How To Deal With Stress At Work? It’s not easy!
Workplace stress. The mere mention of the words is enough to start a twitch in the eye and produce a swift tightening of the shoulders. In fact, I had a twitch for over three months a few years back. I thought it was just a figment of my imagination until I saw it in the mirror one morning, flickering away in at the bottom of my right eye. My immediate thought was, “my clients are going to think I can’t handle it.”
We all experience stress differently but we all know how it feels.
Stress will catch up with you
And while some of us have a higher threshold for pressure-driven situations or can deal with its effects for a more prolonged period, nobody should be toughing it out to breaking point. Although we like to think we can just deal with things, especially in the context of zero-sum game workplaces, the reality is that unless you deal with it, stress will catch up with you sooner or later.
I used to pride myself on my threshold for stress. I was an expert in high-pressure situations as well as managing an enormous-volume of work. I was the cool, calm and collected one at the meeting and the dedicated team-member who never missed a deadline. But sitting in the emergency department one evening after a particularly gruelling few months at work (still beavering away on my laptop), my doctor abruptly announced,
“you can’t keep working these hours under this pressure. Something has got to give. If you continue down this road, you will either wake up one morning and not be able to get out of bed, or you’ll lose all control and foul yourself in the office foyer.”
“What a visual,” I said, laughing out loud. She wasn’t laughing.
Thankfully, neither of these scenarios eventuated. However, in hindsight they probably weren’t far off.
How stress works
Stress is the body’s physiological ‘fight or flight’ response to perceived danger or fear. It causes levels of cortisol (also known as ‘the stress hormone’) to rise in the body.
You might have heard your yoga teacher talk about the sympathetic nervous system – that’s what triggers the process. Biologically, it’s the same thing that helped our ancestors avoid death by bear attack*. In today’s world, that type of threat is pretty rare, but stressful situations we face at work every day (things like big presentations, interpersonal conflict, competing deadlines and unreasonable workloads, high-stakes transactions) can spark the chain of reactions in your body.
We know what stress feels like in our bodies: elevated heart rate, anxiety, sweaty when we wouldn’t normally be. Having your body constantly pumping out hormones, combined with raised blood pressure, can wreak havoc on everything from your memory and concentration to your skin, immune system, digestion, sex drive and sleep.
Stressful situations we face at work every day can spark the chain of reactions in your body
It’s not all bad news though. Some stress is useful. Without it, finding the drive and motivation to tackle hard projects or take calculated risks would be tough. It’s when we get the balance out of whack that we run into trouble.
How much stress is too much?
According to recent research, seven in ten millennials wake up at least three times a week worrying, and more than 90 per cent say stress has negatively affected their sleep routines. When you’re going to bed and waking up with sky-high anxiety about the day ahead, if your to-do list seems insurmountable, or tasks you would normally find routine fill you with dread, work life can become a living hell and it’s time to take action.
Do something about your stress levels now – use these 9 strategies for managing stress in the workplace
Use your breath
Just like pelvic floor exercises, unless you pull weird faces, nobody can tell you’re doing breathing exercises at your desk.
Stop for a second and scan your body, finding any points that feel especially tense or painful. Breathe in through your nose for a count of three, imagining the breath flowing into those parts of the body. Breathe out through your mouth for an equal count of three. Repeat up to ten times.
The simple act of breathing and focusing on the moment can calm the nervous system. If you can get outside to do this, even better. And if you’re trying to start a meditation practice and finding it a struggle, that’s ok (here’s why).
Take a screen break
In some workplaces computer screens will periodically lock employees out, forcing them to take a short break from the screen. If yours doesn’t, set an alarm and at least a couple of times a day, get up and stretch your legs and have a glass of water. If you’re one of the lucky ones with a meditation or rest room in your building, try child’s pose or upside down pose for three minutes before heading back.
Punch it out
If gentle stress release isn’t your thing, try boxing, spinning or a power vinyasa class to work up a serious sweat. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps you feel happy, is produced by physical activity. Exercise has a stack of other benefits like improving energy and confidence, that counteract stress’ negative impact on the body, so get moving!
This is much easier said than done, and yes, some days do cascade into chaos. When you’re organising your day get the top two or three things done first, and while you’re working, close your emails and put your headphones in.
Each workplace has a special culture, but it’s up to you do get the job done so you need to run your own day. By making it clear that your time is valuable colleagues will begin to get the message. For example, If you want to make the gym in the evening or you want to help your kids with their homework, it’s OK to carve out that time. Block your calendar out between say 5pm and 7pm and let your team know that you will be offline and won’t be answering calls or attending meetings. Keep that time sacred and encourage your team to do the same.
I know because I’ve been there, done that. It is very, very easy to reach for the Pinot at the end of a long day. But habits are quick to form and I don’t think I am the only one for whom that ‘one glass’ has turned into three, or ‘just this Tuesday night’ has turned into ‘every weeknight for a month’.
Be honest with yourself and if you are constantly turning to a drink for comfort at the end of the day, make plans with a friend that don’t involve alcohol, or commit to a spin class or a walk along the river after the day at the office is done. Put it in your diary and make it a non-negotiable. Trust me: it will make the next morning more bearable, not less. Think how much $ you’ll save too!
Get some perspective
Sounds a bit harsh, but it’s true. Although your career and work are incredibly important, not just to your identity but to your financial security and future more generally, a work situation should rarely be so critical that you end up in tears or up for hours at night worrying about it. Remember what’s important in your own life and that work is just a part of that. It doesn’t make you who you are. Without it, you’re still a beautiful, amazing, wonderful human being. Never forget that.
Rather than being essentially selfish, recent studies show we are actually hardwired for generosity and the act of giving activates the same parts of the brain that activate pleasurable responses from sex and chocolate. Apart from helping others, volunteering or donating to a cause you feel strongly about will give you a gentle reminder about how lucky you are.
People who walk in the forest are less stressed: they have lower heart rates and have less anxiety than people who exercise indoors or in the city. They also report better moods, more feelings of relaxation, and better memory and creativity. You don’t have to set out on five-day hike. Just taking a walk or a run in a natural setting can do the trick.
I call this outside time ‘my daily fractal injection’. You might recall the Mandelbrot theory from school? Mandelbrot first coined the term ‘fractal’ in 1975, discovering that simple mathematic rules apply to a vast array of things that look visually complex or chaotic. Fractals are repeating, identical patterns often present in natural things like leaves, snowflakes, flowers, ocean waves and clouds. Jackson Pollock paintings also re-create this naturally occurring pattern. According to extensive research, exposure to fractal patterns in nature reduce stress levels by up to 60%. So, during meetings I make sure I sit in a chair facing the window. This way, when there’re a pause in proceedings I can look outside at the clouds and up my fractal exposure for the day.
Make stress your friend
In this inspiring TedTalk, Kelly McGonigal sheds light on new research with suggests we should see stress as a positive thing. According to McGonigal Stress is only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Sound crazy? That was my initial thought. That was until I watched the TedTalk.
How stressful is your workplace? What tips you over the edge and how do you deal with it? We’ll be talking about it this week in The Squad, so please join the discussion!
*bear: or other kind of dangerous animal.
If you would like to talk to someone about your stress levels, you can seek support using the links below.
If you live in the UK: here
If you live in Australia: here
If you live in the US: here
If you live in the Hong Kong: here