open and moving forward.

  • Joann Sondy

    I’m getting much better at handling stress overall; although “creative frustration” is another aspect about myself that is quite different from other forms of anxiety/stress.

    Never a disappointment, Scott, thanks for generous tips.

  • Patryk Les

    I just don’t bother that “small dwarf” in the back of my head. Everything is on my head, I am 24. And just 4 hours ago I’ve taken dog from the kennls. La dolce vita 🙂

  • Morgan Goeller

    The first victim of stress is empathy. As long as I can remember that (and act accodingly) everyone is better off in a high pressure situation.

  • Scott Belsky

    Morgan – I like your point here and aI agree; empathy is often times the first casualty of stress.

  • Owen Marcus

    As much as I would like to believe that I’m not effected by stress – I am. One way I counter my stress style is to have people who have different stress styles around.

  • Craig Desmarais

    Writing out a list of the things that need to be accomplished and prioritizing them works very well.  Adding a short solution to each and elaborating on them will help give you a clear direction you will need to go.  

    Sometimes just having a path to follow will inspire hope and reduce stress.  

  • Clipping Path

    nice design related site! I’ve found lots of nice work on your blog. thanks a lot for sharing with us.

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  • Tim Brownson

    I handle stress by reminding myself it’s fear dressed up in another guise. People (me included) are far more likely to accept perpetual stress in their lives than they are fear. To some people stress is almost a badge of pride, but if you ask them what they are frightened of their relationship with it starts to shift.

    BTW, just read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon and has done lots of research into implementing checklists like the one you mentioned. Yes they are simple, but they are phenomenally successful in keeping people on track and removing silly errors that high pressure can create.

    Most post I read on stress suck. This didn’t suck, it was excellent.

  • Kathleen Kiser

    sweet – well said

  • imabbb

    Yes, empathy is often lost in stressful situations, as a mechanism to self-justify one’s increased selfishness under stress. If we numb ourselves to the needs of others, they become so much easier to ignore.

    But empathy is not only lost in stressful situations; it can be found there as well. I know that if I allow myself to become aware of other people’s fear it increases my own level of anxiety.

  • PM Hut

    I think the best thing to do when you’re under stress is to keep your mouth shut when you really want to say something. Not doing so may hurt others and how others perceive you.

  • ecoopersoutham

    thank you, mr belsky for these very succinct and much needed reminders/tips. too easy to lose it altogether in these combative times!

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  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Absolutely excellent advice!

    As part of the “procedures,” I find that having a system for planning and processing is most critical when you’re under the greatest time pressure. Taking time for these seemingly mundane routines will make sure that you have clarity about what’s most important and that nothing falls through the cracks.

    Paradoxically, when life is most intense, you most need to step back and gain perspective instead of throwing yourself into frantic activity.

    To peaceful productivity~
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • marissa sharon

    Really great post! I fall victim to stress so often – both personally and professionally… all too often it brings out the worst! These tips were great!

    A strategy I’ve recently employed is just STOPPING for a minute. Stress kills everything – productivity, creativity, happiness… So when I feel like stress is winning – I step away from the situation. A quick walk, a five minute dance party, or a slowly sipped cocktail and funny YouTube videos can just rip my mind back to a happy place. Coming back to the stress source with a fresh attitude sometimes helps me refocus and approach things like a normal person again.

  • buy term papers

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  • Ashlee, Graphic Designer

    Part of the reason I’m switching to full-time freelancing is the realization that virtually all of my stress stemmed from my work environment rather than deadlines. My optimal workflow relies on me being able to allocate time to various projects and, most importantly, stick to that schedule (more or less). In my previous job I was constantly being dragged away from projects by coworkers and higher-ups to deal with a dozen other unrelated things, and I was never able to get into a groove that would let me work effectively. Now, that problem is gone.

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