When you think about stress, what images come to mind?
Spending Sunday night dreading the upcoming work week?
Getting caught in backed-up traffic, making you late for an appointment?
Having a mound of work on your desk and only two hours to get it all done?
If we’re being honest, we probably need a little stress in our lives, or we’d never get anything done. Just think: Deadlines usually aren’t relaxing—but they sure keep us on track when it comes to producing deliverables on time.
But not all stressors are good. Stressors that push you into the emotional danger zone can wreak havoc on both your mental well-being and your performance on the job. Living with a sustained level of stress can even hurt you physically, adversely impacting your heart, immune system, and other vital body functions.
The worst stressors show up in three common situations. Let’s look at what they are, how you can identify them, and what you can do to diffuse their power.
1. You Don’t Have the Resources to Meet the Expectations Placed on You
A common definition of stress, attributed to Richard S. Lazarus, is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”
You know how this one goes. For many it shows up as, “I don’t have enough time to get everything done,” or “my workload is too big.” That’s pretty much the workplace version of demands exceeding resources, wouldn’t you say?
The first step in addressing this kind of resource gap is to realize you have one—then, get crystal clear on your priorities. If you aren’t sure which of your tasks take priority, then everything on your plate becomes one. And if you think everything on your plate is one big priority, you will always feel stressed because you can’t possibly get it all done.
If you aren’t able to determine what takes precedence by examining your workload, ask your manager to clarify. Negotiate with him or her if the load seems unrealistic. Then, with the limited time available each day, make sure your attention, energy, and activity are devoted to those key actions. This could mean spending less time checking email, scrolling through Facebook, or sitting in unproductive meetings, and instead, choosing to make good time and energy management decisions. I’m not saying it’s simple or painless—but if you anticipate where this stress is coming from and take steps to correct it, you’ll make your life much easier!
2. You Don’t Have Control Over Your Situation
Your boss is kind and considerate one day; unpredictable and mercurial the next. Or, traffic is backed up for miles, and no matter what you do, you’re going to miss the big client meeting.
Impact on you? Major stress.
Unfortunately, you can’t have control over some situations life throws at you. (Other people’s behavior. Traffic. People who chew loudly.)
This can easily lead you to assume a victim mentality and start thinking irrationally. But dwelling on thoughts like “my boss is out to get me!” or “nothing is ever going to go right again,” won’t do much to help the situation—or your stress level.
When you don’t have control over a stressful situation, the secret is to shift your focus to what you can control. And believe it or not, there is always something you can control, like what you choose to think or what action you choose to take.
For example, if your boss is unruly, you can choose to step away and remember that his behavior is not about you; it’s about him. If you’re bound to miss the client meeting due to traffic, you can hatch a quick backup plan, advise your teammates of your status, pull off the road, and check in by phone.
You can always choose your response to a situation, even if you can’t control the situation itself. Along similar lines:
3. You Don’t Have a Choice in Your Situation
I hear this one frequently—particularly from women who are the breadwinners of their households. They feel like they don’t have a choice in their situation, and the stress that results from that comes out in the comments they make.
“It’s all on my shoulders.”
“I don’t have a choice.”
“I can’t quit my job.”
“I can’t take any risks.”
Often, this issue stems from the fact that the women didn’t intentionally choose to be the completely financially responsible for their households, it just sort of happened—and now, they don’t see any way to change it.
But when faced with any situation that makes you feel like you don’t have a choice—and subsequently stresses you out—your best defense strategy is to recognize the reality: You do have choice. If you hate your job, you can quit. There are consequences that come with that choice that might not be desirable to you—but you can choose it.
So, rather than thinking “I don’t have a choice,” shift your mindset to, “I choose to stay in this role because it’s less painful than the other option, which would be to quit and no longer be able to pay the mortgage. In the future, I might choose a different path. But for now, this is my choice.”
Can you see the different energy that comes from the latter statements? Can you see how articulating what your choice is—even if it’s not one you will make—can mitigate such a stressful situation? When you think you have no choice, look around and recognize your options, consider what the impact would be if you chose one of them, and then reframe your thinking.
There’s no doubt that threatening situations stress us out. When we feel like we’re not going to succeed or when we feel like we don’t have control or choice, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But next time you face a stressful situation, I urge you to focus on the action you can take. I promise, little by little, you’ll get your power back. Not to mention your sanity.