How to Overcome Stress and Anxiety in the Performance Extreme of Life

How to Overcome Stress and Anxiety in the Performance Extreme of Life

Mindful read – 10 minutes

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wage, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, … Safe return doubtful… and recognition in case of success.”  Earnest Shackleton. Polar Explorer.

Women can join too” , Natalya Bailey, CEO – Accion Systems


When was the last time, either on your commute to work or over a quiet cup of tea or coffee, you found yourself daydreaming about being an astronaut, circling the earth at 4.6 miles per second, 220 miles above the earth’s surface, or climbing the highest mountain in the world in temperatures that would make your face freeze together with a high degree of uncertainty you will make it down alive, never mind reach the summit? Space exploration and mountaineering are two accepted examples of performance extremes that require extraordinary physical, psychological and interpersonal demands for survival, performance and the management of stress and anxiety.


Intuitively these make sense. These are environments where men and women put their lives at risk in service of science, curiosity and exploration, but why would giving a business presentation or getting your boss to agree to a particular project be thought of as working in an extreme environment? I’m not suggesting that office working is exactly as anxiety-inducing as orbiting the earth or that climbing Everest is a perfect analogue for leading a successful business. I do believe, however, that most of us live and work in performance extremes, and our ignorance of that fact is costing us dearly. What’s the evidence? There’s plenty:

  • On average, we are interrupted once every 3.5 minutes, challenging our ability to stay focused and productive and costing approximately $1 trillion in the US alone
  • Hyper-employment or information overload is overwhelming people’s ability to manage and process these data, costing business millions of dollars
  • Emotion regulation, our ability to avoid letting our feelings control our behavior, is decreasing as evidenced by the increase in workplace bullying, incivility, unresolved interpersonal conflict and organizational aggression.
  • ‘Coping Ugly.’ We have a choice to problem solve our way out of a tough or challenging situation at work or ‘act out emotionally.’ More people are choosing emotional focused coping to deal with stress and anxiety, resulting in a rise in binge eating, alcohol consumption and suicide.
  • Pharmaceuticals. The second biggest selling prescription drug in 2016 was Abilify (Aripiprazole) an anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication.
  • Adaptation. A measure of successful adaptation is being resilient. Despite the fact that resilience has been described as a type of ordinary magic available to most of us, we seem to be having problems activating this innate strength. For example, a recent study of workplace stress found 80% of workers felt stress on the job and nearly half said they need help learning how to manage it.

So what might we learn from research into the selection and training of individuals who make it their life’s work to live, explore and perform to the best of their abilities in an extreme environment?

  • The first thing we know is that these people share some interesting personality characteristics. Studies of arctic explorers identified that as a population they scored higher on measures of openness to experience, extraversion and emotional control, and lower on measures of neuroticism than the general population. Interestingly, one personality characteristic found across a number of different expedition teams was ‘absorption’ or the ability “to become highly engrossed in a particular activity to the exclusion of attending to other events that are happening around the person.” Given the increasing rate of interruption in the workplace, absorption might be a significant protective factor against the risks of working in performance extremes.
  • The second thing we know is that many individuals choosing to live and work in extreme environments train for the situation and are supported by others in their endeavor. For example, astronauts have to train for at least 2-years before they are let loose piloting a spacecraft. We don’t teach our children the basics of noticing and naming emotions and how to be resilient never mind the skills we need as adults to live fulfilled and productive lives.
  • Finally, the crucial determinant as to whether a setting is stressful is not the environment we find ourselves in, but the meaning we attach to our experience.

How do I know if I’m working in an Extreme Environment?


The Society for Performance in Extreme Environments define extreme climates as:


Settings that possess extraordinary physical, psychological, and interpersonal demands that require significant adaptation for survival and performance.


