Managing Stress - The Chemistry of Performance

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Membership of the Uspire Network grants access to the Uspire Keynote Speakers, a collection of subject-matter experts who share their experience and insights with Network members. Uspire invited Sue Firth, Psychologist, to speak with our members about how to understand and deal with stress.

Managing Stress

Are you feeling stressed right now? Is adrenaline fueling your system and making you feel a little anxious and uncomfortably alert? The fact you are reading this suggests probably not. You are in a reflective phase maybe, and, as reading is known to relax, your body chemistry is probably in a nice state of calm.

But has stress been playing with you today? Maybe you felt a little grumpy at the dinner table or were a tad short-tempered in your team zoom call? Stress is not uncommon, coming in all shapes and sizes and is so widespread that, according to the HSE, 11 million work days per year are lost to stress. Indeed, it has become such a concern that it is now a legal duty for employers to protect their employees from stress. So, understanding stress and managing it is of particular importance to leaders who not only need to recognise their own stress levels but must also be on the lookout for the tell-tale signs in their teams.

Sue Firth is an expert on stress. A stress guru who understands the chemistry at play as you swing between mood states throughout the day. And to help our Network members get a grip on their own stress as well as that faced by their team, she was invited to be our Keynote Speaker as the latest Uspire Network event.

The Chemistry of Performance

To explain the underlying chemical reactions that people experience as they face stress Sue focuses much of her session on her Chemistry of Performance map; a fantastically simple but hugely useful quadratic grid that allows you to understand why you may feel the way you do.  There are four main chemicals involved in the manifestation of mood and subsequent performance -  adrenaline which keeps you active and alert, serotonin which relaxes, DHEA which makes you happy, and cortisol which makes you sad. A rather simplistic overview but when mapped on the poles of the Chemistry of Performance they help explain movement between the quadrants.

The y axis takes you from relaxed to active, whilst the x axis dissects the active line and takes you from happy on the right to unhappy on then left. Where your mood places you is partly explained by the influence of these chemicals and their reaction to the environmental circumstances you may find yourself in.

The quadrant most associated with proactivity and high performance is top right: busy and feeling good, fuelled by a mix of adrenaline and DHEA. Being in this space is energising and motivating and being here can help you make great things happen.

However, you simply can’t be in here all the time, it’s just too intense for you and your team. You need to spend some time in the bottom right quadrant and unwind properly so that you can benefit from being happy and relaxed. In this space you will feel calmer, fulfilled and reflective, and it is this space that is associated with the feel-good chemical Serotonin. The secret to spending quality time in this space is knowing what gets you in here, and Sue gives some great advice on how to do just that.

Counter-clockwise into top left, busy/unhappy, is the precursor to stress; high adrenaline but overly active cortisol. Cortisol helps us begin our days and gets us out of bed, but should naturally dissipate throughout the day. As we get stressed and react we create spikes in cortisol which can cause tiredness and impact our mood making us frustrated, angry and bad tempered; wired and tired.

Bottom left is the place we should be wary of. A dangerous mix of cortisol and serotonin responding to negativity, anxiety and withdrawal. We should be conscious of ourselves or members of our team spending too long in this space.

This is a whirlwind review of a quite a complex subject, and indeed stress is not all bad. It can in fact be a good thing as our bodies naturally respond well to increased pressure by motivating us to perform. The trick in life is determining how to stay positively thriving on it rather than drowning in it.

If you would like access to Sue Firth’s excellent talk on understanding and managing stress then contact

The Uspire Network - a unique blend of business coaching, peer to peer learning and thought-provoking events.

The Uspire Network supports high potential commercial leaders seeking to step into future C-suite roles. Bringing the outside in, The Uspire Network focuses on delivering tangible business results whilst creating and nurturing high performing talent. To learn more down the Uspire Network 2021 Programme.

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