Keeping Calm: How to Handle Major Stress at Work
Your boss just got fired, and you don’t know who’s on the chopping block next. You forgot about a major presentation you’re in charge of, and the meeting is in 30 minutes. You’re worried that you won’t get the promotion you’ve been gunning for over the past six months. All of these would be enough to give you some serious stress on the job, and it’s likely at least one of these scenarios has played out in your career. At the very least, you’ve probably experienced a stressful day when nothing has gone the way you think it should.
Though some minor stressful situations can spark adrenaline and get you on your A-game quickly, prolonged stress — especially at work — will have a negative outcome in the long run. Minor stressful instances are pretty typical, but a series of events that cause acute stress can be damaging to the quality of your work, and could have damaging psychological effects.
“Also known as the fight-or-flight response, acute stress is your body’s immediate reaction to a perceived threat, challenge or scare. The acute-stress response is immediate and intense, and in certain circumstances it can be thrilling,” explains the Mayo Clinic. For example, the clinic describes getting a speeding ticket or having a job interview as two instances of acute stress. It’s concentrated around one major event, and normally is quick.
According to the clinic, single episodes of acute stress normally don’t affect healthy people over the long term. But when those episodes don’t dissipate, it can turn into chronic stress that can eventually cause insomnia, headaches, and more. Severe instances of acute stress, such as being involved in a bank holdup or serving in a war, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and even heart attack.
Unless you work as a bank manager, the chances of being involved in a holdup are incredibly slim while on the clock. But other stressful triggers could be a problem, especially if you work in an already-stressful environment. In some cases, lingering cases of severe stress might be a sign that you need to see a health professional. But in many on-the-spot instances, your level of stress can be managed in several ways. Here’s some tips for managing that stress so that you don’t let your coworkers see you sweat, and so you’re also taking care of yourself.
1. Know your triggers
Though stress on the job is almost universal, the things that cause someone to be stressed out are individual. “A situation is only stressful if YOU interpret it as being stressful,” the Centre for Studies on Human Stress explains. As a result, what might cause your coworker to break out in a cold sweat would only be a minor irritation to you, and vice versa.
Knowing your individual stress points is key, because otherwise you’ll find yourself in the middle of a high-stress situation without realizing why. The Mayo Clinic suggests listing out 10 issues you’re facing right now, and recognizing them as potential stressors throughout your day. Most likely, the list will include external issues such as a major life changes like marriage or divorce — notice those changes can be positive or negative. They can also include your workload or events where you need to meet a lot of new people, if you happen to be more of an introvert. The list will possibly also include internal stressors, such as a fear of speaking or flying, uncertainty about your job, or other internal processes.
“By beginning to identify and understand the sources of your stress, you’ve taken the first step in learning to better manage it,” the clinic adds.
2. Use meditation techniques
Yoga might work for some people, but maybe not for you. That’s ok — meditation doesn’t just mean deep breathing and stretching. It also means thinking through the stressful situation. Monique Valcour, an executive coach and contributing writer for the Harvard Business Review, describes how acute stress impairs our brain’s ability to think through a situation rationally. In some cases, you might have trouble recalling necessary information or processing through questions that are being asked of you. (Valcour demonstrates this in an example of a stressful interview situation.)
Before your brain turns to complete mush in the face of stress, Valcour suggests using the RAIN technique used by many meditation teachers. Recognize what’s happening (you’re starting to sweat, your mouth is getting dry, etc.), Accept that you’re stressed about something, Investigate what’s stressing you out (you believe you gave the wrong answer in an interview, or you can’t believe you forgot about a meeting), and separate yourself from the stress — what’s called non-identification. Even though you’re experiencing symptoms of stress, they don’t define who you are or your competency on the job.
“Using this tool helps you to regain your strength and sense of control, and to proceed in a calm, rational manner,” Valcour explains.
3. Interrupt your body’s response to stress
Though stress can seem like a mental issue, humans are hard-wired to have physical reactions to stress. Hormones in your body surge, enacting the fight-or-flight reaction that you have. Your heart might start to race, your palms might turn into small ponds, and so on. According to the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, one of the quickest ways to manage an instance of acute stress is to recognize that the situation you’re in is not threatening. If your boss asks you a question you’re not prepared for, it’s not the end of the world. So interrupting that stress response is key to moving forward.
“Process the information or think about something positive — this new message will dampen your stress response. If you are faced with a stressful situation, then momentarily bring to mind an image, a moment, an event, or anything you find pleasant and soothing,” the center suggests.
For example, the center gives the example of getting a notice that you need to be in your boss’ office in 10 minutes, but you have no idea what it’s about. Instead of getting stressed out immediately, think of an image of your child’s last birthday party. “By bringing to mind something positive (your child’s face at her first birthday), you can modify the meaning of the situation and decrease your body’s response to it,” the center explains.