What to Do When Stress Gets the Best of You

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

If you experience stress from work, you are not alone. According to a 2017 Stats Canada report, one in four Canadian workers report being highly stressed – and 62% of these say that work is the main cause.

As a career coach for over 30 years, these statistics come as no surprise.  People are working longer hours than ever before.  The pressure to keep up with new technology and industry changes is increasingly intense.  The home dynamic is also changing.  There are more dual income households, more single parent families and less support from far-flung families.  If you add to the mix the impact of a major career challenge — such as job loss or the proverbial “boss from hell” — small wonder that by the time they seek help, many of my clients report they are close to the breaking point.

How can you learn to cope with the pressures of modern day work and life?  What skills can you develop to manage stress? How can you stay balanced and in control, even when the going gets tough?

I believe the answers to these questions are to be found on three levels.

Healthy Lifestyle

All experiences both negative and positive, trigger the body’s stress response.  So the first line of defense is to increase your resistance by living a healthy life.  Eating well is basic, as is getting a good night’s sleep.

Exercise is one of the best weapons against stress.  Repeated studies have shown that high intensity exercise (running, swimming or brisk walking) releases the body’s feel good chemicals and is as effective as antidepressant drugs in treating anxiety and depression.  Meditation has also proven its effectiveness to induce relaxation, increase happiness, and even slow aging.  Fortunately, we don’t need to go to an ashram in India to experience these benefits, thanks to low cost apps like Calm and Headspace.

A healthy lifestyle also means taking time to nurture your relationships and other interests and activities that allow you to regain perspective and focus on what’s really important.

Minimizing Stressors

While taking care of yourself is one strategy, taking action to prevent or minimize the causes of your stress is also critical.

Stress is often triggered by situations you feel you lack the skills to deal with.  Such times come up continually in the span of an average career.  Getting up to speed in a new job, becoming a manager for the first time, learning a new technology– all are situations that create understandable anxiety unless you take action and get the help you need to feel more prepared.

For example, if much of your stress comes from feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work you have to do, training in time management skills might help.  Clients transitioning into new roles benefit from coaching and reading books such as The First 90 Days.  Amazing resources – books, online training, workshops – are available to build your skills in almost any area, including technical skills.

Frequently, effective communication skills are required to deal with an issue head on rather than hoping it will go away.  For example, if you want to turn things around with your boss after a poor performance appraisal, you’ll need skills in having difficult conversations.  Before you do so though, be sure to get some feedback on your approach from a trusted colleague or advisor.

Unfortunately there may be times when your best efforts to resolve a stressful work situation are unsuccessful and it becomes necessary for your wellbeing to take action and move on.

Thinking Positively

It’s not just what happens to you but how you interpret that experience that determines how much stress you will feel.  Much suffering comes from the human tendency to focus on the negative which has been programmed in us throughout evolution. As a result, we add to our stress by worrying obsessively about mistakes and inadequacies, fixating on what’s wrong with other people or our life, or by being overly fearful. (These negative thinking habits are different for different people. To identify yours, take the Saboteur Assessment.)

Managing negative self-talk takes both awareness and consistent practice.  A major benefit of meditation is that it builds awareness and skills so that you can detach from these ingrained ways of thinking.  Other approaches that have proven very effective involve actively challenging negative thinking and beliefs.  The ABCDE technique, for example, provides a five-step method for rationally disputing a negative interpretation of an event and observing the positive effects on energy and mood that result.

Other strategies attempt to counter the negativity bias by accentuating the positive.  The simple habit of writing down three things that went well at the end of each day, or, keeping a daily gratitude journal to bring attention to what’s good in your life, have proven greatly effective in lowering stress levels and increasing happiness and wellbeing.

So there you have it – three different approaches to staying strong through the stresses and strains of modern day life.  While the practices are simple, making them a regular part of your life requires discipline and resolve.

But the benefits are exponential.  Not only will you feel better, you’ll be more energetic and effective in tackling your challenges, and more able to appreciate the learning in even the most stressful experiences.

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