Chris Wilson: From crazy to controlled

Real estate and stress go together like peas and carrots. But when agents’ stress levels become too high it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and burn out.

Real estate agents need to learn the early warning signs of stress overload to avoid burnout in an industry often described as a ‘rollercoaster’, according to stress scientist Chris Wilson.

Speaking as part of Accelerate 2021, Chris explained agents need to learn the difference between good stress that motivates them to succeed and bad stress that causes cortisol to flood the body and lowers their immune system.

Turning to alcohol and sugar-laden foods isn’t the answer either. 

Chris suggested each agent needs to identify their triggers and have a bag of tools or strategies to lower their set point.

What those tools are could be different for every agent.


It’s common for real estate agents to feel as though they’re being pushed and pulled in all directions as they juggle work, parenting, home life, friendships and other numerous demands for their time.

“In a small period of time your resources get stretched,” Chris explained.

“Then your ability to cope becomes less, and we call it bidirectional. So you’re increasing your stress and your tolerance level drops… if people don’t stop and force the reset, their brain and body will go, ‘No thanks!’ That’s when people start feeling really burnt out, really tired and things like that.

“If you want a career in real estate, you’ve got to change the way you play.”

The good news is agents don’t go from relaxed to incredibly busy to burnout in a split second.

There’s always time between each of those stages.

The problem is people don’t recognise the early warning signs.

“We keep pushing,” Chris said.

“We’ve got to accelerate and go faster, and I think with agents, or even the industry itself, there’s no real endpoint.”

Chris says the goal should not be to avoid stress at all costs but to build up a tolerance or resilience.


It’s also critical to recognise early warning signs that stress levels are rising beyond a healthy level.

Those warning signs could be physical, such as tense muscles or headaches, mental signs such as feeling angry or irritable, or emotional signs such as low mood and racing thoughts.

If agents don’t recognise the signs and hit the reset button, a snowball pattern is created until they start each day from an already overwhelmed position, rather than a harmonious place where stress levels are healthy and manageable.

“I can identify when my negative stress is dominating, and I can force myself back down into the healthy zone,” Chris said.

“If I ignore it and keep the negative stress… then even the little things start to trigger me, and if I don’t recover by the time I go back to work the next day, I’m starting way up here, and I’m triggering straight away.”

One of the quickest and easiest perceived fixes is to reach for a bottle of wine or a sugary treat, but Chris warned this is self-sabotage.

Alcohol prevents the brain from entering the deepest sleep stage, which is what allows us to recover overnight. 

Sugar is addictive, which explains why you get that daily 3pm craving for a Mars Bar.

“Your brain starts going, ‘Hey, where’s my sugar?’” Chris said.

Instead, he suggested agents need to map out the areas where they can regain control of the situation and their stress levels.

To do this, they need to recognise their ability, or capacity, to cope with stress changes day by day.

It also changes from one agent to the next, so it’s important not to compare yourself to others in the industry.

“What we don’t allow for is where we are and when we compare ourselves to who we believe we should be, and where we should be, we have this disconnect,” he said.

One way to help limit the body’s stress response is to control the ‘imagination piece’ in your brain, which is responsible for all of the made-up scenarios that play out in your mind ahead of what you perceive as a potentially threatening situation, such as a meeting with your boss.


Chris said this would cause the brain to release cortisol, the primary stress hormone.

“What we know is that if you’re chronically exposed to cortisol and stress your immune system, your first-line defence drops,” he said.

“We can control the release of these chemicals in the body by controlling our perception and our responses in our environment.”

Chris described hormones as “messengers”, with cortisol sending the signal to accelerate and go faster, while chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine help you decelerate or slow down.

Unfortunately, you can’t release both types simultaneously.

“Imagine your typical, accelerative, stable day,” Chris said.

“The alarm goes off, you jump out of bed, and you’ve got 10 minutes before you need to feed the kids and get in the car. You’re late to school, you get to the office, and it’s a typical day where at 7pm your phone is still going.

“You haven’t allowed those other hormones (serotonin and dopamine) to come into play, and what it does is it changes the chemical balance in the brain and the body.”


If you don’t switch off in the lead-up to bedtime, your circadian rhythm, also known as your sleep-wake cycle, can be thrown into disarray.

“The term I use is, ‘when the house goes quiet, the brain gets busy’,” Chris explained.

“When things are taking my focus, I don’t have time to ruminate and think about the future or the past.

“But when things go quiet, we start to have this battle in our brains about everything that’s going to happen tomorrow and how everyone is going to react and how that’s going to make me feel. So we are starting to accelerate the body and the brain again.”

One trap agents fall into is catching up on work late at night under the false belief that they are not harming themselves because they still fall asleep easily.

But Chris said the quality of sleep is the issue, and it’s difficult to achieve deep, restorative sleep.

If this happens for as little as three consecutive nights, Chris said agents can have more emotional reactions to vendors and clients and are less likely to make sound business decisions.

“Most importantly, your natural killer cells in your body drop by 70 per cent because you haven’t gone into that deep sleep recovery,” he said.

“I’m not trying to put fear in people, but now we’re talking about health issues. Consecutive high stress, poor sleep and no intervention are how we start to see agents burn out.”


To slow things down, Chris reminded agents that time is merely a concept, and the barrier of “not having enough time” can be eradicated once you look at your capacity to do more in conjunction with the capability piece of your puzzle.

Some days you will have the capability and the capacity to do more, but on other occasions, you may have the capability but not the capacity.

“We often have to look at the capacity piece and the capability piece of the individual, and then we have to map where they can take some control back,” Chris said.

He also recommended journaling or writing out a daily to-do list, right down to assigning time to check your emails, make calls or network with people.

This can help you stop viewing these necessary tasks as taking time away from your day.

“Journaling is a way in which we can start to feel like we’ve got control,” Chris said.

“I purposely lean on that, especially in the real estate industry. It’s the lack of control and reactiveness of the industry that causes overwhelm.

“The journaling piece at the beginning is about saying, ‘How am I allocating my time today? Where am I directing my energy? Where’s the best return or interest for energy spent?’”


Chris says your cortisol levels are naturally higher when you wake up in the morning, so you get going and start your day.

As long as these levels aren’t too high, he recommends using that energy to exercise, which is also a great stress reliever.

“The best bang for your buck is to get up in the morning and move,” Chris said.

When it comes to meditation, Chris says that’s best before bed, while the ultimate goal is to be able to use your meditation techniques anywhere and at any time.

“What you’re doing is sleep hygiene, so you’re forcing your brainwaves to go into that deeper level before you try and sleep. You’re preparing to sleep.”

Chris said a better night’s sleep will also help you flatten the cortisol curve, and you won’t wake up with such a high spike of the hormone.

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Kylie Dulhunty

Kylie Dulhunty is the Editor at Elite Agent.