“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another,” William James, American philosopher and psychologist, 1890. I wonder what James would think about today’s society and the mounting stresses we all face. Little stresses, like traffic jams (didn’t have those in 1890, unless maybe you were fighting for a spot to tie up your horse at the saloon); flight delays (first flight at Kitty Hawk was 13 years later!); low cellphone batteries, weak cell signal or no wifi (goes without saying). Medium-sized stresses, like job pressures, financial concerns, stresses of raising a family. Or big stresses, like death of a loved one, divorce, moving or job changes. And today, it seems like we’re inundated with a barrage of negative news and toxic noise: polarized politics, frequent mass shootings, growing volatility in the markets. We’re all getting worn thin, and it’s impacting our health, our careers, and our organizations.
In a March 3 Washington Post article (“How Daily Stress is Killing Us”), author Jennifer Breheny Wallace claims that the nonstop strains of everyday life add up… She cites psychologist Melanie Greenberg: “These [little] hassles can have a big impact on physical health and well-being, particularly when they accumulate and we don’t have time to recover from one problem before another hits us.” Sounds like most of my days, and probably yours too.
Wallace goes on to claim that chronic daily stress leads to increased blood pressure, which puts us at risk of heart disease. And stress raises certain hormones like cortisol, which impacts our immune system, creates chronic inflammation, which could lead to disease including cancer. Her claims are backed up by convincing research. Mayo Clinic states that stress can lead to headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, fatigue, and that over time, stress can lead to decreased work productivity, anxiety, anger, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. The American Institute of Stress (yes, there is such a thing) claims that stress is America’s Number 1 health problem – an epidemic that’s impacting our health, our families, our economy.
And it seems to be getting worse. The American Psychological Association researches and publishes an annual Stress in America survey. The most recent report (November 2017) indicates the US is at our highest stress level ever. Ever. Sources of the stress come from many factors: 63% cite the future of our nation, 62% say money, 61% say work, 57% mention the current political climate, and 51% state violence and crime. Nearly 60% said they consider this the lowest point in US history that they can remember, including those who lived through World War II, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and September 11. As far as I can tell, no one said traffic congestion or flight delays.
Ok – so we’re all stressed and it’s impacting our health, careers, and organizations. What can we do about it?
Wallace: “It’s not necessarily the exposure to continuous streams of minor stressors, but how we react that can take a toll.” She cites a 2016 study, in which researchers reviewed frequency and severity of stress and its impact on heart rate variability. Researchers found that it wasn’t the number of stressful events, but how a person perceived their stress and then reacted to it that was associated with a healthier heart rate. And I assert that how we react to stress can be managed, controlled, and practiced – it’s a process!
Here are several tips on managing stress, extracted from Wallace, Psychology Today, and the Mayo Clinic:
- Prevention – of course, the best way to manage stress is to prevent it. Best practices here won’t surprise you: healthy diet, plenty of sleep, exercise. Other techniques include meditation, prayer, yoga and stretching.
Limit exposure to stressors – this one probably is obvious too, but you can prevent stress by eliminating its triggers. If politics or the negativity in society is getting you down, limit time watching or listening to the news. If traffic congestion is stressing you, take a different (maybe a scenic) route or adjust your schedule to try to avoid traffic.
- Practice mindfulness – simply put, mindfulness is an attitude toward living that involves acceptance of whatever is happening in the present moment, self-awareness, compassion, and acting with forethought rather than reacting automatically. You can achieve mindfulness through meditation or other means.
Keep perspective – focus on the parts of your life over which you have control. You can’t control much about what’s going on in DC these days, but you can control how much you work, your relationships, your health and fitness, your community. Take care of the things you care most about – and over which you actually have meaningful control.
- Awareness and quick response – an early step in the process of managing stress is to recognize when you’re experiencing it. Notice the physical symptoms as early as you can – clinched fists, elevated pulse rate, or – my telltale sing – raised/tense shoulders. When you sense stress levels rising, leave the situation if you can – or at least take deep breaths and try to recompose yourself.
