Stress is a part of life, so naturally, it’s part of our work lives
Stress is a part of life, so naturally, it’s part of our work lives. The causes of stress - stressors - are all around us. We can’t eliminate all stressors from our careers or our workplaces, but building a stress management skill set can be the difference between burnout and job satisfaction.
Learning how to manage stress is critical, because stressing about stress can take years off your life. A study of thirty thousand Americans showed that the respondents who believed stress was impacting their health had increased risk of premature death.
Stress comes from two different categories: External and internal. External stressors are what we’re most familiar with - a summons to jury duty, an overflowing inbox, a major life change.
Then there’s our own anxieties, expectations, and phobias are often more stressful than any external source. They trigger internal stress: the feeling of discomfort, agitation, and panic when stress hits you personally. It’s probably what led you to click on this post.
Also, let’s give stress some credit - though it’s often thought of (and experienced as) a negative thing, stress can be a positive. Dr. Hans Selye posited back in the 1970s that distress, the stress we know and dislike, is only the part of stress that has negative implications - the stress that tires us out, makes us despair and obsess, and impairs our performance.
Eustress is the accepted term for stress that has positive implications - like, say, focusing your energy when you’re on a deadline (perhaps when writing an article about stress management!).
Both distress and eustress are associated with the release of cortisol, a steroid hormone that’s part of our most basic instinct: fight-or-flight. Cortisol induced by eustress tends to dissipate once the stressor has been addressed. Distress-induced cortisol doesn’t - and elevated cortisol levels are associated with a host of health problems.
Stress management strategies are mostly about cultivating resilience. Building stress management skills doesn’t mean you’ll live a stress-free existence; it means you’ll have some reliable methods to counter the stress we all have to contend with. Here are some specific techniques that have been proven to reduce stress.
1. Talk to yourself (the right way)
In her book Emotional Agility, Dr. Susan David relays a quote from LeBron James after he left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. (If you’re not a sports fan, it was a highly publicized and controversial decision.)
“One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision. I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.”
“Notice how he initially referred to himself using the first-person pronoun “I,” but then, when discussing how he didn’t want to make an emotional decision, he switched to the third-person “LeBron James.” At the time, many of his detractors attributed his choice of words to nothing more than his king-size ego [...] he may indeed have been highly conflicted about his decision. If so, he used a sophisticated verbal strategy to manage his emotions.”
David cites this 2014 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers from three different universities checked the stress levels of people preparing to make a good first impression and speak in public.
One group talked to themselves in the first person - “I can do this, I’m going to take my time” - and another group was instructed to talk to themselves using second-person pronouns or their own names - “you can do this, Tyler’s going to take his time”. The study found the subjects using non-first-person language “consequentially influence[d] their ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress, even for vulnerable individuals.”
So next time you’re feeling stressed out, remember: you can manage your stress. (And say it to yourself that way!)
2. Get moving. Regularly.
Cortisol - that stress hormone - is really primal. It’s in humans, but was first discovered in rats, and then rhesus monkeys. Remember, stress is connected to our most basic fight-or-flight instincts. While most of us can’t hunt and gather at our jobs, many of us can hit the gym, take the stairs, or use an employee wellness program.
Along with all its other benefits, regular aerobic exercise helps keep cortisol in check. John J. Ratey writes in his 2008 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:
“At every level, from the microcellular to the psychological, exercise not only wards off the ill effects of chronic stress; it can also reverse them. Studies show that if researchers exercise rats that have been chronically stressed, that activity makes the hippocampus grow back to its preshriveled state. [...] When you say you feel less stressed out after you go for a swim, or even a fast walk, you are.”
Ratey makes a crucial point here; while you’re exercising, though you might feel great, your stress levels are unlikely to go down. After exercising, the brain goes to work, recovering just like your body does, acting as a buffer to stress.
A postscript to Ratey’s citation about the rats: a 2016 study by researchers at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland found that rats that jogged several miles a day showed way more brain activity than rats that did high-intensity interval training or lifted weights (they climbed walls with weights on their tails). So while hitting the weights or doing Tabata will give you an endorphin rush, they won’t beat a run through the park in terms of stress-busting.
While I personally wish that donuts were strongly correlated with stress resiliency, a regular aerobic exercise program is a proven boost to stress management. If you’re having a stressful morning, consider hiking a longer or steeper than usual route to lunch. Your nervous system will thank you in the afternoon.
3. Take time off and set boundaries around that time.
Taking time for yourself outside of work is crucial to building stress management. The American Psychological Association suggests a “recovery process” that includes true disconnection from work.
Research by Dr. YoungAh Park, an expert on work-home boundary management, shows that a “strong technological boundary” makes us much more likely to detach from work. Technology has made it easier for us to work from anywhere; that can be a great thing for productivity, and it can also give us 24/7 access to stressors.
The APA’s advice also mentions a place many of us can stand to improve: workers leave too many vacation days unused. (The statistics are especially dour in the United States, where 55 percent of employees left days on the table in 2015, per a survey by Project: Time Off, and the total number of vacation days taken has slipped considerably.)
Only well-planned vacations reduce stress, according to a 2010 study, so take the time to plan your time off. Project: Time Off is trying to make National Plan for Vacation Day a thing in the U.S. It’s in January, but making sure you’re using your vacation days wisely is a great practice at any time.
If you need any more convincing to use your vacation days, research indicates that employees who take at least 11 vacation days are at least 30% more likely to receive a raise!
If you try the above tips and are convinced you’re managing stress adequately, but are still getting swamped by distress at work, there’s a more direct solution. Ironically, it can be a stressful one:
Exert more control in your work life. This might involve a conversation with your team and/or your manager about your workload. It might require a change in your workspace.
Pursuing changes to give you more control will be worth it: the strongest factor in job stress is the degree of control that you feel you have at work. The Whitehall Studies - a seminal ten-year study of British civil servants - first found the link between what the scientists labeled “low job control” and job stress.
A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Harvard and Stanford found that leadership is associated with lower levels of stress. The popular perception of powerful businesspeople is that they’re stressed out by the demands of an important position - competition, late hours, the importance of their decisions, and so on. As it turns out, the “sense of control” that comes with ascending to a leadership position more than offsets whatever the stressors of the position may be.
Here’s how Simon Sinek puts it in his bestseller Leaders Eat Last:
“Those who feel they have more control, who feel empowered to make decisions instead of waiting for approval, suffer less stress. Those only doing as they are told, always forced to follow the rules, are the ones who suffer the most.”
You may not be able to vault into the C-suite tomorrow (though it’d be beneficial for your stress, according to science). If you can take more responsibility for a project, or define your goals for the next quarter, you can decrease your stress at work.
Some ways to increase that “sense of control” the Harvard and Stanford researchers highlighted only require a few tweaks. Talking to your supervisor about taking an active role in setting your expectations, mapping out a career path, and working on breaking a habit that’s limiting you are all bite-sized ways to manage stress.
Remember: You can do this!