Managing Stress Triggers
Susan gave up. After an hour of tossing and turning she tiptoed downstairs and watched three episodes of her favorite comedy, caught up on emails and watched the sunrise. It’s the third time this week her day has started at 3 am. She is not alone.
Stress manifests itself in many physical ways. Your heart rate may race, your blood pressure may rise, your muscles can tense. For Susan, she faced restless nights. These physical sensations are our body’s way of alerting us that we need to take action.
Over a sustained period, stress doesn’t just impact our body; it takes an emotional toll. Yesterday, a friend called me and burst into tears. I feared the worst, only to find out that her toddler had spilled their cereal all over the floor she had just cleaned. Trust me when I tell you she’s generally an adaptable parent who would have laughed and cleaned up the mess without a second thought. But not yesterday. Yesterday, she had just gotten off of a conference call with her team and her head was spinning with an urgent to-do list. She had reached a breaking point and emotions came flooding hard and fast. Under persistent stress our emotions are heightened – we get angry faster, we feel overwhelmed more often, it’s hard to concentrate, our memory fails, and we’re in what can feel like a constant state of anxiety.
We don’t know how long the current global pandemic will disrupt our lives, but we do know it has already put most of the world on high alert. This heightened alertness is driving both emotional and physical responses that impact us at home and while doing work.
The body’s natural response to stress isn’t bad, but it is something we have to carefully manage. What’s known as Yerkes-Dodson Law, in scientific circles, proves that some anxiety can actually increase performance. It’s our body’s way of helping us adapt in difficult situations. However, under too much stress our productivity drops measurably.
While we can’t make stress triggers go away, we can take steps to manage our response to them.
- Let down your guard It’s natural to want to shelter your coworkers and even friends from the stress you are going through. However, doing this can be very harmful to you. When you are working hard to “pretend” your anxiety levels are likely to rise. We’re all working under extraordinary circumstances if you need a break from a conversation, it’s okay to ask for one. We’re all in this together.
- Give yourself a sense of control While you can’t always reduce your workload, you can take simple steps to feel a greater sense of empowerment. For example, you may have to update 100 customer records today which can feel overwhelming, but you may be able to control the order by which you update them. Sometimes something as simple as checking to-dos off a list can even give you a sense of accomplishment and the energy boost you need to keep moving forward with other tasks.
- Don’t over-schedule your day with meetings Virtual meetings are a great way to stay connected to your coworkers, friends and family but if you are bouncing from one to the next all day long, it may just add to your stress. Schedule a buffer between meetings to give yourself a chance to break, grab a snack or just be still with your thoughts.
- Keep moving Exercise is essential to get the blood flowing and keeping energy levels up. You don’t have to do an intense gym workout or run a marathon to gain benefits. Just keep moving. Whether it’s arm lifts from your chair or a couple of laps around your kitchen floor, the movement will help you concentrate better and have the energy to keep going. And if you’re up for a more intense workout, there are loads of online videos that can challenge your strength and cardio endurance without the need for any special equipment.
- Check in with coworkers on non-work tasks When deadlines are looming and the house is a mess and you have to wait 2 hours to get 3 things at the grocery store, hurry up can become your mantra. But it’s important to stay connected to each other even in these hectic times. Take time to make a phone call or delay the start of a meeting by a couple of minutes to just check in with each other.
- Verbally remind people the background noise is okay There isn’t a way to control everything happening around us. Yet, we often feel bad when the dog barks on our call or a toddler walks in and demands a snack. Or our roommate yells to us from another room. When it happens, simply acknowledge it happened, smile and keep the conversation going. And do the same for others. If you notice the other person feeling slightly uncomfortable because of their own background distractions, just acknowledge it, remind them it’s totally okay, and then move the conversation forward or offer to reschedule.
- Give yourself permission to “turn off” With all of our routines thrown into disarray, it’s tempting to focus on the to-do list. This can give us a sense of control, but it can also make it hard to separate downtime from productivity time. It’s important to schedule time to give your anxious brain a break. It’s healthy to get lost in a good book, watch a favorite movie, call a friend, or even try a new recipe.
- Choose your words carefully Remember you aren’t the only one who is stressed out. While you can’t control how someone might bark orders at you in their state of haste, you can take a deep breath and let go of how it was expressed and respond calmly and kindly. This practice is particularly important when communicating in email and instant messaging where body language and tone of voice aren’t available to signal intent. Poet Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Wise words to live by always, and particularly in times of stress.
What is happening in the world is unprecedented. It is natural to feel uncomfortable and experience a heightened level of stress. As individuals, we need to adapt from our normal patterns to help elevate some that stress, for our productivity, for our health, and for ourselves.