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Latent Stress: What It Is, What It Might Be Costing You, and Five Hacks to Get It Under Control

For many of us, stress is the new normal. We’ve become so accustomed to the hyper-vigilance of being always on, overextended, and in sprint mode that we often don’t realize the toll stress is taking on us, our energy, our happiness, and our ability to be present.

If you’re in any doubt that stress is impacting your life, take a moment to reflect on 2018. When I did, I realized just how much stress I’ve encountered over the past twelve months. Even as a professional trained in this domain, It was only when the stress lifted that I could feel the weight I had been carrying.

A Year of Stress In Review

As I shared in an article this past fall, we live in a city where kindergarten is assigned by a lottery rather than a school zone. After touring all nine elementary schools, we ranked our preferred schools and waited. Two months later, we learned that our son had been dealt a “bad lottery number.”  Not only did he not get any of our top choices, but we were also the last to be notified, leaving fewer options. For months, my husband and I worried. We wondered if we should move to a jurisdiction with better schools or hold back our son for another year of preschool. It was only a few days after school started, when our son moved to the top of the waitlist and got into an exceptional school that I felt the weight of the world lifting off my family. That’s also when I realize that I had been carrying around a huge amount of latent stress for months. But at what cost?

This wasn’t the only stress I faced in 2018.  In July, while still wondering where our son would go to school in the fall, we entered into contract negotiations to buy a friend’s home. As soon as the contract was signed, I moved on to worrying about renting our condo, simplifying our belongings, and getting ready for the move. After a curveball conversation, we found ourselves preparing for a rapid renovation before we moved in, and of course, renovations always take longer and become more costly than originally expected. While we were only moving three blocks away, I also worried about easing the transition for my kids and even about how the weather might impact a December move. Only when the boxes were cleared out in early January did I finally start to appreciate how much unconscious tension, anxiety, and latent stress I had been carrying around for months.  

Here, I’ve offered two personal examples of when and how we accumulate latent stress. Both examples happen to be from my personal life, but latent stress is also something leaders regularly face on the job. It builds up in the face of unrealized deliverables, strained relationships, broken communications, and the anticipation of high stakes meetings. There is a saying that you can’t paint a chair when you are sitting in it. The problem with  latent stress is that it’s like the chair: We often can’t see it until we get out of it, but by then, what damage has already been done?

The Hidden Cost of Living With Stress

The cost of stress is well-documented. It negatively impacts our health, well-being, and compromises our ability to be there for the people and things that matter most. Researchers have linked stress to everything from cardiovascular disease to risk of stroke. Research also suggests that stress may be linked to conditions, such as obesity, that can be associated with other health problems. On the mental health side, stress is linked to a host of problems, including increased risk of suicide. Even mild stress, however, can be damaging as it has also been found to negatively impact working memory and cognitive flexibility. Finally, when we’re stressed, we’re simply not fully present, and this is something that invariably impacts both our work and personal lives.

Five Ways to Tackle Stress

To tackle stress in your life, be proactive and begin with these five simple steps:

1. Do an audit: Carve out space to look honestly at yourself and your life. Ask yourself a.) What is causing stress? b.) What are you contributing to this stress?  c.) What is in your circle of control, influence, and concern? d.) What really matters (and how can you rebalance)? and e.) How can you focus more attention on things that are in your control?

2. Manage your bandwidth more effectively: To begin, eliminate anything that is non-essential, doesn’t move the dial, and doesn’t bring you joy. Think of this as an attempt to “KonMari” your commitments. Cross unnecessary things off your to-dos list or go deeper and start taking a long hard look at commitments, belongings, and relationships. If you need convincing, watch an episode of Marie Kondo’s new program on Netflix. As she continues to show the world, we have too much and need to simplify and not simply because it results in a cleaner home–simplifying also positively impacts our relationships, work, and wellbeing.

3. Know thyself: Identify your antidotes to stress (e.g., mine include running, yoga,  more sleep, more hydration, diet shifts, and listening to more comedy). It seems simple, but self-awareness is a gateway to change and small shifts make a difference. Under stress, I take more magnesium, gargle (so I don’t get sick), and watch more Seth Meyers.

4. Prepare: Preparation is one of the most powerful ways to stop stress before it happens. By preparing in advance, you decrease the likelihood of finding yourself floating halfway up a river without a paddle (and not even a cell phone to call for help!). When you prepare in advance, you have time to map multiple pathways ahead to achieve your goals and have time to stockpile everything you’ll need for the journey.

5. Outsource and delegate: We’re often stressed out because we are failing to properly outsource and delegate. If you’re not handy and don’t have a lot of time, don’t decide to paint your living room–hire a professional instead. Likewise, if you don’t enjoy writing and need to produce a polished proposal for a prospective client, hire a writer and editor to assist. Simply put, know your strengths and your budget, and outsource and delegate as required, so you have more time to do the things you love and excel at.

Stress happens and will continue to happen. To break the cycle of stress, we need to notice our natural tendencies, accept that we may have a predisposition to stress, and then address the stress problem head-on.