Project an aura of calm
Ever notice how when you’re speaking to someone who’s agitated, you start to feel agitated too? That is because stress is contagious. “When someone palpably feels your tension, they react to it,” says Menkes. He suggests “trying to modulate your emotions” when you find yourself in a tense conversation. Force yourself to “keep your speaking voice gentle and controlled,” adds Gonzalez. Talk in a reasonable and matter-of-fact manner. “If you are persistently calm, others will be too,” she says.
What happens to my body when I experience stress?
Hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate and increase the rate at which you perspire. This prepares your body for an emergency response. 8 These hormones can also reduce blood flow to your skin and reduce your stomach activity. Cortisol, another stress hormone, releases fat and sugar into your system to boost your energy. 9
As a result, you may experience headaches, muscle tension, pain, nausea, indigestion and dizziness. You may also breathe more quickly, have palpitations or suffer from various aches and pains. In the long-term, you may be putting yourself at risk from heart attacks and stroke. 10
All these changes are your body’s way of making it easier for you to fight or run away and once the pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels will usually return to normal. 11 However, if you’re constantly under stress, these hormones remain in your body, leading to the symptoms of stress. If you’re stuck in a busy office or on an overcrowded train, you can’t fight or run away, so you can’t use up the chemicals your own body makes to protect you. Over time, the build-up of these chemicals and the changes they produce can be damaging for your health. 12
What are the behavioural and emotional effects of stress?
You may experience periods of constant worry, racing thoughts, or repeatedly go over the same things in your head. You may experience changes in your behaviour. You may lose your temper more easily, act irrationally or become more verbally or physically aggressive. 14 These feelings can feed on each other and produce physical symptoms, which can make you feel even worse. For example, extreme anxiety can make you feel so unwell, that you then worry you have a serious physical condition.
Stress may be caused either by major upheavals and life events such as divorce, unemployment, moving house and bereavement, or by a series of minor irritations such as feeling undervalued at work or arguing with a family member.16Sometimes, there are no obvious causes.
Tip 1: Identify the sources of stress in your life
Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. While it’s easy to identify major stressors such as changing jobs, moving, or going through a divorce, pinpointing the sources of chronic stress can be more complicated. It’s all too easy to overlook how your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contribute to your everyday stress levels.
Start a stress journal
A stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and the way you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, keep track of it in your journal or use a stress tracker on your phone. Keeping a daily log will enable you to see patterns and common themes. Write down:
Tip 2: Practice the 4 A’s of stress management
While stress is an automatic response from your nervous system, some stressors arise at predictable times: your commute to work, a meeting with your boss, or family gatherings, for example. When handling such predictable stressors, you can either change the situation or change your reaction. When deciding which option to choose in any given scenario, it’s helpful to think of the four A’s: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.
When you’re stressed, the last thing you probably feel like doing is getting up and exercising. But physical activity is a huge stress reliever—and you don’t have to be an athlete or spend hours in a gym to experience the benefits. Exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good, and it can also serve as a valuable distraction from your daily worries.
While you’ll get the most benefit from regularly exercising for 30 minutes or more, it’s okay to build up your fitness level gradually. Even very small activities can add up over the course of a day. The first step is to get yourself up and moving. Here are some easy ways to incorporate exercise into your daily schedule:
The stress-busting magic of mindful rhythmic exercise
While just about any form of physical activity can help burn away tension and stress, rhythmic activities are especially effective. Good choices include walking, running, swimming, dancing, cycling, tai chi, and aerobics. But whatever you choose, make sure it’s something you enjoy so you’re more likely to stick with it.
While you’re exercising, make a conscious effort to pay attention to your body and the physical (and sometimes emotional) sensations you experience as you’re moving. Focus on coordinating your breathing with your movements, for example, or notice how the air or sunlight feels on your skin. Adding this mindfulness element will help you break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that often accompanies overwhelming stress.
