The Secret to Managing Stress: Adding the Opposite
How many of you are stressed about something right now? Did I hear an overwhelming “yes?” Well, I’m not surprised—a whopping 83% of Americans say they’re stressed at work.
And sure, you can find plenty of advice online about how to manage stress—from working out to using relaxation techniques like yoga or mediation to socializing with family and friends.
But I want to add another, rather unique tool to your stress-management kit. You may not have heard about it before—or you may have, years ago: It’s based on a strategy for teaching math to kids, known as “adding the opposite.”
In the classroom, this technique is used to help explain the idea of subtracting a negative—by adding a positive instead. Instead of 4 - (-6), for example, the student is taught to think of the equation as 4 + (+6).
Turns out, this is a great way to deal with stress, as well: Instead of trying to mitigate the negative effects of stress, think about what you can do to create a positive outcome, instead. Also referred to as “proactive coping,” this technique has worked wonders for my clients and has been proven in studies to reduce levels of worry and anxiety.
To help illustrate exactly how to use this method, read on for three ways you can “add the opposite” in common stress-inducing situations at the office.
1. Focus on the Positive
We’ve all had that kind of day: Your boss was a crank, your co-workers were annoying, you had a killer all-day headache, and you’re about to take this workday stink home and share it with your family. (Won’t they be thrilled?)
Not so fast! According to the University of Minnesota, you can greatly reduce evening stress levels simply by jotting down a few positive things that happened during the day. And they don’t even have to be work-related! Maybe you received a great compliment, nailed a presentation, or made a new friend in the office. Whatever you write, make sure to note why these things made you feel good. This will help you remember all the positive attributes, skills, and people you have in your life, and focusing on the “why” helps you appreciate those things even more.
You see, instead of dealing with stress by rehashing your terrible day to anyone who will listen, you can add the opposite by reminding yourself of what went well.
2. Envision Success
I don’t live downtown, but I have to go there frequently for meetings. And up until recently, I dreaded everything about it. Between the unfamiliar territory, one-way streets, ever-present construction, and full parking garages, I knew that it was always going to take much longer than I expected to arrive, find parking, and get to the meeting on time. It was harried and stressful, and I dreaded it.
Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t keep operating that way, and I started trying to proactively cope. So, whenever I had a downtown meeting, I’d envision myself leaving the office with plenty of time to spare, effortlessly finding a parking spot, and arriving well ahead of time, relaxed, unstressed, calm, and ready to conduct business.
And you wouldn’t believe the difference it made. I realized that by working myself up mentally and always picturing the worst possible experience, I was creating my own stress. But when I shifted my outlook, I had a completely different experience. I actually did arrive early, find parking, and had time to gather myself before the meeting.
Whether you dread downtown parking, presentations, meetings, performance reviews, or any number of other stressors, try adding the opposite by shifting your outlook from dread to anticipation and imagining a positive outcome. You’ll be able to ditch the stress—which will put you in the right mindset to succeed in any situation.
3. Start a Conversation
I often work with clients who complain that their managers are a constant source of stress, but they avoid tackling the issue head on. Why? They feel uncomfortable confronting an authority figure, or aren’t sure what to say or how to say it. And so, they take no action at all—and the stress continues.
To add the opposite in this situation, try focusing on the goal you want to achieve in that conversation and taking the steps to make it happen.
For example, let’s say your stress stems from your boss’ tendency to assign projects right as you’re about to leave the office. Instead of panicking about those last-minute tasks, directly confront the issue with a conversation—perhaps asking if you can meet each morning to outline the day’s assignments.
You’re instantly replacing that fear, dread, and avoidance with a proactive with a focus on the desired outcome—and that’s a much better way to replace that end-of-day stress.
The next time you anticipate a stressful event, focus on creating positive outcomes and aligning the resources you need to be successful. Doing this before stress has a chance to get to you has a much better effect on your personal well-being—rather than simply recovering from stress after the fact. That means a healthier body, a healthier mind, and a happier life. I challenge you to take steps to proactively cope with those tough situations by adding something positive. Your well-being depends on it!
Photo of stressed man courtesy of Shutterstock.
About The Author
Lea McLeod coaches people in their jobs when the going gets tough. Bad bosses. Challenging co-workers. Self-sabotage that keeps you working too long. She’s the founder of the Job Success Lab and author of the The Resume Coloring Book. Get started with her free 21 Days to Peace at Work e-series. Book one-on-one coaching sessions with Lea on The Muse's Coach Connect.