So how do you achieve the exhilaration of exploration and personal and professional actualization rather than succumbing to the physical, psychological or interpersonal challenges of a work performance extreme? In my work I have noticed that some settings are inherently stressful and require almost continuous adaptation. Founder or start-up CEO’s definitely inhabit a performance extreme. There is considerable uncertainty, extremely low margins of error, high incidence of interpersonal conflict with co-founders, venture capitalists and team members, and a very, very high risk of failure. The power of these ‘settings’ are exacerbated by the founder CEOs temperament and drive. Most have a deep sense of passion and purpose, and a significant personal investment in their idea and its impact. Their singularly focus means they don’t always cultivate the social networks that might help them adapt and cope. They are often asked to perform in areas where they may not have skills (hiring, sale-motions, finance and leadership), and, in my experience, often question their role as CEO—the label can carry considerable baggage fueling self doubt and a lack of confidence. However, performance extremes aren’t limited to entrepreneurs. A recent survey suggested the most stressful occupation was being in the armed forces. Interestingly, corporate executives also made the top-ten list of stressful occupations.


So if you’re not a startup founder or CEO, enlisted military or C-Suite executive how do you know if you are working in a performance extreme? The first step is to assess your perceptions of the work environment. For example, you may feel considerable uncertainty about the future of your job, that you’re not good enough, or that taking time away from work feels more like a survival activity than a chance for rest and relaxation; the second step is to determine the emotional impact of your surroundings. Perhaps you feel physically and emotionally wrung out because of the demands of your job, or you don’t have the energy to face another day ‘at the office’. Maybe you don’t feel safe expressing your views or being yourself. In truth, the most important feature of a performance extreme is that its less about the innate stressfulness of an occupation and more about your perceptions of being able to cope and flourish in your job.


Overcoming Stress and Anxiety with the Ordinary Magic of Resilience


The antidote to working in a performance extreme is to develop a resilient workstyle. Resilience is often associated with individuals, communities or groups coming together to manage the adversity of a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami, or an unnatural disaster such as 9/11. Football teams who soak up pressure and go on to win are described as resilient. We also describe buildings and the economy as resilient. So, resilience is either really important to just about everything; or its real meaning, and its real importance, have been obscured by people using it to describe just about anything. Resilience is important, and it is much more than “super-coping” dressed up in tights and a cape.

Resilient individuals are able to engage with adversity, persist in the face of significant odds, bounce back quickly and learn from the experience. In truth, we all have the ability to be resilient, but many of us are failing to activate this innate gift.

Psychologist Ann Masten calls resilience “Ordinary Magic”. She means that resilience doesn’t require extraordinary skills or resources. Instead, most of us have the seemingly magical capacity not only to weather adversity, but to also to come through it richer for the experience. So if it’s so ordinary why don’t more of us activate our ability to be resilient not only in situations that tax us emotionally or psychologically, but also in our daily lives? Do we have to wait for tragedy to happen, or is there another way to activate everyday resilience to cope with the performance extremes of working in the 21st Century?


To be resilient is to make a choice to work on, or activate a specific set of skills. These are:


  • Readiness – the core of readiness is flexible attention, the ability to be mindful, shift focus, think and interpret reality without bias.
  • Acceptance – saying a compassionate ‘no’ to our inner critic, having realistic but challenging aspirations for ourselves and listening to the wisdom of our future self.
  • Insight – a measure of emotional literacy. The ability to fully experience the breadth and depth of our emotional life, from stress and anxiety to joy and exuberance. This awareness allows us to sustain our engagement with ambition, opportunity or adversity.
  • Intention – the degree to which you live an authentic, purposeful life.This skill is tremendously important in ‘keeping us honest’ as we drive toward a goal or aspiration. It also helps us remain authentic and true to what we believe when we are criticized, or feel emotional pressure or threat from friends or co-workers.
  • Committed Action – acting decisively, being optimistic about an outcome and having a sense of purpose


To flourish in the performance extreme of modern day life we need to develop a resilient work and lifestyle. The good news is that most of us have the innate skills required to be resilient; to be steeled not scarred by the stress and strain of daily living. To discover your level of ordinary magic why not take this short quiz. It will put you on a path to activate your resilience so you can flourish in a performance extreme.


This blog is a version of an earlier version posted on LinkedIn.

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