How to Handle Stress in the Moment
You hear a lot of advice about how to reduce stress at work. But most of it is about what to do over the long term — take up yoga, eat a healthy diet, keep a journal, or get more sleep. But what do you do when you’re overcome with stress in the moment — at your desk, say, or in a meeting? Perhaps you’ve heard bad news from a client or were assigned yet another project. How can you regain control?
What the Experts Say
Eighty percent of Americans are stressed at work, according to a recent study by Nielsen for Everest College. Low pay, unreasonable workloads, and hectic commutes were the top sources of tension, followed closely by obnoxious coworkers. What exacerbates the problem is that “people walk into work already laden with stress,” says Maria Gonzalez, the founder and president of Argonauta Strategic Alliances Consulting and the author of Mindful Leadership. “If there is a hardship at home, you bring that to the office and it gets layered with your professional stress and — if you’re not careful — it can spiral out of control.” How well you react to and manage daily stressors “impacts your relationships with other people, with yourself, and how others perceive you,” she says. Justin Menkes, a consultant at Spencer Stuart and the author of Better Under Pressure says it’s critical “to get a handle on your reaction to the stressful things that happen to you in the moment.” Here are some techniques to do just that.
Identify your stress signals
Train yourself to recognize “your physiological signs of stress,” says Gonzalez. Perhaps your neck stiffens, your stomach clenches, or your palms sweat. These are all the result of what’s happening inside your body. “The minute you start to experience stress, your pulse races, your heart beats faster and hormones [including cortisol and adrenaline] are released,” she says. “This compromises your immune system and your ability to experience relaxation.” When you’re able to recognize the signs — instead of ignoring them — you’ll be able to start addressing the underlying cause of the stress.
Don’t think of it as stress
“Most often the reason your blood pressure rises at work is because you’re being asked to do something important” by your boss or a colleague and you want to succeed, says Menkes. “The stress symptoms are telling you: This matters.” Shift your thinking about the task causing you distress and instead try to view it as “an opportunity to move forward that you want to take seriously,” he adds. The goal is to “use that adrenaline pop” to focus your nervous energy, “heighten your attention, and really apply yourself.”
Talk yourself down
When you’re stressed, the voice inside your head gets loud, screechy, and persistent. It tells you: “I’m so angry,” or “I’ll never be able to do this.” To keep this negative voice at bay, “try talking to yourself in a logical, calm tone and injecting some positivity” into your internal dialogue, says Gonzalez. “Say something like, ‘I have had an assignment like this in the past and I succeeded. I can handle this, too.’ Or, if you are faced with an unrealistic request, tell yourself: ‘I am going to calm down before I go back and tell my manager that completing this assignment in this amount of time is not possible.’”
Take three deep breaths
Deep breathing is another simple strategy for alleviating in-the-moment tension. “When you feel anxious, your breath starts to get shorter, shallower, and more irregular,” says Gonzalez. “Taking three big breaths while being conscious of your belly expanding and contracting ignites your parasympathetic nervous system, which induces a relaxation response.” You can do this while also lowering your shoulders, rotating your neck, or gently rolling your shoulders. Deep breathing also helps preempt stress symptoms if you need to, say, get on a tense conference call or deliver bad news in a performance review. “When your mind becomes crowded with negative thoughts, let deep breathing occupy your mental real estate,” says Gonzalez.
Enlist a friendly ear
You shouldn’t have to face nerve-wracking moments at the office alone. “Everyone needs to have somebody they trust who they can call on when they’re feeling under pressure,” says Menkes. “Select this person carefully: You want it to be somebody with whom you have a mutual connection and who, when you share your vulnerabilities, will respond in a thoughtful manner.” Sometimes venting your frustrations aloud allows you to regroup; at other times, it’s helpful to hear a new perspective. This kind of relationship takes time to build and requires nurturing, and it’s likely you will be asked to return the favor. “When you do, it’s incredibly gratifying to be on the other end.”