“I'm just so stressed!” “I’m under so much pressure right now!” “I wish I could relax, but my life is too full of stress!”
If only we had ten dollars for every time we've uttered that phrase, or heard someone else say it, we could all probably afford to retire from our jobs and live out our lives in a relaxed, happy, stress-free state.
Unfortunately, life in the 21st century, particularly our working lives, can quite literally make us ill. The stress we so often feel from the pressures of our increasingly demanding work culture is now widely accepted as being one of the largest and most pressing challenges to the mental and physical health of working Americans today.
The causes of this stress are many; uncertainties surrounding modern job security; the unrelenting demands so often made by bosses; the lengthy working day which increasingly impinges on our leisure time, thanks (or rather, no thanks) to mobile technology. All of this takes a toll on both our mental and our physical well-being.
With no federal law at present entitling workers to guaranteed paid sick days, parental leave or vacation time, Americans often find themselves working far harder and longer than most citizens of other countries. Just check out the headlines that pop up in a rash on social media around summertime, such as this one by Forbes Magazine: "Workplace Stress Responsible For Up To $190B In Annual U.S. Healthcare Costs".
What is Stress?
Stress is your body's physical and mental response to any kind of threat or excessive demand, whether real or merely perceived. When you feel personally threatened or overwhelmed, your nervous system reacts by flooding your body with stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which are intended to rouse the body in preparation for taking emergency action - the so-called "fight or flight" response.
Once the demand or the threat has passed, your stress hormones should return to normal. If, however, you continually find yourself in stressful situations, these hormones will remain in your body in floods, leading to the physical symptoms of stress. These symptoms can range from high levels of anxiety and physical aches and pains, to more serious consequences, such as high blood pressure, chest pain, heart disease, stroke, insomnia, addiction and even mental illness.
The typical day of the modern American seems designed to bombard you with stressors; from a 6am start to a screeching alarm clock; to the rush to get the kids ready for school in time to beat rush-hour traffic; to sitting in that bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic; to the feeling of dread as you open your work email and find 19 messages awaiting your attention (at least three of which are from your boss and marked, ‘URGENT’); then there’s that unwanted 8:30am meeting you’re forced to sit through before having the chance to attend to those urgent emails (or indeed, to use the restroom); and so on, and so on.
The stress never stops for the average working American, and it’s no wonder that so many of us collapse, exhausted, in front of the TV each night, still in our work clothes and TV dinner in hand, before staggering to the shower and collapsing into bed, only to start the whole stressful cycle over again the next day.
What can we do to manage this inescapable stress better?
What Can I do to Avoid the Effects of Stress?
By remembering and practicing these four "A's" of stress management, you may be able to re-balance your life more effectively - both professionally and personally - and thus reduce the effects of stress.
The First ‘A’ - AVOID
Avoid unnecessary stress. The important word here is "unnecessary". Not all stress can be avoided, and it's actually not healthy to avoid situations which genuinely need to be addressed. You may be surprised, however, by the amount of stressors in your life which you can reduce or eliminate by using the following tips:
• Learn to say NO. It is important to learn what your limits are and stick to them. Whether in your personal or your professional life, don't accept the imposition of unlimited additional responsibilities. Recognize and acknowledge when you have enough on your plate - taking on more than you can handle is a sure-fire recipe for stress.
• As far as possible, avoid people who stress you out. If someone consistently causes stress in your life, limit the amount of time you spend with that person or make a plan to cut them out of your life altogether (if humanly possible). This is less easy with working relationships than in your personal life, but often adjustments can be made at work - for example, by changing desks with another colleague; asking to be moved to a different team, room or even physical location; using email rather than face-to-face contact to limit the potential for drama.
• If you find certain topics upsetting, remove them from your conversation list. If a particular subject repeatedly leads to disagreement with the same person, either excuse yourself when it comes under discussion or avoid bringing it up altogether.
• Take control of your physical environment as much as you can. If the traffic on the way to work causes you tension, take a longer but quieter route, even if it means leaving home earlier. Use traffic apps like ‘Waze’ to help you plan less congested and more scenic routes.
• Resist the temptation to check work emails or make work-related calls from home. Ask your boss if you can have a company cellphone to use exclusively for work-related matters, which you can switch off in the evenings and at weekends.
The Second ‘A’ – ALTER
Alter your situation. If you can't avoid a stressful situation, analyse what happened before or what may happen in future, and try to change the way it plays out. Work out what you can do to change things so the problem doesn't occur again in the future. This may involve changing the way you communicate and how you deal with things on an everyday basis.
• Express your feelings and worries instead of bottling them up. If someone or something is bothering you and making you feel stressed, communicate your concerns. It may be that the person who is causing your stress doesn't realize it, so a tactful word may be all that is needed. If you don't voice your feelings, it's all too easy for stress-inducing resentment to build up, harming you in the process.
