We’ve all had those days. The days where you feel like shouting at a colleague, slamming a door, or crushing the Bunn coffee maker. Sometimes, anger is justifiable. Maybe the colleague deserved it. Maybe the door needed a quick slam. And that Bunn coffee maker was definitely not producing good coffee. But crushed coffee makers and confused colleagues are not the ideal kind of carnage to leave behind.
Stressing out, blowing up, and walking out in a huff can damage our relationships and jeopardize our careers. But how do we avoid it?
There are better ways for project managers, interns, and employees to deal with workplace stress. Here are some specific actions that you can take today.
Anticipate tense events.
The best way to deal with a tough situation is to prepare for the tough situation. You use this method all the time with your projects. You plan, scope, prepare, and deal with each task as it comes along.
Why not do the same with your stressful events? Anticipating stress is one of the best ways to handle it. Start by identifying the people or activities that stress you out.
- Maybe it’s the weekly one-on-one with your boss.
- Maybe it’s when you have to leave to pick up your kids at 3pm.
- Maybe it’s when you hit that constant traffic slowdown on the northbound I-85.
Whatever the event, accept the fact that it’s going to be stressful. You’ve experienced it before, and it wasn’t pretty.
Now, knowing that 1) you’re going to face it, and 2) it’s going to be challenging, you need to take definitive action — not to avoid it, but to diffuse it.
Thankfully, the first step for diffusing the stress happened when you accepted that it would be challenging. That admission alone gives you the mental space to navigate the frustration with a clear mind.
The next way to diffuse the stress is by placing it in its proper context — long-term, short-term, and personally.
- Long term: How important is this event, really, in the grand scheme of things? Take a five-year view of the situation, and see how it fits in.
- Short term: What is the worst case scenario? If the worst possible outcome happens as a result of the meeting or event, what will you do?
- Personally: How can you experience this event in an exemplary manner? If another person were watching you and knew you were stressed, how could they learn from your example?
A more concrete way of handling the stress before it starts is to try one of the following:
- Control your breathing. Take a few deep breaths, making sure that you exhale with a long, slow breath. Stress affects the respiratory system by causing us to take short, shallow breaths. This type of breathing can be harmful. Long, deep breathing can lower the stress hormones that are building up in your body.
- Talk to someone. Opening up about the situation to a trusted friend is a great way to prepare. If you’re headed into a stressful meeting, call your spouse and explain how you’re feeling.
- Pray and meditate. Prayer and meditation have been proven to reduce stress.
- Take a walk before the event. You can decrease the stress you feel by increasing your activity beforehand. Mild exercise stimulates the release of endorphins that lower stress levels.
You can’t plan in advance of every stressful event. Stress is often unscheduled. But for those stressful events that are on the calendar, prepare and conquer.
Stay active during your workday.
An active body is a low-stress body. Evidence from clinical trials shows that the body produces “calming neurons” when we do something as simple as take a walk.
One of the best ways to avoid a stressful situation is to 1) take a break, and 2) use your break to move.
The body’s response to stress is not entirely negative. Stress releases hormones into the bloodstream that call us to respond with energy. Unfortunately, this energy is often experienced in the form of high blood pressure, headaches, or anger and aggression.
Instead of allowing the body to respond negatively to the stress, we can take control with simple exercise. Walking is one of the simplest exercises of all. It doesn’t take much effort or time to bust stress and stay cool.
Don’t try to eliminate stress. Try to apply it to the situation in the form of energy.
Often, we experience more stress by trying to eliminate it or avoid it. This could be a mistake.
Stress is not inherently negative or positive. It just is.
In her book, The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal explains that we mistakenly view all stress as harmful and bad. A better way to view stress is as an asset to be used, not a condition to be avoided.
Here’s the mindset that she advocates, backed up by her careful research and medical testing:
Stress is enhancing. Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality. Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth. The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.
Changing one’s mindset about stress isn’t easy, but it can be done. Instead of the unpleasant anxiety brought about by stress, you can experience its energizing potential.
Take the afternoon off.
The truth is, you might just be overworked. Give yourself and your colleagues a break, and simply take some time off work.
As long as your time away from the workplace is not stressful, the break can leave you feeling more fulfilled and energized when you return to work.
The concept here is simple. You are physically distancing yourself from the situation. If you work from home, a brief excursion to another location can have the same effects.
Get a good night of sleep.
There’s no question that a stressful life can impact your sleep. But the reverse is true, too. A good night’s sleep can crush stress.
Unfortunately, the stress/sleep issue can be a vicious cycle. Instead of experiencing the benefit of healthful sleep, many people are being shortchanged on sleep due to stress.
The right sleep habits, however, can reverse this vicious cycle:
- With sleep, quantity is quality. Some people think that they can get by on less sleep as long as it’s “quality” sleep. The truth is, with sleep, quality is quantity, and that oft-repeated “8 hours” is the magic number for most people.
- Say no to Netflix. The companionable glow of a smartphone in bed is actually bad for your sleep. It’s a hard habit to kick, but getting rid of your smartphone bedtime addition could give you back your sleep and lower your overall stress.
- Dark and quiet. The best sleep environment is completely dark and relatively quiet, unless white noise is your thing.
Better sleep equals better stress management, plain and simple.
Unless we are blessed with an unusually placid temperament, we’re all going to experience the temptation to erupt in anger or quiver with stress.
The way you respond to these feelings and take control of them is one of the defining characteristics of your career. Lose it, and you could lose your job, your integrity, and your relationships.
Handle it well, and you could dramatically improve your leadership, effectiveness, and stability in the workplace.