How to Manage Stress

Last Updated Jul 13, 2009 5:58 PM EDT

If you haven't lost your job, you worry that you will.
And while you wait, you've seen your workload increase, your downtime
vanish, and your duties expand beyond your expertise (and any conceivable
40-hour week). If all that's not enough to make your blood pressure
rise, a new Florida State University business school study shows href="http://www.fsu.com/pages/2009/03/12/stress_of_economic_crisis.html">that
bosses have become more demanding, and that politicking, sucking up, and
backstabbing in the office are on the rise. Stress test? The office these
days is giving you your own personal version, and, in short, you're
barely passing.

Stop and take a few deep breaths. In, out. OK? Now read this.
You'll feel better.





Understand Stress


Goal: Pinpoint where the anxiety is coming from.


A certain amount of daily stress is normal. Stress, after all,
is simply your reaction — either positive or negative — to change,
according to the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. When stress places prolonged
or extreme pressure on your coping mechanisms, it can become a clinical problem
that requires professional help. Continually high levels of stress can wreak
havoc on the digestive and nervous systems, leading to irritable bowel
syndrome, recurrent headaches, and heart attacks. The psychological symptoms
often come in the form of burnout (losing interest in work) and depression. The
tips below are designed to help you prevent stress from taking a serious toll
on your health — and your career.

There are two leading, complementary perspectives on the sources
of workplace stress. Understanding the difference between the two is the first
step in learning how to cope.

Internal: Stress comes from how you perceive your
situation. The very thoughts you have can worsen your
stress reaction, says Dr. Jeff Brantley, director of the Mindfulness Based
Stress Reduction program at Duke Integrative Medicine. For example, one day
your boss emerges from a long, closed-door meeting looking upset. Then she
e-mails you requesting a meeting. Do you immediately think you’re
facing the ax? “Your mind starts spinning a catastrophe, and it’s
enough to trigger your body to go into a stress reaction,” Brantley
says.
Coping strategy: You may not be able to
eliminate the stimulus, but you can learn to change your response and calm your
mind. Start keeping a list of everything in your day that causes stress. Is
there something new or different in your work life? Do certain colleagues make
your blood boil? Pinpoint how every item on the list makes you feel and then
ask yourself, “Is my reaction appropriate or over the top?”
This step is key, because once you understand where your emotions are coming
from, you can find a healthier way to deal with them.

External: This school of thought holds that outside factors,
like toxic work environments, predominantly drive workplace stress. Common
characteristics of stress-inducing environments include authoritarian or
noncommunicative supervisors, socially isolating work, and jobs that require a
lot of effort but offer little reward. Dr. Peter Schnall of the University of
California at Irvine’s Center for Occupational and Environmental
Health says these factors can produce biological responses such as higher blood
pressure and could possibly contribute to more serious conditions like heart
attacks and depression.
Coping strategy: Eliminating the source of the problem
(i.e., finding another job) may be the most effective solution in the long
term. But until the job market improves, find ways to regain a sense of control
over your time and your surroundings. For example, if you must endure a
two-hour commute in rush-hour traffic to arrive at the office by 9 a.m., start
your workday earlier so you avoid the worst time to travel. If you can’t
stand your colleagues, shut your office door or take your work to a conference
room for part of the day.


Go Ahead and Vent — but Find the Right Listener


Goal: Blow off steam
without damaging your reputation at work.


Understanding how stress works will only get you so far. You
need cathartic relief, right? Don’t hesitate to seek the empathetic
ears of a colleague, but do choose your confidant wisely, says Matthew
Grawitch, an organizational psychologist and professor at Saint Louis
University. “The more you say to a person you work with, the more
likely something will slip out at work.” Grawitch says. You don’t
want co-workers using your misery to their advantage, so find someone with a
sterling reputation whom you know and trust.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, in some cases your boss may be
your best confidant. Sure, you don’t want to make much ado about the
minor, daily stresses of your job, but if you’re struggling with
something major that affects your performance, talk to your boss, says
Grawitch. After all, managers are invested in the success of their employees. A
brief explanation (keep the hairy details to a minimum) is not only fair, it’s
also a way to build trust.

One district manager at a global pharmaceutical company recently
survived a round of layoffs. Still reeling from the stress of nearly losing his
own job, he faced the task of cutting 20 percent of his own employees, many of
whom he had worked with for more than 20 years. He asked his former and current
bosses for advice because both of them had been through the same experience. The
two empathized but, more importantly, offered some concrete tips on how to make
the cuts and give employees the support they need. The conversations didn’t
make the task any easier, but they did help the manager cope with his own
internal struggles.

If you’re going to go to your boss, schedule a time to
talk instead of dropping by unexpectedly when she may be in the middle of
grappling with the demands of her own job. Regardless of whom you talk to, vent
once, then let the issue rest. Constantly rehashing the story will force you to
relive your emotions.

Don’t want to vent? Relieve some tension and clear
your head by doing something physical. Wear yourself out on the treadmill, go
on a strenuous hike, do laps in the swimming pool — whatever you need
to do. The activity will get your endorphins pumping (the brain chemicals that
make us feel good) and focus your mind on your body instead of your stress.


Learn to Change Your Reaction to Stress


Goal: Stop being tyrannized by your emotions.


After you’ve blown off some steam, you can work
through stress in a more logical, clearheaded way rather than making decisions
based on emotions. “Don’t
just be lost in negative feelings,” says Brantley.

The Mayo Clinic offers a few tips on href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-relief/SR00037">how to retrain
your reaction to stress:

Rethink your standards: If your failure to achieve
perfection causes continual guilt and frustration, redefine what success means.
For example, if you always feel inundated with work, ask yourself if you’re
spending more time on tasks than they require. Adds Dr. Barbara Gray, a
professor of organizational behavior at Penn State, often “we
actually shoot ourselves in the foot by making the task harder than it needs to
be.”

Reframe your situation: Weather delays your flight to an
important business meeting. Instead of stewing about the disruption to your
schedule, which you can’t control anyway, take advantage of the extra
time to prepare for your presentation or catch up on sleep.

Reassess the significance of the problem: Will it matter
tomorrow? Next week? A year from now? Emotion magnifies the difficulty of a
problem in the moment; perspective shrinks it. So make sure you give yourself a
steady dose of the latter.


Additional reporting by Tyler Kearn.

  • Alice Chen

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