• Be willing to compromise. This one is especially important when personal relationships are concerned. If you are asking someone to change their behaviour, be prepared to do the same in exchange. If you are both willing to be flexible, there is more chance of finding a middle ground which is acceptable to you both.
• Learn to manage your time effectively. It's hard to remain calm and focused if you've over-extended yourself, made yourself late (again) or not planned ahead for a trip properly. Poor time management skills are a major cause of stress, so make sure you manage your time by allocating enough time for each and every task.
• Be assertive! Deal with problems as soon as they occur. Don’t put things off waiting for ‘the Right Time’ (it never comes). Don't scribble down grievances with the intention of writing the perpetrator a stern email - emails are less effective than an in-person chat, and may be misconstrued or lead to an exhausting email battle. If, for example, a colleague makes a habit of gossiping to you as soon as you arrive for work and you'd rather decompress in silence after your commute, don't hesitate to tell them that you need a few minutes to yourself each morning but you will stop by to catch up later. You can always arrange to meet later to listen to whatever it is they want to say.
The Third ‘A’ – ADAPT
Adapt to the stressor. If you cannot avoid or alter whatever is making you stressed, try to adapt your attitude or your actions.
• Reframe the problem. If, for example, driving in slow-moving rush-hour traffic is completely unavoidable, take advantage of the inevitable delays to listen to CDs of music you enjoy, catch up on your favorite author’s latest works via an audiobook, or to learn a new language.
• If the various tasks involved in completing a project are causing you stress, take time to visualize the final result towards which each task is leading. Don't see them as individual problems but as small steps on the road to success, in the same way that a climber views each handhold and foothold as a means of achieving the summit. In other words, keep the bigger picture in mind at all times.
• Prioritize. Analyze your schedule and your individual tasks, both in work and at home. If you've got too much on your plate, make a distinction between what you ‘should’ do and what you ‘must’ do. For example, if when you get home you feel you have no time to relax as you have so much cleaning to do, try to prioritize relaxation time over laundry. Learn to learn the hamper full for a day or two in order to get some ‘me’ time in, walking in the park, watching your favorite movie with your Significant Other; whatever you feel like you’ve been missing out on.
• Demote tasks which aren't absolutely essential - put them at the bottom of the list or, if possible, eliminate them altogether. Brainstorm ways that it would be possible – in an ideal world – to eliminate your most hated or stressful chores, then figure out how to work towards that goal. Maybe you get your partner to take the laundry to Fluff’n’Fold one day a week in exchange for a nice meal out at his favorite restaurant. Perhaps you could use services like Rover.com to do away with the need to take Spot on his nightly walk. Bribe the neighbor’s teen to wash your car at home each week to eliminate the time-consuming trip to the car wash.
• They say that time equals money, but time is far more precious. If you don’t have the cash to splash out on any of the above, think of what you could sacrifice to save money in order to claw back some of your own hard-earned free time. For instance: buy a Thermos flask and make your own morning coffee at home instead of paying $5 a cup at Starbucks (and waiting in that long Startbucks line). Switch to a cheaper phone or internet provider. Cut down or eliminate your cable subscription. Where there’s a will… you know the rest.
• Don't obsess over perfection, which merely sets you up for failure. Be prepared to adjust your standards so that you feel happy with doing your work competently and to an acceptable level, and be willing for others to do the same.
The Fourth ‘A’ – ACCEPT
Accept what you cannot change. There are many things in life which are beyond our control, which is where avoidance may be our only realistic option.
• For instance, we often waste time regretting something which has already happened, such as a mistake we have made in the past. In situations like this it is vital to accept that the past cannot be changed, no matter how much we wish it could be so. We must try to accept that we have made this error, and to try and learn what we can from it. Making a relationship mistake or messing up at work could be seen as having succeeded in discovering the wrong way in which to do something. It's all a matter of perspective, after all.
• If you find an unavoidable task difficult, or if you are unclear about what you have to do, never be afraid to say so. It is far better to state that you need a task to be clarified rather than risk doing it incorrectly. It could be seen as an admirable trait to have the humility and honesty to admit to your shortcomings.
• Accept that a limited amount of stress is inevitable in your daily life. Bills will always need paying, tasks you find challenging are bound to crop up from time to time, and of course your car will always wind up with a flat tire that one day when you’re already late for work. Try to accept that although these road bumps may come up on your path, you have far more control over each and every situation than you might think.
• Above all, focus on viewing major challenges not as problems to be overcome, but as opportunities for personal and professional growth.
You - and Only You - Can Control Your Life
Managing stress is all about taking charge - of your thoughts, your emotions, your work schedule, your personal relationships, your environment, and your attitude to the problems which you will inevitably encounter in your life. The ultimate goal in your life is to have enough time for work, for relaxation, for relationships and for fun, combined with the resilience to hold up under pressure and to meet challenges head on - in other words, to live a fulfilled and balanced life.
As the psychologist and philosopher William James once said: "The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another."