The Martial Art of Stress Management

Most of us work and live out of control at least to some degree. Yet wherever we’ve worked worldwide, we’ve found everyone seeks to have more control.

Controlling stress is a martial art. No, it's not about fighting stress or overpowering your internal desires, nor about choking the living daylights out of others. In fact, just the opposite. The Japanese character for martial arts is bushi, literally "breaking the spear." In other words, the essence of martial arts is ending conflict, not vanquishing a foe.

And when it comes to stress, the foe and conflict is typically internal, not outside you. While there may be plenty of external stressors -- people, traffic, frustrating or limiting conditions -- how you act and react determines your level of stress. In my experience, when people say they're "stressed," they really mean they're feeling "out of control." You know, being physically exhausted yet not being able to sleep because your mind is running?

Further, stress can also be positive. Think excitement, anticipation, being thrilled or in love, pumped up for an event, playing well in a competition, even making a presentation that moves many others toward a deal-changing direction. Point of fact, the legendary actor Laurence Olivier remarked that, with all his experience, he typically got flutters just before he went onstage. And in the rare moments when he didn't, he "gave a flat performance."

Most of us work and live out of control at least to some degree. Yet wherever we've worked worldwide, we've found everyone seeks to have more control. There are varying levels here. Superficial control means trying to tightly keep a lid on yourself (or others), repressing inclinations or thoughts. This is limited; despite reminders to "leave your work at work and your home at home," emotions, fears, and worst-case projections often take control when your attention drifts elsewhere. Then, your lack of control leaks out to others. On the other end of the spectrum, a higher level of control entails being able to stay calm under even strongest pressures, such as just hearing your company is merging and not being sure whether you'll have a job, or being able to temporarily set aside -- not stuff down -- pressing financial fears so you can communicate cogently in a critical meeting.

I remember going through some challenges with another person and carrying my emotions into a martial arts class. My instructor, Hung Chow, noticed my overreacting during qi sao ("sticking hands") practice. He asked why, and I quickly overviewed what was going on. His response: "Why do you let someone else make you angry?" That, in essence, is a martial master's view of stress and self-control.

Based on both repetitive and varied training, martial adepts know that, though attacks can come at any time, they have the ability to respond appropriately and calmly, even when someone has furiously targeted them. And, most importantly, if they can control their own emotions and reactions, they'll enhance their self-protection ability. So the goal of a martial artist and of a stress manager is to gain greater self-mastery.

Here are some martial arts principles that help to manage stress:

  • Think "Stress Power." After viewing an impressive demonstration, I asked a judo master how he was able to defend himself against skilled multiple attackers coming at him full speed. Didn't he feel fear? "Of course," he responded, "I use the fear to help me move faster." Don't allow yourself to get stuck and targeted like a deer in headlights. Move. Do something. Turn concerns and stressors towards action that betters the situation. As one wise person said, "Be a warrior, not a worrier." While it's unlikely there's a foolproof cure for a complex problem, at least do something, however small, that moves toward improvement, however slight. Martial masters and master leaders understand that seemingly small changes can quickly leverage into huge positive results.
  • Control yourself first. The hallmark of beginning martial artists -- and weak managers -- is they attempt to make others be different. In contrast, experienced martial artists realize if they can’t control themselves, how can they effectively influence others? The first and most important approach martial artists employ is to control their own bodies and reactions. The better they move themselves, the more effective they’ll be at overcoming attacks.
  • Reduce internal conflicts. A martial master understands that if she expends significant amounts of energy fighting herself, she'll have that much less power available to deal with external problems. Find ways to honestly acknowledge and befriend mixed feelings inherent in any change or person. (Someone told me the person she loves the most is also same one she most detests in certain situations.) It's natural and understandable to have mixed emotions; just don't let these eat you up and drain your reserves or tie you into self-constricted knots. So, for example, before communicating a change of approach to others, internally work out the strengths and weaknesses of the new process to your own satisfaction; realize there are no perfect solutions, come up with what works best, but do reduce your own internal resistance in advance.
  • Focus on redirecting rather than overpowering others. Unmanaged fear often results in trying to squelch others who disagree. Don't try to block or ignore forces coming your way. Redirect them. Martial arts masters see the world as energy, which can't be created or destroyed, only moved. Think of pressures and conflicts as gifts to be redirected. Experience has shown the most resistant workers typically become the most committed when their concern or anger is dealt with to their satisfaction toward positive outcomes.

I've focused here on just some martial arts mindsets that apply to harnessing stress power. There's a lot more, and numerous physical techniques, as well. By resolving issues inside you first, rather than trying to force others to think or act a certain way, you'll be more influential and will experience less dysfunctional and frustrating stress.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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