Racing thoughts, sleepless nights, days fueled by a mixture of panic and coffee... Until we crash, burn, and do it all over again. The extremity varies but work stress is real and can have a big impact on our health and effectiveness, especially in the long run.
Some argue that stress is one of the greatest health epidemics of the 21st century. Chronic stress has been linked to a host of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and risk for mental illness. One study of 30,000 adults showed that those who reported high stress had 43% increased risk of dying.
The statistics are alarming, but there is good news from the research which may seem obvious upon reading (far less so when you are actively stressing out): Stress is always 1 part stimulus, 1 part reaction. We are wired for survival and this is to our biological benefit - when we are faced with life and death situations, at least. But you simply cannot “feel stressed” if you don’t interpret something in your environment as a threat.
This means that training your brain to re-interpret the environment – and the immediate experience of stress itself – will dramatically reduce its negative effects. In the above study, high stress only led to reduced lifespan when individuals believed that stress negatively impacts health.
Let me back up here and clarify my meaning. The solution to your stress is NOT to simply "toughen up." This is a very, very flawed solution for reasons well beyond the scope of this writing. You have every right and capability to do more than merely surviving, and while the "buck up" mentality has its upsides you probably won't reach peak potential that way.
If you want to solve your stress problem, you have three options:
1. Remove the stressor/threat
2. Change it
In practice these options naturally overlap, by the way. But let's assume for the moment that you can't or don't want to exit or change the situation. You still have #3. And #3 is GOLDEN. In fact many times #3 is needed to make #1 and #2 viable options.
So how does you actually DO this? How can you re-interpret what's happening in a way that serves you - and your health and effectiveness, in the long-run? In other words how can you start to believe what you don't already? This is a BIG question. Because no two people will look quite the same.
I can't solve all your stress problems in the span of two written pages, but while I have your attention I'll offer a simple stress hack you can do on your own. This week, do your mind and body good with the following stress relabeling activity:
STEP ONE: Select a Stressful Situation
What tends to stress you out? Select one very specific, predictably stressful situation you know will come up. For this activity pick something that's actually going to happen - situations that you're getting chewed up about from the past or hypothetical future will require a different approach.
STEP TWO: Take Stock Internally
When the stressful situation comes up, notice yourself, as if you were from the outside looking in. What are your thoughts, physical sensations, how does the quality and level of your energy seem to change? A quick list of stress symptoms can help clue you in, but everyone experiences stress differently. Be curious, observant, a scientist of your own experience.
STEP THREE: Pay Your Stress Respects
Repeat the following: My stress response is preparing me to overcome. Say it in your head, or for even more oomph you can say it out loud. This might feel like a pumping up, or it can have a tone of respect and appreciation.
If you’re like me, this may feel a little silly at first. It’s not a complete solution, and it's not appropriate if you have an anxiety disorder or are otherwise sweating bullets most of the day. But if you can start to see stress as a well-intentioned survival mechanism and commit to this simple practice in earnest, you will feel the difference, in a tangible way.
For more on the science, check out Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend.