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Has global turmoil raised your stress level?

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Yelling at your son or your spouse this afternoon won’t reduce tension in your office tomorrow.

By Ellen Frankenberg

Working in a family business can generate stress in the best of times, but more so in uncertain times like these. One response to stress is to work faster, harder and longer to generate new orders and new customers; another is to learn some healthy ways to manage the stress that abounds in both today’s global environment and today’s families.

The term “Type A" used to refer to impatient, competitive, time-pressured personalities. Today, thanks to our omnipresent cell phones, our Palm Pilots and our 24-hour global marketplace—not to mention global terrorists—our whole culture has become “Type A.”

Do you feel that you have less control over the future of your business than you did a year ago? Can you predict where your company will stand five years from now?

Some people manage extreme stress in much more imaginative ways. One former prisoner of war maintained his sanity in solitary confinement by spending much of each day imagining how he would play 18 holes of golf. The walls of my own office are filled with photos of favorite vacation spots; one quick glance can remind me of peaceful times beyond today.

In my work with family business managers I sometimes remind them that their cars are one of the few soundproof places left in our society; when everything goes wrong, it’s perfectly legal to slide into your car and scream before you pull out of the parking lot. On the other hand, yelling at your son or your spouse this afternoon won’t reduce stress in your office tomorrow, because everyone will be wondering whose turn comes next.

Physical exercise remains the cheapest and most effective way to manage the stress we all experience. My personal favorite—walking a mile a day in the sunlight—enhances the effectiveness of serotonin, the natural chemical in our brains that’s designed to manage stress. Jogging, playing the piano, chopping wood—whatever works for you—is much more enjoyable than getting your serotonin through Prozac, or having a heart attack.

One healthy after-work choice is to head to the nearest golf driving range or baseball batting cage. You can place a specific problem on each ball and proceed to knock the daylights out of it. Your ride home will be much calmer, and your family will notice the difference. Because you have worked through the fog of emotions, your thoughts will become focused on the horizon—your goals—much more readily.

Whom can you talk to? Sharing your frustrations with loved ones and friends remains a major key to stress management. Especially when you work each day with relatives, it becomes important to find someone outside who can listen without criticizing or gossiping in the shop later. Some corporate executives blow off steam with “coaches” who help them sort their personal and professional choices. If a family business leader can find no one in the family to talk with in a supportive way, perhaps it’s time to seek some professional help.

Men—socialized to show strength rather than weakness in crisis—can be especially vulnerable during stressful times if they swallow their tension rather than release it. Terrance Real’s book about midlife depression in men, aptly titled I Don’t Want to Talk About It, can provide insight to those who are unable to share weakness or worries, even with those who love them most.

Don’t underestimate the power of sharing your occasional “rampant insecurity” with those you love: your family and closest friends. When was the last time you scheduled time to talk with your spouse, your brother, your best friend, about more than the nuts and bolts of living?

The capacity to meditate, to play with your children, to appreciate nature or music or poetry, to join a community of similar believers, to contribute to a cause beyond your own agenda, to pause deliberately to slow down your breathing on your next elevator ride, can reduce the stress that upsets your body’s equilibrium.

Managing stress is about determining what really does come first in your life—and letting go of the insignificant.

Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D., is a family business psychologist based in Cincinnati.

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