To reduce job stress, accept it rather than fight it

6/17/2024
 

How many times have you had that sinking feeling before a job interview, quarterly review or presentation to colleagues? Or those butterflies in your stomach before confronting the coworker who talks over you in meetings? When you feel that knot in your chest or pounding in your head, stress can seem like a cruel ghost that haunts you throughout a pressure-cooker workweek, lurking over your shoulder while you’re pitching ideas to your team or stretching your dollars to make ends meet.

The Perspective Less Taken
If you’re like most people, you might think of stress as an enemy infiltrator, fighting against it, ignoring it or trying to stampede over it. Unfortunately, the mental health profession hasn’t always helped in this capacity, in some cases giving misleading advice over the years. Some providers used to (and perhaps still do) recommend combating, fighting or battling stress—which is the worst action you can take. That frame of mind activates the sympathetic nervous system (your fight-or-flight response), adding another layer of anxiety. Plus, it’s exhausting, and it doesn’t work.

Consider someone caught in a riptide. The life saving phrase “Float Don’t fight” was created to help swimmers survive rip currents. Fighting exhausts you and eventually takes you down. Floating parallel to the shore—going with the flow—brings you into dry land. Modern neuroscience has discovered that a similar course of action, although counterintuitive, is a beginning point to reduce stress— going with it, instead of against it. In other words, instead of getting angry or frustrated or fighting stress, start to understand that stress is your friend, not your enemy. This perspective less taken of befriending your job stress is the best medicine to manage and reduce it.

Stress Is Your Friend, Not Your Enemy
Not long ago, stress might’ve felt like a death sentence. Not anymore. If you’re stressed out, it’s not the end of the road, and you’re not alone. Everyone has stress, and it’s not all bad. In fact, eustress is the name for stress that motivates us, makes us feel alive and thrive as we meet life’s challenges. It helped Simone Biles compete in the Olympics, the Kansas City Chiefs win the Superbowl and Meryl Streep snag her string of Oscars.

The human brain is hard-wired to constantly be on the lookout for threats so we can survive. When besieged by a threat, stress kicks in to keep us safe and protect us from dangerous situations. It is programmed to overestimate threats and underestimate our ability to handle them—even though it’s trying to keep us on course, protect and get us to do the right thing so we are accepted by the tribe—or in modern-day terms, the work team. It kicks into red alert to shield us from exposing ourselves to ridicule or embarrassment in front of our colleagues when we pitch an idea or give an opinion.

Think about it. If stress didn’t keep you on your toes, you might not be as successful in your job. Your intimate and professional relationships could crumble. Plus, you would be more susceptible to danger, and your life could fall apart. When you don’t listen, stress will grab your attention and sternly speak to you in the only way it can—through headaches, indigestion, muscle spasms, body aches and pains, clenched teeth or knots in your chest. It’s trying to keep you alert and aware. Resisting stress is like fighting the fire department when your house is on fire.

Not to mention that without stress, you wouldn’t have as much fun. It gives you that thrill when you watch a suspenseful movie or root for your favorite Superbowl team. It provides excitement when you’re on a roller coaster, bungee jumping, going on safari, your first prom, getting married, buying your first house, delivering your firstborn, going through the haunted house at Halloween. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Stress has gotten a bum rap.

Flip Your Perspective Instead of Your Lid
When job stress comes knocking (and it will), your greatest power is the ability to flip your perspective instead of your lid. Kayakers claim the best way to escape when you’re trapped in a hydraulic—a turbulent funnel-shaped current—is to relax, and it will spit you out. But the tendency is to fight against the current, and that can keep you stuck, even drown you. Similarly, when it feels like stress has us stuck, the way out is to remember that its function is to shield us. You can learn to watch it with curiosity and welcome the torrent of stressful thoughts when they overtake you, much like you would observe a blemish on your hand. Let the stressful thoughts come and go, notice they are doing their natural job of protecting you. Try not to personalize or react to them, and eventually they float away.

Babe Ruth applied this skill to become arguably one of the greatest baseball players in history. When he struck out, instead of slinging the bat or attacking himself, he practiced the belief that, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” You can translate Ruth’s wisdom into managing career stressors by reminding yourself that, “Every stressor brings you closer to your next success,” that is if you don’t give up or attack yourself and can learn to keep slugging away.

This bird’s-eye, wider perspective is essential for stress reduction and career success. Next time you have lingering stress from a job letdown or frustration, step back and bring up the bigger picture. Affirm your “tallcomings” (your talents and capabilities that offset your shortcomings). Recall past career successes and why you’re in this job in the first place. Known by scientists as the broaden-and build effect, this skill expands your world view so you can take in more possibilities, galvanize more ideas and take actions that add to your stress prevention toolbox.

But the number one top skill to reduce your stress is to step back, take a breath and remind yourself that stress is your ally, your protector, your support system. This change in your perspective is all you need to cultivate more calm and clarity to approach any stressful work situation with ease and confidence.

 

Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.
I am the author of 40 nonfiction books, including Chained to the Desk in a Hybrid World (New York University Press, 2023) and #Chill: Turn Off Your Job And Turn On Your Life (William Morrow, 2019). My books have been translated into 15 languages, and I co-host the podcast, How's That Working for Ya? The Shrink and Ms. Smarty Pants on YouTube, ITunes and Spotify. I am Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where I conducted the first studies on children of workaholics and the effects of work addiction on marriage. I built my career on the themes of resilience and work-life balance and have lectured throughout the world on work addiction and workplace issues. My research was featured on 20/20, Good Morning America, ABC’s World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, NBC Universal, The CBS Early Show, CNBC’s The Big Idea and NPR's Marketplace. I hosted the PBS documentary, Overdoing It: How to Slow Down and Take Care of Yourself. I maintain a private psychotherapy practice in Asheville, NC and reside in the Blue Ridge Mountains with my spouse, three dogs and occasional bears at night. Check out my website: bryanrobinsonphd.com.

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