A short-lived stressful event is often called acute stress and usually ends relatively quickly. But it is the stress that goes on over time that can be problematic. It can even affect our mental and physical health if it continues for long without enough recovery.
How do we know if we're stressed? There are a number of signs that indicate we may be experiencing too much stress for too long:
If we experience several of the issues above for a longer period of time, it may be a wise thing to take it as a trigger to start changing the way we work (and live).
Stressful situations at work now and then are – for most of us – unavoidable. But a stress problem is seldom one single thing, but many. It's often when several areas of life feel stressful, when there is no room for recovery, that we run into more severe problems. When we find ourselves in stressful periods, there are steps we can take to manage stress. Some may seem simple, but can be surprisingly effective.
Work smarter – not more
Adjusting (or clarifying) the demands and expectations is one way to cope with a stressful situation.
Rank priorities - adjust demands When we are stressed, it is often hard to know where to start. If we find ourselves incapable of getting going when the to do-list is long, one trick is to do a matrix with four quadrants:
Make the implicit explicit (and adjust some expectations)
The unspoken is often very stressful or even scary, the outspoken not as much – because we can deal better with the known than with the unknown. To make all expectations clear we need to ask both ourselves and others about what expectations there are. Others seldom expect us to be perfect but rather good enough.
In most projects or tasks there are three dimensions to consider:
Saying yes to requests of different kinds is a common pattern for many of us. It's nice to feel needed, other people tend to like a yes-sayer (and most of us want to be liked) and it feels good to be able to contribute. But in stressful times we are better off saying no, or at least ask for some time to think about it. Because when our plate is full, something else needs to go if we say yes to another thing. And that something is almost always our own time for recovery.
Saying no can be difficult, and sometimes it's hard to have one's no's respected. If that's the case, here are some pro tips:
Set smart goals
Good goals are SMART:
What is it that you want to achieve? Specific means that a goal should be specific enough to know when we've achieved it. Perform better at work, improving sleep, and doing better in school are all examples of non-specific goals. While keeping deadlines, sleep seven hours per night and raising my geography grade one notch are specific. We know when they are achieved.
The pro tip here is to set, or at least add-on, behavioral goals – goals that aim to increase or decrease an activity rather than the result of that activity. For the examples above the first one is already a behavior, while number two and three could be, start using a sleep routine and studying geography.
M for Measurable
How much and/or for how long should you be doing something? Measurable means setting up some sort of number to your goal. Like keeping three deadlines, introduce a ten-minute sleep routine and studying geography for two hours.
A for accepted
Accepted means that you, the owner of this particular goal, find it meaningful and important. If it's somebody else's wish behind it and not your own – it's not accepted.
R for realistic
Given where you are right now, is it possible to achieve what you aim to do within the available time frame (see below)? If there's only one week left before grades are set, it is not realistic to aim for a higher grade now. If you've been sleeping no more than five hours per night for some time, maybe it is not realistic to aim for sleeping seven hours within one week?
T for time framed
Smart goals have a timeline. When and how often will you do this? Like keeping three deadlines the coming two weeks, trying a ten-minute sleep routine for a week and studying geography for two hours every week.
Smart goals also have a time frame for evaluation: Try this for two weeks, evaluate and if needed, iterate.
Work in units
Working long hours may feel effective, but the opposite tends to be true. More hours do not equal more quality output. Instead, working in units – 45 minutes of focused work, then 15 minute break – may produce better results and actually reduce stress. The unit method involves setting a timer for 45 mins, interrupting your work right where you are, setting the timer for a 15 minute break, and repeat.
In order for units to work at their best, we need to be focused. That means we need to make sure we are not interrupted. So, no phone, no Facebook, no internet, no email, no doing the dishes, no cleaning, no chatting to colleagues. Just focus on one task for the entire unit.
Batch simpler tasks
Batching is a word borrowed from the printing industry, where one prints similar stuff – like business cards – together, before adjusting the machines to print for example books. When it comes to other work, batching means to collect a bunch of minor tasks – like answering emails – and do them in chunks instead of now and then as they easily interrupt high quality work.
Do one thing at a time
Multitasking may feel efficient – but in fact it is not. Try this:
For most of us there is a big difference, favoring doing one thing and then the other. The effort it takes for our brains to try to do two things at the same time is also often much higher – so it also makes us more tired.
Set clear boundaries
An added modern day stressor is the blurred barrier between work and personal life that has increased massively the last few years. Even though many of us enjoy the new opportunities of working from home, it is so easy to go down that slippery slope and start checking emails, taking a zoom meeting, writing some extra or reading up on something in the evening. The research on this is however very clear: we benefit from boundaries. When work hours are work hours, family hours are family hours and me-time is me-time. Work-life-balance may be a worn out expression, but a very valid one.
Take real breaks
A real break means to do something that's the opposite from working/stressing activity. Working in front of a computer? Break with movement and no screen time. Working with heavy lifting? Break with resting. Taking short breaks often is better than a single long break, for both brain and body.
Stress and stress-related problems are not a result of you and your actions only. Instead, increased levels of stress are a structural problem in our society. Some of these stressors we can affect, others are outside our control. Let's try an exercise.
Seeing this in front of us on a piece of paper can make it easier to see our stressors more objectively. And above all, help us to focus on what we can do instead of spending hours and hours dwelling on the things we can't. Some demands that are put on us are not likely to change. When we see this, we can shift our focus to what we can control.
Sometimes it is hard to leave thoughts about the workday behind after getting home. Or hard to wind down at home with piles of chores to do, children needing help or conflicts with partners or friends. Creating a personal toolbox can come in handy when times get rough.
Here's the simple routine to de-stress that 29k psychologist Jenny Rickardsson is using.
Stress may feel extreme or dangerous, but it is a natural part of our psychological and physiological makeup. Stress is necessary to motivate us and help us achieve things in life. It is when it gets too much for too long that it can be dangerous. Making time for recovery is key, and distinguishing between what's within our control and what's outside our control can help us handle the situation when things pile up. Lowering demands and expectations and/or increasing our resources are also important measures to take charge in a stressful situation.
And remember to now and then send a ray of gratitude to our mind and body for doing its fundamental work - keeping us alive.
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