The holiday season is a time of gathering together with loved ones and friends, making memories with those you care about, and appreciating all the good things in our lives. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that in the midst of all these wonderful things, the holidays can also be one of the most stressful times of the year.

To get a better understanding of why this is the case and to learn more about how we can all more effectively manage our stress during the holidays and beyond, I spoke with stress expert, heart attack survivor, and keynote speaker Eliz Greene

As she puts it, Eliz is “ridiculously excited about stress.” She’s devoted her career to researching the chemical reaction in the body caused by stress and says it’s her favorite topic to “speak about, write about, or discuss in line in the grocery store.” I took her up on that (minus the grocery store setting) with the following Q&A full of actionable tips that you can apply right now to better manage the stress in your life.

AAE: Could you tell us a little bit about how you got your start and what drew you to this topic?

EG: When I was 35 years old and seven months pregnant with twins, I survived a massive heart attack. I had a birth plan, and it didn’t include a full cardiac arrest, the emergency cesarean section delivery of our daughters, and open heart surgery! Fortunately, I was in the hospital on bedrest at the time, and we all received excellent care.

I woke up from that experience knowing I’d been given this wacky story for a reason. The weeks and months following my heart attack were filled with the overwhelm of premature twins and the uncertainty of my health. Oddly, it was also the most content I had ever been. My priorities were clear, and I was determined to regain my health and parent my daughters alongside my wonderful husband. For over two decades, I’ve been on a mission to provide strategies to other busy people to improve their heart health.

Headshot photo of Eliz Greene wearing a white jacket in front of a dark gray background

I also realized nobody is ever excited about a keynote on heart health!

I started to focus on stress – the most under-addressed risk factor for heart disease. Nearly a decade ago, I started researching the impact and causes of job stress. My initial study included over 4,000 people from all over the world in a wide variety of industries and job titles. After years of research and collaboration with diverse organizations and professionals, I developed a system you can tailor to your unique needs.

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by stress or doubted the effectiveness of traditional stress management techniques, you’re not alone. While meditation and yoga work wonders for some, they don’t resonate with everyone. Stress management is far from a one-size-fits-all solution; we each have unique responses to stress, and our ability to recover varies.

That’s where my “The Stress-Proof System” steps in, offering solutions firmly grounded in data and designed with the real-world skills to manage stress effectively – it is what one recent participant described as “stress management for people who don’t like woo woo!”

With this system, people discover how to recognize stressors in their environment, recover from physical and psychological stress, and build a resilient barrier against unavoidable stress. These skills will help manage stress more effectively, protect overall well-being, and enhance quality of life. 

This isn’t just a theory; it’s a data-driven, skills-based process I developed from my extensive experience working with diverse organizations, from NASA to CVS HR One.Workplace culture is absolutely critical in employee well-being, productivity, and profitability. Purpose-driven organizations create resilient cultures that support their workforce.

AAE: What’s something that people commonly believe about stress that is actually more nuanced? A common misconception perhaps?

EG: The biggest misconception about stress management is that there is only one correct answer. Stress is a natural reaction to something in your environment. It isn’t good or bad – just a chemical reaction that causes your heart to beat faster, increases your blood pressure, and focuses your brain. It is the same exact reaction whether your body is reacting to seeing a giant spider or a surprise birthday party. 

Just like we don’t all have the same response to the big spider (some people love spiders), we also have different needs to disconnect from the source of stress and recover. Some people need quiet contemplation, while others need their brains to be fully occupied by something else. The trick is to figure out what you need and prioritize the time to engage in the right kind of recovery activities for you.

AAE: Do you have a personal story of stress management that really impacted you and your work?

EG: When our girls were in elementary school, I served on our local school board when our state legislature changed how we funded our schools and managed our staff. We were forced to make wildly unpopular decisions, and our teachers, parents, and community members were angry. My stress level skyrocketed in anticipation of every meeting or conversation in the carpool  line.  

With a repaired heart, I was deeply aware of the damage stress can do, and I needed to figure out how to keep my stress level in check. Part of the solution was anticipating interactions and preparing my responses. Another part was actively recovering from the stress I couldn’t avoid. The most significant aspect of the solution was deciding this: I would not allow the stress I could not control to impact my health and quality of life with my family. This was why once I completed my term, I did not run again.

AAE: Some stress seems like it’s just inevitable, but you’ve written about how much our own decisions can really impact the amount of stress that emerges in our lives. Can you share a little about the power of making intentional choices?

EG: Making intentional choices successfully reduces stress because our brains really like predictability. According to my research, uncertainty is the 2nd leading cause of stress and often shows up when a situation is unpredictable or out of our control. If we can determine what about the situation is within our control and choose how we engage in that control, our brains see that as predictable and less stressful. That is why CPR training works, because it helps to reduce the anxiety of not knowing what to do in an emergency situation.