- Check your thoughts – the most powerful tool we have to control stress is our own brain – our views, perspectives, and thoughts. Two articles in Psychology Today (“8 Negative Attitudes of Chronically Unhappy People” and “3 Negative Thinking Patterns to Avoid – What To Do Instead”) offer several suggestions on how to manage chronic negative attitudes – those things that over time impact stress, health, happiness, and well-being. Some highlights:
- Eliminate self-defeating talk – get rid messages that reduce confidence, diminish performance, lower potential and self-esteem. Examples include “I can’t,” “I’m just not good enough,” or “I don’t have what it takes.” These messages often become a self-fulfilling prophecy, so you when you catch yourself in self-defeating thoughts, stop it!
- Stop negative assumptions – don’t immediate jump to the negative in every situation – try to see the glass as half full. A rainy day is an opportunity to clean your closet; traffic congestion is an opportunity to listen to two more chapters of your book on tape; a delayed flight gives you time to grab a cup of coffee and read the paper. It’s the way you choose to relate to your circumstances that makes an experience positive or negative. And it’s a choice.
- Don’t compare yourself to others – this is the “grass is always greener” phenomenon. Resist the urge to compare yourself to others (so-and-so makes more money, has a better car or house, is more attractive, is more successful). Research indicates that habitual negative social comparisons lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and making self-defeating choices. So don’t.
- Abolish negative rumination – we should learn from the past, but not get stuck in it! What has happened, has happened – we cannot change the past. But what is yet to happen can be shaped and influenced. If you find yourself ruminating, try to get unstuck – don’t dwell on the past, but focus on making better choices today and moving on to the future.
- Deal with difficult people – we all come across challenging people in our lives (narcissists, passive-aggressives, manipulators, control freaks, etc.), but resist the urge to believe they are the perpetrators and we are the victims. Preston Ni in his “8 Negative Attitudes” article suggests that the key is to shift from being reactive to proactive in dealing with difficult people.
- Give up the cynical hostility – if you find yourself usually distrusting people or seeing others as threats (they may cheat you, let you down, take advantage or deceive you), you run the risk of never having meaningful, trusting relationships. In general (and unless and until proven otherwise), assume positive intent.
- Avoid blame – sometimes it’s easy to hold others responsible for our own issues (it was how I was raised; I have socio-economic disadvantages; it’s my partner’s fault). Blaming perpetuates bitterness, resentment, and powerlessness – if you blame, you relinquish control and power.
- Forgive yourself – we all make mistakes. Choosing the wrong job or career; impulsively buying something expensive (that darn boat!); betraying someone’s trust. The key is to view the mistake as an isolated event, rather than a statement about who you are as a person. Mayo Clinic: “Forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes — and mistakes aren’t permanent reflections on you as a person. They’re isolated moments in time. Tell yourself, “I made a mistake, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”
- Remove the fear of failure – don’t try to be perfect; no one is. Always fearing failure puts a great deal of pressure on yourself, creating an unrealistic expectation of perfectionism. And it also impacts your willingness to take intelligent risks, so can lead to stagnation and complacency. Take chances; go for it; but maintain realistic expectations of yourself.
- Don’t overthink things – somewhat related to removing the fear of failure, some people (including yours truly) have the tendency to overthink things – going over and over different choices and scenarios in your mind, trying to imaging every possible outcome to increase the chances of making a good choice. There are always unknowns – no one can perfectly predict the future. So, while collecting data and making informed decisions is always a good idea, over-analyzing the situation takes the joy out of situations and can lead a person to get stuck (and stressed). Do the best you can, and move forward.
Stress is inevitable. We all experience it, and these days it seems that it’s more prevalent than ever. But dealing with stress is a process, and as with all processes, can be managed and improved. Use those 15 tips above to reduce stress, increase positivity and optimism, increase happiness, and improve your health and well-being.
By the way, the theme of this year’s PENworks 2018 conference is Positivity. Optimism. Excellence. Three of our keynote speakers will focus on systematic ways to be positive as leaders, be optimistic as professionals, and be excellence as organizations. They’ll share tools and methods that we all can learn, practice, and repeatedly use to remain positive, reduce stress, and improve our professional and personal effectiveness. Our teams depend on it; our organizations depend on it; our health depends on it! We’ll see you May 3-4 in the Twin Cities; early bird deadline this weekend. More information here.
What comments do you have regarding managing stress and remaining positive? Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment. And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!
Yours in Performance Excellence,
Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network
Catalyst for Success Since 1987!
Photo credit wellnesscoachingaustalia.com, huffingtonpost.com