A New, Proven Approach for Dealing with Stress in the Modern Workplace

You have probably encountered situations where 2 people who have the same boss, same job, same abilities. But one person is completely stressed out while the other person is not. How is this possible?

It’s possible because the major factor that determines your stress levels is not what exists “out there” in the environment, but what is happening “in here” in your thinking.

Your boss is not stressful; your reaction to him/ her is.

To understand this, you first need to recognize the difference between pressure and stress. We talk about these things as if they are the same thing, but they’re not.

  • Pressure is the external demand in the environment. Everyone has pressure in their work and life: deadlines, projects, family demands. That is not stress.
  • Stress is what people do with that pressure in their minds. One factor above all others is the key driver of a person’s stress—rumination.

Rumination is the mental process of thinking over and over about something, which happened either in the past or could happen in the future, and attaching negative emotion to it. Ruminations about the future are associated with “what if this happens?’”or “what if that happens?”

Ruminations about the past replay, over and over, some awful experience you had and usually end with, “if only I had…” or “I should have done…”

People who ruminate a lot have chronically elevated levels of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, meaning they are constantly overactivated and on edge. Nonruminators may have plenty of pressure in their lives, but they aren’t stressed by it.

The good news is that once you understand stress is something you create, then you also start to see it is not inevitable.

You can learn to work in extremely high pressure situations and not feel stressed. In fact, you probably can recall times in your personal or professional life when you stayed calm and focused despite the high pressure of the situation.

Is planning for the future rumination?

Planning for the future, or reviewing the past without negative emotion, is what we call reflection. It is a positive and important thing to do. If we didn’t plan, we would not be able to function well or achieve very much.

The key questions, though, are: Do you consciously plan and then come back into the present, or is your planning really a series of rumination loops, worrying about upcoming events? That is the difference between reflection and rumination. Visually you might look at your thinking like this:

Infographic: Reflection or Rumination?

Does “good” stress motivate you to perform?

That is simply pressure. Some demand in your environment can help motivate you to perform. Just don’t let that demand turn into rumination. Sports psychologists know that picturing the bad outcomes you don’t want, such as striking out or missing the putt, puts you on a path to failure, not to peak performance. The same goes for leaders; be aware of the demands, but don’t ruminate on them.

So, Step 1 for reducing your stress and becoming more resilient is to recognize how much time you now spend ruminating about things that produce no useful outcomes. Once you realize this, you are ready for a new way of living and working. It’s called wakefulness.

Wake Up!

When daydreaming, you are off in your head thinking about some event in the past or future. We are all familiar with experiences like this because they happen to us every day. What we are less aware of is just how much of our day, or even our lives, is spent in this semiconscious state.

In this state, waking sleep, people are neither fully awake nor fully asleep. The person is in the room with you but unaware of what is going on. They may be able to communicate with you, but they are flashing back to their daydreams continually.

People spend as much as 70% of their daytime hours in this state. Why does this matter? Because this is the state in which all of your rumination, and therefore all of your stress, is generated.

If all rumination and stress is created in the state of waking sleep, the first step in getting out of it is simple—wake up!

The 4 Steps to Building Resilience

There are only 4 steps required to become less stressed and more resilient:

  1. Wake up (and stay awake)
  2. Control your attention
  3. Detach
  4. Let go

The 4 steps are simple to understand but take work to enact.

They take practice but soon start to pay off in unexpected ways. The steps have been tested in workplaces using controlled trials and shown to decrease stress and increase resilience. For many people, the steps start off as a way to decrease stress but lead to a better, more mindful way to live.

Whatever it is for you, I hope these words spark some sense of recognition within you to wake up.

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