The same is true when  going into an important meeting, knowing you’ll be asked questions you may not have answers prepared for. You can choose to intentionally focus on the information you have to share, reminding yourself that you prepared well, taking slow breaths to keep your heart rate in check, and using a ‘let me think about it phrase’ to allow you to gather your thoughts such as, “That’s a great question, and I can see a couple of ways to answer it.” The listener anticipates a pause after the phrase, which allows time to formulate an answer. You can’t control the question, but you can prepare to manage your response.

AAE: You cover so much in your Holiday Stress Relief Toolkit. What is your shortlist of the most important things people should know about dealing with stress during the holidays and beyond?

EG: Absolutely! Here are the top 5 tips from the Holiday Stress Relief Toolkit:

  1. Prioritize Self-Kindness: Remember, saying “no” and choosing activities that bring you joy and contentment is okay. Don’t let the holiday “shoulds” dictate your actions. My motto is: “Stop ‘should-ing’ yourself and be kind enough to yourself to craft your own holiday experience.” It’s all about making choices that align with your well-being and happiness.
  1. Implement Time Protection Tools: Guard your time fiercely. Block out periods for rest and activities that matter to you. Use the ‘Holiday Plans’ strategy from my Stress-Proof System to proactively mark out personal time in your calendar. This helps in maintaining a balance between holiday activities and much-needed downtime.
  1. Maintain Emotional Equilibrium: Managing second-hand stress is crucial, especially during social interactions. Utilize techniques like deep breathing or taking short walks to reduce stress. Ask yourself questions like, “What if this isn’t about me?” to maintain perspective and emotional balance during holiday gatherings.
  1. Focus on Positive Moments: Cultivate a habit of recognizing and celebrating small victories each day. Whether it’s wrapping presents neatly or enjoying a quiet moment, acknowledging these successes can boost your mood. Encouraging gratitude and focusing on the good in each situation is a powerful way to maintain a positive outlook.
  1. Customize Your Stress Management: Understand and embrace your unique way of dealing with stress. Are you more of an ‘iguana’ who finds peace in stillness or a ‘border collie’ who thrives on activity? Tailoring your holiday season to include activities that suit your personal stress recovery style is key to enjoying the festivities without being overwhelmed.

Integrating these tips into your holiday planning and mindset allows you to enjoy a more relaxed, fulfilling, and joyous holiday season. Remember, the goal is to experience the holidays in a way that feels right for you, fostering contentment and peace.

AAE: As a speaker, what kinds of audiences do you usually speak to? Who do you think resonates the most with your message?

EG: My Stress-Proof System resonates the most with folks who haven’t found other stress management strategies to be successful. It is especially effective with organizations that rely on high-performance people in highly technical fields such as engineering and healthcare or where stress is an integral part of the job, such as aerospace, customer service, sales, and construction. If the meeting planner says, “If I book another chair yoga session, someone’s going to lose it,” I know I’m a good fit! 

Organizations contact me because they have identified a morale or work-life balance problem. Through my assessment tools and cross-section interviews, I usually uncover a different issue that is the primary cause of stress, and we can design the program to address the real problem rather than slapping a bandaid on the symptoms.

AAE: What’s something that makes your message around stress management unique from others in this field?

EG: Most stress management solutions focus on quiet, contemplative activities to alleviate the symptoms of stress. My system takes a data-driven approach to discovering what is causing stress, developing strategies to limit stress triggers in the environment, and developing skills to recover from the stress you can’t avoid. The system was created from my extensive experience working with diverse organizations, from NASA to CVS HR One, and my research on the causes and impact of job stress.

AAE: Could you please share an example of the impact of one of your presentations on a client or audience member?

EG: One of my favorite audience comments came from an engineer in a highly technical, high-pressure work environment. They wrote, “I didn’t know what I was feeling was stress, I thought I was just bad at handling things. I needed the data and science to really understand the danger I’ve been ignoring. I was skeptical, but these tools work in a bizarre range of workplace and life stressors.”

One of my favorite client stories comes from a start-up tech company that was concerned about their millennial employee’s work-life balance issues and retaining those employees. It turns out the employees liked working at the company but were worried the company would dissolve or merge with another company, and they’d be out of a job. Leadership was shocked to learn the real cause of stress and quickly moved to communicate the very rosy outlook of the company. That communication was far more successful in reducing stress than other strategies they’d tried to improve the work environment, like ping-pong tables and ample snacks.

AAE: What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment or impact?

EG: The biggest honor I ever receive is hearing from someone who tells me following my advice saved their life. Managing stress, reducing heart health risk, and knowing when to get help is critical. It is why I do what I do.

AAE: What’s next for you in your career journey?

EG: I’m working on a series of white papers and tools for specific industries. I just completed one about reframing negative customer service interactions and using tools to recover from second-hand stress. Retaining customer service representatives is a critical priority for many organizations, and agents report that the public is less kind and more demanding than ever. 

Even dedicated employees are seeking less stressful work environments. The tools in the white paper allow the agent to recover from a stressful interaction and not take the stress home. It also provides tools for managers to support public-facing employees. I adore learning about what people do and their work environments.

If you’re interested in booking Eliz Greene for your next event, visit her speaker profile on AAE’s website to learn more.