This post on stress management is part of a 2 part series on the topic. This week I will discuss doing the VITALLY IMPORTANT foundation work to manage your stress. If you don’t do the work I talk about below, all the massages and meditation in the world won’t help you when the stress hits the fan.
Stress and stress management are pretty big topics on this blog. And they tend to be my most popular posts. In fact, my post on recovering from burnout still gets the most hits by far out of all of them.
And sadly, it’s for a good reason. In 2014 77% of Americans said that they suffered with physical symptoms due to stress and 73% said they suffered from psychological symptoms. Basically 3/4 of our country is stressed out a LOT.
The biggest irony in the whole thing is that 76% cited work and money as the main source of their stress. Certainly working long hours and never detaching from our devices so that we can be more productive are major contributors. And yet, because of all this stress an estimated $300 billion is loss due to stress related health care and missed work.
Even though it’s contrary to popular belief, working longer and harder does not necessarily lead to more productivity. In fact if you sit there too long without a break, you might as well not be in the office at all. Your ability to focus and your creativity will start to take a dive and you won’t be nearly as effective as you might think you are in the moment.
What all this working will do is send you in to serious stress mode and, if you’re not careful, right into the arms of burnout.
Burnout is a wicked mistress. It can take months to dig yourself out of that situation. I speak from experience.
The term burnout was only coined in the 1970s by a psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger. He defined it as
“an accumulation of excessive stressors over time, which results in unmanageable stress levels”
If that doesn’t sound like the basic job description of every modern job from intern to CEO in the US, I don’t know what does.
THE 2 SIDES OF STRESS MANAGEMENT
There are 2 critical sides to the stress management coin that we need to be thinking about. The problem is that most people are only concerned with the techniques. All we know is that we’re stressed, it’s bad for us, we want to get rid of it. What do I DO?
The issue here is that it’s the basic leaking boat scenario. You can keep allowing the stress to pour into the boat through the hole and bailing yourself out – but as you move up the corporate ladder or add to your list of responsibilities, that hole is going to get bigger. At some point no matter how much bail it’s not going to help.
And what’s worse is that the more responsibilities you have the less time you’ll likely have to be getting rid of the stress anyway.
Bigger hole + less bailing = boat sunk
But this doesn’t need to be the case. So long as you’re willing to look at the other side of the coin.
That other side is AWARENESS
When I’m working with a client on changing a behavior pattern they have, one of the main questions I ask is how do you know that you’re doing it? For example, how do you know that you’re stressing? And then when they can pinpoint those symptoms, I ask what are your warning signs BEFORE all those things.
My goal is to get them to recognize their behavior as early as possible. The sooner they catch the stress or anxiety or worry the easier it is to stop it in its tracks.
The more awareness and mindfulness that you can bring to your thoughts and behaviors the faster you can go about changing them. Is it easy? Not at first. But it is simple. You just have to be willing to focus on it over and over until it changes.
This may not sound as fun as just going and getting a massage to relieve stress, but if you want to make that hole in the boat smaller – this is the stuff that will get you there.
Think about what it’s like when you’re stressed. Get out a pen and paper and imagine a time when you were beyond stressed out (that might even be right now).
What are the symptoms? List both physical and mental.
Common physical symptoms: Difficulty sleeping, weight loss or gain, stomach pain, teeth grinding headaches, heartburn, fatigue, nausea.
Common psychological symptoms: irritability, panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, isolation, feeling overwhelmed, obsessive or compulsive behaviors.
Now that you know what full blown stress is like for you, try to pinpoint what the first few symptoms or pre-symptoms are. Maybe one of your symptoms is a headache, but you notice that even before that your neck is tight.
Recognizing these symptoms is pivotal in helping you control the stress response.
If you can recognize these on a regular basis you can take action to relieve it before it gets a foot hold.
Now that you know what it’s like to be stressed, it’s time to figure out where it’s coming from. Of course there are broad, easy things to point at like work or traffic, but try to be more specific than that.
Are there things about your job that you find particularly stressful that you could perhaps delegate to someone else? If rush hour ruins your whole day can you look at telecommuting a couple of days (or all of them!) or switch to flex hours?
Getting really clear about the specifics of what is getting to you will help you be able to formulate a solution. If you don’t do this you might imagine that quitting your job would solve everything when all of these things will just happen at another job because you didn’t get clear on your frustrations.
Current Management Techniques
Consider what your current stress management system is. Are you practicing healthy things like deep breathing or meditation or is more like emotional eating and alcohol?
Of course there’s nothing wrong with enjoying those brownies someone left in the kitchen, but if the only reason you went into the kitchen in the first place is because you were stressed and you wanted to push it down with sugar – then that’s a problem.
The same goes for alcohol. A couple of drinks at a networking event is fine unless the reason that you decided to drink was that the whole thing was so stressful that you couldn’t stand to be there unless you had a cocktail.
ANY behavior could be a stress management behavior even if it seems harmless on the surface. The problem is the slippery slope that follows when the stress mounts and you don’t have any other healthy outlets.
I encourage you to examine your behaviors and see them for what they are – be it healthy or unhealthy. If you find yourself with more than one unhealthy behavior focus on changing just one habit at a time. Choose the most damaging and work on changing that habit.
Next week I will be discussing many techniques that you can use as healthy outlets for your stress. But until you do this psychological work to understand yourself better, all the techniques in the world won’t help when the stakes get high. Take the time to get clear on your stress so that when you implement techniques they can be as helpful as possible.