Connections to Experts: The Pros and Cons of Stress
When it comes to better business, keeping your staff energized and ensuring you have a functional operating system is crucial. The same is true for your health. In this interview, Heidi Hanna, PhD., an EO speaker and the CEO and founder of SYNERGY, shares her insights into the significance of stress and how it can be harnessed to recharge the business owner battery.
What is the biggest contributor to stress, and how can entrepreneurs avoid it?
HH: “Stress in itself isn’t a bad thing, so we don’t necessarily want to avoid it. A completely stress-free life would actually lead to atrophy and breakdown because we would lose the stimulation for growth. The problem with stress lies in our interpretation of it, how we perceive it and our inability to balance it with adequate recovery. The primary reason why stress affects people in negative ways is because they don’t have the energy necessary to keep up with its demands. It’s the energy deficit, not the specific stressor, which causes problems across multiple dimensions— body, mind and spirit. Therefore, the key to a successful relationship with stress is maintaining adequate energy throughout the day by oscillating periods of expending energy with strategic energy investments.”
How can entrepreneurs better manage the stress of maintaining a work/life balance?
HH: “Work/life balance shouldn’t be measured by the amount of time we spend on each, as most entrepreneurs know there are seasons where different aspects of our lives demand more focused attention. The reality is that balance comes by creating harmony between the different elements of life as they all interact with one another and training ourselves to be more fully focused on each moment we are in, rather than constantly multitasking or worrying about things that we could or should be doing elsewhere. This mental gymnastics wears us out and leaves us depleted at the end of the day, so we’re unable to give our best energy to those we love at home.
“By managing our energy more effectively throughout the day, taking breaks consistently and training our brains to be more engaged in the present moment, we can have more energy to spend in the time we do have with friends and family. If we obsess over how much time we have or don’t have, we can easily find ourselves just going through the motions— physically present but mentally or emotionally out of it. The key is training ourselves to show up fully in the moments that matter most.”
How can entrepreneurs recharge without feeling like they’re failing their business?
HH: “Studies show that even short recharge breaks can help individuals manage energy more effectively, leading to greater levels of productivity and engagement. Learning to relax is not only good for keeping entrepreneurs charged for action, but it also significantly improves their ability to be creative and access intuition, two skills that have been shown to be critical to entrepreneurial success. Unfortunately, when we’re stuck in stress mode, the brain experiences cortical inhibition, which locks us into doing things the way we’ve always done them before because it feels safe. This can also mentally prevent us from trying recharging techniques because the fear of losing precious time triggers this type of brain freeze.
“The best advice I can give to an entrepreneur is to try recharging rituals for a week and monitor their progress in areas such as energy levels, productivity and engagement. Once you see the personal benefits that you can receive in such a short time investment, it will be hard to justify not making recharge breaks part of your regular routine. People say they feel guilty taking down time when they should be working, but if you really recognize the value of down time in boosting your productivity, creativity and adaptable effectiveness, you should feel guilty not making it a mandatory part of your day!”
What are the long-term effects of stress?
HH: “Unmanaged chronic stress has been linked to all major diseases and disorders, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke and dementia. Stress does not cause disease to happen, but it speeds up the development of anything that might be wrong in the body or brain. When stress is acute, it actually causes short-term health improvements as a way to help protect the body. But when it’s chronic or long-term in nature, or even just perceived as being a long-term threat (such as never having enough time, never having enough energy, never having enough resources, etc.), it causes the worst type of internal wear and tear, increasing inflammation, strain on the heart and arteries, and eventually even depleting brain chemicals needed for optimal thinking and feeling. When stress continues to be a problem, we can feel exhausted, overwhelmed and burnt out not just from a helpless perspective, but also because our brain chemistry is so depleted that the lens through which we see the world is literally dark and gloomy.”
How does stress affect the day-to-day operations of a business?
HH: “When stress is chronic or feels out of control, it quickly depletes human capital by keeping employees stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode, hindering their ability to think clearly and pushing them toward multitasking as the norm. Studies have shown that multitasking not only ‘dumbs’ us down, but it also wastes time as it can take up to 20 minutes to get back into a focused mindset after a distraction. Stress can also shift individual and group perceptions to one that is more fear based, leading to overreacting to challenges, an increase in frequency and intensity of errors, ineffective communication and a lack of trust in leadership. All of these negative interpersonal dynamics ultimately waste our most precious time and energy resources.
“What most people don’t realize is that stress doesn’t need to be eliminated, but can actually become a stimulant for growth instead of breakdown; it just needs to be managed more effectively. Excess stress should be minimized through simple shifts like noise reduction, lighting adjustments and giving employees more encouragement to get access to fresh air. Systemic changes in the business operations can create an even more significant impact, such as scheduling in 50-minute increments instead of one hour (or 25 minutes instead of a half hour) to allow time for transition between appointments; creating a culture of energy management by providing healthy snacks and movement breaks; and incorporating strategic down time as company policy. Employees should be rewarded for investing in their own personal energy as a resource they can share with the company, and leaders must lead by example by managing their own energy first and showing up fully in the moments that matter most.”
Dr. Heidi Hanna is the CEO and founder of SYNERGY, an integrative neuroscience partnership that provides brain-based training for individuals and organizations. She also frequently teaches at the EO Leadership Academy. Contact Heidi at