Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How to Get a Grip on Stress in a Stressful Economy


by Alice Chen

If you haven’t lost your job, you worry that you will. And while you wait, you’ve seen your workload increase, your downtime vanish, and your duties expand beyond your expertise (and any conceivable 40-hour week). If all that’s not enough to make your blood pressure rise, a new Florida State University business school study shows that bosses have become more demanding, and that politicking, sucking up, and backstabbing in the office are on the rise. …

Things you will need:
  • Time: Start setting aside enough hours for a full night’s sleep, plus extra time each week for tension-relieving activities and self-reflection.
  • Social Support: Single out a few good friends and family members to lean on. Research shows that when lonely people are stressed, they experience higher blood pressure and more insomnia than those who have a strong social network.
  • Self-Awareness: Don’t avoid the problem. That will only make it worse. Failure to change your surroundings or manage your stress level can contribute to long-term health issues like clinical depression, anxiety disorder, and heart disease.

Understand Stress

Goal: Pinpoint where the anxiety is coming from.

A certain amount of daily stress is normal. Stress, after all, is simply your reaction — either positive or negative — to change, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. … Continually high levels of stress can wreak havoc on the digestive and nervous systems, leading to irritable bowel syndrome, recurrent headaches, and heart attacks. The psychological symptoms often come in the form of burnout (losing interest in work) and depression. The tips below are designed to help you prevent stress from taking a serious toll on your health — and your career.

There are two leading, complementary perspectives on the sources of workplace stress. Understanding the difference between the two is the first step in learning how to cope.

Internal: Stress comes from how you perceive your situation. The very thoughts you have can worsen your stress reaction, says Dr. Jeff Brantley, director of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at Duke Integrative Medicine. …“Your mind starts spinning a catastrophe, and it’s enough to trigger your body to go into a stress reaction,” Brantley says. Coping strategy: You may not be able to eliminate the stimulus, but you can learn to change your response and calm your mind. Start keeping a list of everything in your day that causes stress. … Pinpoint how every item on the list makes you feel and then ask yourself, “Is my reaction appropriate or over the top?” This step is key, because once you understand where your emotions are coming from, you can find a healthier way to deal with them.

External: … Common characteristics of stress-inducing environments include authoritarian or noncommunicative supervisors, socially isolating work, and jobs that require a lot of effort but offer little reward. Dr. Peter Schnall of the University of California at Irvine’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health says these factors can produce biological responses such as higher blood pressure and could possibly contribute to more serious conditions like heart attacks and depression. Coping strategy: Eliminating the source of the problem (i.e., finding another job) may be the most effective solution in the long term. But until the job market improves, find ways to regain a sense of control over your time and your surroundings. …

Go Ahead and Vent — but Find the Right Listener

Goal: Blow off steam without damaging your reputation at work.

Understanding how stress works will only get you so far. … Don’t hesitate to seek the empathetic ears of a colleague, but do choose your confidant wisely, says Matthew Grawitch, an organizational psychologist and professor at Saint Louis University. “The more you say to a person you work with, the more likely something will slip out at work.” Grawitch says. …

As counterintuitive as it sounds, in some cases your boss may be your best confidant. …[If] you’re struggling with something major that affects your performance, talk to your boss, says Grawitch. After all, managers are invested in the success of their employees. A brief explanation … is not only fair, it’s also a way to build trust. …

If you’re going to go to your boss, schedule a time to talk instead of dropping by unexpectedly when she may be in the middle of grappling with the demands of her own job. Regardless of whom you talk to, vent once, then let the issue rest. …

Don’t want to vent? Relieve some tension and clear your head by doing something physical. Wear yourself out on the treadmill, go on a strenuous hike, do laps in the swimming pool — whatever you need to do. The activity will get your endorphins pumping (the brain chemicals that make us feel good) and focus your mind on your body instead of your stress.

Learn to Change Your Reaction to Stress

Goal: Stop being tyrannized by your emotions.

After you’ve blown off some steam, you can work through stress in a more logical, clearheaded way rather than making decisions based on emotions. …

The Mayo Clinic offers a few tips on how to retrain your reaction to stress:

Rethink your standards: If your failure to achieve perfection causes continual guilt and frustration, redefine what success means. For example, if you always feel inundated with work, ask yourself if you’re spending more time on tasks than they require. Adds Dr. Barbara Gray, a professor of organizational behavior at Penn State, often “we actually shoot ourselves in the foot by making the task harder than it needs to be.”

Reframe your situation: Weather delays your flight to an important business meeting. Instead of stewing about the disruption to your schedule, which you can’t control anyway, take advantage of the extra time to prepare for your presentation or catch up on sleep.

Reassess the significance of the problem: Will it matter tomorrow? Next week? A year from now? Emotion magnifies the difficulty of a problem in the moment; perspective shrinks it. So make sure you give yourself a steady dose of the latter.

Additional reporting by Tyler Kearn.

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