Over 90% of us say stress is a top-five cause for concern at work. Over 40% say it’s our Number One cause for concern (UK: 2014). And we all know that chronic stress is never good.
But stress is a friend too. Without it, we might never get into action, never get anything done and never be able to rise to the performance challenges of our ever-more-demanding work life. The trick is to get the balance right.
So here are a few thoughts on stress and what you can do to manage it to your advantage.
The benefits of stress
A moderate amount of stress is a good thing. Stress – actively created by our responsive brain releasing the stress hormone, cortisol – delivers us a number of performance benefits.
Stress mobilises glucose for immediate use, making us more alert and switching on our attention systems. The emotional state of being stressed helpfully motivates us to take action. And in particular, a little stress encourages behavioural flexibility, much-needed for success at work.
Just the right levels of stress helps solve problems and get stuff done.
The trouble with stress
The operative phrase when it comes to stress is: “moderate amount”. Its benefits only hold if we are able to let go of our stress before we overload. Else, we dramatically impair performance.
Chronic stress has serious negative consequence for our health. It can make us overweight, cause muscle wasting, lead to high blood pressure and cripple our immune system.
For the brain, too much stress reduces working memory capacity, impairs problem-solving and affects our memory banks. Over time, it can chronically increase our anxiety levels. The resulting negative emotional basis (recalled memories are near-exclusively negative events) can produce an extreme risk aversion, seriously impacting our decision-making ability.
So, a moderate amount of stress can be great in response to demands like deadlines, priorities, emergencies and surprises. But too much stress, too much of the time – and out of proportion to the situation – will degrade performance.
How do we find the balance?
Getting the right mix
Faced with stressful situations at work, it can be easy to drop into a work harder, work longer response cycle. We get tired and irritable. We start to make mistakes, compromises and poor decisions. And to compensate, what do we do? Work harder still.
Before we know it, we’re on the stress carousel. Here’s a few tips to help you step off.
#1 Decide you’re in control
If you want to regard stress your friend and benefit from its many positives, you and your brain need to be in charge, not the outside world. Take a mental step back and notice your current stress patterns. Decide if they’re serving you. And if not: have your brain choose a different response.
#2 Change your perspective on stress
Start viewing stress as a good thing: as your brain gearing you up for the challenge. Acknowledge it as a useful resource. And when the challenge is met: congratulate yourself and let the stress go.
#3 Distinguish between real and imagined
Stress is our brain’s response to circumstance. But let’s remember that our brain is largely unable to distinguish between actual reality and our vivid imaginings. (Try it now: vividly imagine biting into a slice of lemon; and your mouth starts to water and your eyes get ready to tear-up.) Challenge your stress response and ask: Is this circumstance real or imagined? Is this situation within my control or out of my control? Is my response in proportion or out of proportion?
#4 Give yourself a break
How many complex systems do you know that run at 100% maximum, 100% of the time? It’s a nonsense to expect that of our brains. Allow for small, bite-sized periods of rest throughout the working day to recharge your brain. And keep weekends, holidays and other time-off for rest and recuperation, with at least some periods of total rest.
#5 Use the healing power of laughter
A well-placed comment to relax the atmosphere will reduce the cortisol levels of you and those around you. Just smiling will help. Alternatively: think of an event that always makes you laugh. Or of the last time you had a fit of the giggles or were crying with laughter. Recalling that scene in your mind will reduce your stress – at least long enough to take stock and choose a different response.
#6 Practise some mindful downtime
Mindfulness takes deliberate practice, but we don’t have to go too far for our brain to see the benefits. Call this “time-in” and simply reflect internally, quietly focusing on sensations, images, thoughts and feelings. This will help better integrate the brain and achieve a balance that helps resist stress.
#7 Catch your zeds
Sleep is your brain’s opportunity to power-down, incorporate the events of today and recharge for tomorrow. Sleep is vitally important and is a great antidote to stress. But no more “trying” to get to sleep. Make it about “allowing” yourself to drift off. And for the last 60 minutes before bed: no technology, no screens, no intense exercise, no heavy conversations and no hot showers or baths.
A new perspective on stress
Stress has a bad name that’s only sometimes deserved. Much of our stress is purely of our own making; and not all of it’s bad. If we can learn to control and harness it, stress can provide many benefits.
Practise listening to your mind and body. Know when to slow down. Know when to stop. And choose to view stress as a friend – and see what difference it makes to you and your work.