Leaders: How To Deal With Toxic Stress

Here’s a truth you may be trying to avoid: Overwhelming levels of stress can derail leadership, focus, and productivity. Leaders are potentially more subject to stress than others because, in some circumstances, it can be unrelenting and unrelieved.

To make it worse, many leaders feel that even if their organization offers help for mental wellness counseling, it may be perceived as a sign of weakness to take advantage of it. Although I disagree, I can understand the impetus for a leader to appear strong.

That said, conquering stress is essential for career success, and to do so, leaders must first understand how stress reaches toxic levels within themselves, why it can become traumatic to the mind and body, and what to do about it. It’s crucial to learn the warning signs and deal with them because the health and quality of one’s leadership reverberate throughout an organization, affecting many lives and outcomes. It’s important not to brush stress off because “everyone here has it.” If everyone does, then it’s even more vital that leaders address it.

To deal with stress overload, leaders must manage their own stress first – just like the emergency air mask on a jetliner – before helping others.

Whether stress comes from internal pressure to excel or external pressure to meet demands, too much of it can lead to impaired immune function, disease, psychological disorders, irregular sleep, injury, obesity, and plenty of other ailments. Before you say, “That can’t happen to me,” keep in mind that according to research by Bupa Global (the international health insurer), 64% of senior business leaders have suffered from mental health conditions, including anxiety, stress, and depression — and that measure was taken shortly before the pandemic laid a blanket of added stress over most leaders.

To look into this further, I recently interviewed a former trauma therapist and current emotional wellness coach for leaders, Andy Maurer. Andy regularly works with high level leaders in business and entertainment and brings a fine-tuned insight to the conversation. What follows are some highlights of our discussion.


What are traumatic or toxic levels of stress?

Curt: As a leadership coach with a background as a trauma therapist, can you start by telling us how high levels of stress impact leaders?

Andy: I originally became a trauma therapist because I saw how pervasive and disruptive trauma was to leaders. Research shows that, generally, more than 80% percent of people have experienced trauma, and 30 percent have experienced four or more traumatic events in their lifetime. And trauma isn’t just a physical incident such as a car accident.

Trauma can happen when a leader’s ability to react to a perceived threat is overwhelmed by stress or fear. Ultimately, this kind of psychological trauma leaves individuals feeling disconnected from themselves, from others, and their work. The pandemic has increased or magnified these negative symptoms, ultimately leading to elevated rates of distress. 

Curt: When you say “trauma,” I get a picture of the highest level of mental distress. But I’ve also heard you talk about “toxic stress.” What do you mean by that? How does it relate to trauma? And how does toxic stress impact a leader’s brain functioning when it comes to their wellbeing and ability to maintain attention and sustain personal connections?

Andy: Generally, trauma starts with an incident, and its effects continue from there. Toxic stress results when we have prolonged an elevated levels of stress — often as a result of trauma — without deep and meaningful connections in our life. As a result, leaders often feel disconnection from themselves and lose a sense of purpose, peace, and clarity.

At that higher, toxic level, stress tears at the fabric of human performance and emotional health. As a result, the logical and rational part of the brain goes offline, and we revert to the more primitive Amygdala, which is the fight, flight, freeze, or submit portion of the brain. Once we’re there, our behaviors and thoughts spring from fear rather than peace, and our relationships become tense, fractured, and disconnected rather than safe or collaborative.

The Neurological Side

Curt: As a student of brain science, I’ve observed that leaders — or anyone, actually — can overestimate how much control they have over their brain, and that the brain independently exerts itself in ways they don’t anticipate. This neurobiology also applies to the way we engage each other, particularly as leaders. How do you see this brain-driven interaction?

Andy: Human beings are built for connection. We often acquire this connection through our ability to co-regulate with another — also known as syncing up. We see this in the earliest signs of life when a baby cries and a caregiver responds with soothing, or a parent smiles and a child smiles back. As human beings, we are consistently attuned to the social cues of others to assess feelings of safety or danger in relationships. 

As leaders, when our life is full of toxic stress, our body language, tone of voice, and human engagement will broadcast fear, distrust, and agitation. Then those we lead will respond, largely using mirror neurons, which are built to match the posture, facial expressions, and emotions of the person standing across from us. So as overstressed leaders, we are making our elevated sense of fear and stress contagious rather than providing constructive direction.

How to Detoxify Stress in the Moment

Curt: I think we all know at least one high-ranking or high-performing leader who is driven by unhealthy emotional patterns… I’m talking about leaders who let stress get to them – who fly off the handle, blame everyone else for whatever is wrong, squelch creativity or input from their subordinates, and shut their team out of strategic thinking or the “why” behind significant decisions. How do you see that play out, and is there a way for a leader to unlock peak performance that isn’t riddled by stress?

Andy: Instead of subconsciously reacting out of toxic stress, leaders need to move to a place of conscious awareness. This happens when leaders monitor their emotional state rather than unharness it or react from it. This awareness allows leaders to make intentional choices that are good for them and those around them.

I ask leaders to apply this exercise when they notice their body is anxious, overwhelmed, or agitated as a result of toxic stress and before they have important encounters with others:

  • Close your eyes and take five deep breathes. Then open your eyes and take three steps back.
  • Envision yourself standing in front of you, as if you just stepped out of your own body.
  • Ask, “what do you notice about that individual in front of you?” Note what’s happening in their body.
  • Then ask, “what is one thing this person needs to know about themself?” For example, are they good enough? Will they make it through? Is there an end in sight?
  • Step forward, back into your body again, and take five more deep breaths. Focus calmly on that one thing you needed to hear.

Once a leader has regulated themselves, they are ready to act from a state of consciousness.

Curt: That’s a tremendously helpful tool, thank you. I do something similar every morning in connection with my to-do list, and I find it very centering and calming. So, understanding how such exercises work, I appreciate the power of what you’ve suggested.

If you could speak directly to leaders with any last words, what would they be?

Andy: Just this — You cannot pursue wholeness and health in your work, your relationships, or among those you lead if toxic stress is a prominent cycle in your life as a leader. Instead, be mindfully aware of yourself each day. Give yourself the power to change these patterns and foster a life of peace, connection, focus, and clarity.

Curt: Thanks, Andy. Those are words every overstressed leader can add to their list of New Year’s resolutions.

The Tycoon Herald