At some point in your career, you’ve likely dealt with a stressful situation. Frazzled, freaked out, and frayed-at-the-ends are just some ways to describe the experience of emotional and psychological strain we call stress. It is known to cause health problems and can contribute to poor performance at work.But sometimes seeking to eliminate stress completely can actually become its own form of strain. Often, stress becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when we double down on efforts to make our lives completely serene, only to become frustrated when external conditions don’t seem to comply with our demands to slow down. While there are certainly steps we can take to manage stress and avoid burnout, we’ll likely still need to have a job, commute to work, deal with irritating people, and check our ever growing queue of emails.
Beyond just gritting our teeth and baring it, taking the perspective that certain kinds of stress can be helpful is actually supported by science. Dr. Kirstin Aschbacher of the University of California in San Francisco found that if a person wasn’t too harried to begin with, short bursts of intense stress actually helped protect cells against the effects of aging. Of course, the emphasis in this study as on the benefits afforded to test subjects who were more relaxed to begin with. But this study does fly in the face of an approach to stress that would have to seek and destroy anything that might excite the nervous system.
So how can you work with stress in a way that motivates and contributes to your general well being if eliminating it is not just unlikely but potentially unhealthy?
Evaluate stressors without judgement
Make a point to honestly evaluate your relationship to the things you find stressful. According to management consultant Dr. Karl Albrecht, stress tends to fall into four general categories: time stress, anticipatory stress, situational stress, and encounter stress. Take note during your day of what experiences start to make you feel stressed out, what thoughts and stories come up during those experiences, and what your go-to activity tends to be. Try to think of this as research, and leave any self-judgment or aggression out of it. You can use a notebook to be reflective. You don’t need to change anything yet, but you just want to start noticing how stress operates in your life.
Manage the smaller stresses on a regular basis
According to Dr. Aschbacher’s recent research, your ability to confront stress head on in small quantities is similar to building a muscle. You actually increase your capacity to manage stress by dealing with the smaller, daily frustrations regularly, and right away. This also helps ensure that you don’t wait until your breaking point forces you to deal with those issues.
Based on your earlier reflection, you can challenge yourself to confront those smaller, daily frustrations in the workplace. Maybe the most stressful part of your day is interacting with people in the office kitchen, and you usually deal with it by avoiding it altogether. Or maybe the stress of having your hard work go unacknowledged by a manager is wearing on you. Start building that well-being muscle by taking the small steps necessary to be proactive about your experience.
Even if the steps you take don’t ultimately ‘fix’ the problem, the sense of taking charge can help alleviate some of the strain. Notice the areas where you react instead of respond. Do you tend to postpone making decisions about certain topics? Make those pressure points a priority for action. If you can cultivate a habit of dealing with things in a timely manner, with some forethought rather than rumination, you’ll start to feel like more of an active participant in your daily life.
Find a happy medium
A small amount of stress can inspire, help you prepare, and help with focus and cognitive tasks. Richard Shelton, MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, points out that low levels of stress in the system can actually inspire the body to create chemicals that connect the neurons in our brains. Too much, though, and you might trigger a fight, flight or freeze response.
So what’s the sweet spot? Consider your earlier reflection, and think about the areas of your life where that burst of energy can serve as motivation. Notice, without judging yourself, when that tips into a more extreme impact by looking at the accompanying behaviors. When does the motivation turn into a reason to drink to excess or avoid interacting with people? Be flexible, and remember that you can always choose to adjust.
Understand that stressful situations will happen
Accepting that most jobs will involve some degree of discomfort changes your relationship to the experience of fear, the emotion that underlies our experience of stress. It’s helpful here to remember that like stress, fear, pain, and discomfort are not in themselves wholly negative. Fear helps us avoid danger, and pain helps us realize when we need to bring our attention to an issue, whether it’s a hand that’s accidentally touched a hot pan or an unacknowledged need in the workplace.
But in addition to accepting that these aspects of experience can be useful, we can also strategize to eliminate the sources of pain and fear that are reasonable and healthy to eliminate. If a manager is being abusive, or stress has reached an unhealthy point, then removing yourself from the situation and seeking help might be the best option.
The point here is not to frustrate yourself further, but to take what you learned while reflecting and discern between what is important to accept, and what is important to let go. One way to do this is to remember the bigger picture. Having clearly defined career goals and knowing what your needs and values are in advance can help clarify what is worth it to put up with and what is a sign that you should make changes. Lots of people offer advice about how to deal with very specific workplace situations, but when it comes down to it, you’re the only person who really knows if a decision feels right.
Don’t feel bad about being stressed!
The worst part about feeling stressed out is often the story you start telling yourself about what that means about your skills and abilities. Don’t add insult to injury by berating yourself or lashing out at others. Use the opportunity to really feel the experience and see what you can learn from it. Honestly, what you find out might be that you need to leave that position or workplace, but maybe a smaller adjustment in your daily routine would help. You won’t be able to figure that out if you’re busy beating yourself up. Let go of any “if only” stories that might come up and look at what’s actually happening.
Know that you can ask for help
Many workplaces are instituting wellness programs because they realize that a chronically stressed office of employees is not a good look. If your office has wellness benefits, or your health insurance offers reimbursements for things like meditation or yoga, take advantage of it. And don’t be ashamed of reaching out to a trained professional in Mindfulness – Based Stress Reduction or psychological treatment for chronic stress and anxiety.