Stress and Resilience for High Achievers. Title image. Strategies to help you avoid burn-out, maintain work-life "balance," and stay happy and healthy. Venn diagram of personal, interpersonal, and organizational excellence.


I was sorting through questionnaires, a habit that I periodically do to assess patterns among my clients. On that particular day, I was curious about the root pain points in High Achievers, apart from whatever problem-solving or success-building was at hand. The theme that emerged was a desire for help with stress and resilience, regardless of business situations or professional goals. Repeatedly, I noted that people wrote that they wanted to be healthier and happier, and not let the bad stuff get to them as much.

This theme in the qualitative data was reflected quantitatively, as I noted a disproportionately high number of hits on my website pages related to stress, across all iterations of topic focus and service options over the years.

High Achievers Personality Characteristics that Increase Stress

For most High Achievers, their brain never stops. They are focused on building, problem-solving, and growing. Because of their drive, they rarely pause for long periods after an achievement. Thus, the stress continues, just at higher levels and with greater complexity.

In addition to the growth orientation that produces stress, High Achievers have several personality characteristics, as noted on the High Achiever page, that exacerbate stress. For example, having high expectations of oneself and taking responsibility automatically means carrying a greater burden than might occur in those with a more laissez-faire approach to life.

Below is a list of specific ways a high achieving personality can increase stress.

♦  High Achievers can do many things and tend to think  “If I can do it, I should.”

♦  High Achievers hate disappointing others, making it difficult to say “No.”

♦  High Achievers often intellectualize emotions which makes them unaware of their stress levels.

♦  High Achievers’ focus on achievement means that goals come first; Self-care is optional.

♦  High Achievers have difficulty asking for help. Thus, they lose time by problem-solving alone.

♦  High Achievers perceive weaknesses as failure, and may spend excessive time compensating for them.

♦  High Achievers are responsible “to a fault.” Thus, they experience excessive stress or guilt if things go wrong, and often take on responsibility for items outside of their jurisdiction or control.

♦  High Achievers believe that emotional energy should be infinite.

Remember that it is better to prevent stress and proactively build resilience. When High Achievers use this front-end approach, they are better equipped to handle the big hurdles that come their way.

Buffer - The First Principle to Manage Stress

Buffer is the amount of emotional energy in our reserves. How much more stress can you handle without screaming horrible things at your family, walking out on your job, or developing chronic headaches/stomach aches? The answer to that question tells you how much buffer you have.

High achievers frequently assume that energy is limitless and that they can continue to max themselves out without consequences. “I’ll catch up on rest later.” This assumption can be reinforced by years of using one’s intellectual prowess to make everything work out. What is unseen is the accumulated physical toll of this strategy.

The common physical symptoms in high achievers include digestive issues, increased stomach fat (resulting from increased cortisol), and muscular aches. High achievers tend to intellectualize emotions, and their bodies pay the price. Because of the tendency toward rationalizing and trying to work through difficulties at a cognitive level, high achievers often under-estimate the degree to which an issue may upset them.

Energy buffer graphic by Dr. Tricia Groff shows 4 bottles of water, with different levels of water, depicting the amount of water (energy) when a person has buffer to deal with problems, is empty and feeling tired, red-lining (completely empty and with physical and emotional symptoms), and completely full such that they are refueling by engaging in restorative activities.

Strategies to Increase Buffer

1. Accept that emotional energy is finite. The rest of the steps won’t matter until you have accomplished this. EVERYONE’S emotional energy is finite. I don’t care how intelligent or fabulous you are…it’s like gravity, denying it can result in some broken limbs.


2. Start small. Begin by protecting small chunks of time. Instead of giving up on exercise if you are late to your planned 1 hour workout, squeeze in 20 minutes.


3. Start paying attention to what decreases your emotional energy and what fuels it. It is especially helpful to know what drains and refuels your energy the most quickly. This strategy helps to maintain buffer and also helps to optimize resilience after stress.


4. What do you REALLY want to say “Yes” to? It is easier to tolerate the discomfort of saying “no” when we have a “why” solidly in place.


5. Figure out the specific warning signs that alert you when you are close to red-lining. I have clients who become tired or notice that they are not excited about anything. Other clients get headaches or find themselves more easily frustrated or irritable.


6. Take action BEFORE you bottom out. Many people spend a lot of time and financial resources trying to figure out physical symptoms that manifest after extended stress. Keeping enough buffer helps to prevent the health symptoms in the first place.