First Aid for Stressed-Out High Performers

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Management, Self Care


Admit it. You’ve had those days when nothing seems to go right, when everything others say and do appears designed to provoke, when there is way too much to do in way too little time, or when you feel like something scraped off of the bottom of someone’s shoe and you have to perform anyway.

Perhaps you’re naturally designed to excel at something, but on those days you can’t imagine what.

Paul Burgess, author of Natural Born Success, observes that everyone possesses a natural style or “sweet spot.”  Our personal style (our Instinctive Drive or I.D.) enables us to perform at our best and most productive in a sustainable way with minimal effort, feeling confident and fulfilled. There is no one-size-fits-all model for success. If you lack clarity about your personal operating style – with the unique talents, vulnerabilities, and needs entailed – or feel obliged to act contrary to what comes naturally, you experience predictable difficulties.

The early warning signs that you have been pushed out of your natural style are typically emotional and behavioral. You may feel irritable, anxious, depressed, or bored. You might procrastinate, have trouble focusing, try to control everything, swear, or self-medicate through excessive drinking or recreational drugs.

Such stress takes a toll. Left unaddressed it often leads to physical symptoms. The most common manifestations are insomnia, headaches, eating disorders or other cravings, digestive upsets, and skin problems such as acne or rashes. Your immune system becomes suppressed and you catch every cold making the rounds. You also become more accident prone.

Left unattended long enough, chronic illness develops: heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, obesity, psoriasis, or ulcers. A vicious circle develops where physical symptoms make it increasingly difficult to perform well, creating further stress.

You may think I’m saying illness or injury is your own fault. I’m not. However, when you habitually act in ways that don’t serve you well, you increase your risk just as surely as  smoking increases your risk of lung cancer.

What can you do to get yourself back on track?

First, resolve to be yourself – everyone else is taken. Spend some time reflecting on what you need to be at your best. Write it down, realizing that your list may look very different from your boss’s, best friend’s, spouse’s, or mentor’s.

When I first did this exercise, my list included:

  • A challenge
  • Provocative people and ideas to work with
  • Work hard/play hard approach
  • Alignment with my calling

Next, make a list of the things that throw you out of synch with your natural style. This should be easy! Just think of the last few times you felt really cranky and unproductive. A few of mine include:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Lack of exercise
  • Over-commitment and NO rabbits left in my hat
  • Technology problems

Next, write down your early warning signs. Some of the things I watch out for are:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Stubbornly persevering at something that isn’t working
  • The F word

Now, reflect on the restorative things that bring you back into balance and harmony. Do you:

  • Get a good night’s sleep?
  • Take a long walk?
  • Meditate?
  • Surround yourself with positive people?

Finally, take note of how others can help you. Coaching your significant others or friends on how they can support you is extremely useful, and this is a powerful exercise when carried out with your team at work. Others know they can help me best by:

  • Distracting me – helping me shift my focus or take a break
  • Asking me if I want help
  • Being willing to pitch in instead of leaving me to finish on my own at 2 a.m. (knowing I will always do the same for them)
  • Listening and asking questions that help me decide what to do (rather than trying to solve the problem for me)

Post your answers next to your desk, and notice those early warning indicators when they arise. How can you recognize the stress cycle sooner, and break it earlier by using your self-support strategies as well as seeking help from others?

If you find this exercise difficult or want greater clarity about what makes you tick, consider contacting me to get your I.D. tested. This inquiry is foundational to developing the self-awareness required to be at your natural best more of the time – and supporting the best in everyone around you.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.First Aid for Stressed-Out High Performers