Slow Down and Bust Stress Instantly!
Hands up if you’ve ever muttered (if things are merely bad), or screamed (if they’re downright dreadful), “Aaaagh – I’m so stressed!”
Stress (the non-medically diagnosed kind) is something that all working women can put their hands up to feeling when things just get a bit too much. So what triggers it – and, more importantly, what allows us to slow down and bust it?
We know it’s bad for us, but…
In survey after survey, stress is identified as the number one health concern in the Western world. More than 50% of adults in the U.S. report high stress on a daily basis. Danish research on stress in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that work stress increases heart disease risk more in younger women than in those in their 50s and 60s. Women who said their work pressures were a little too high were 25 per cent more likely to suffer heart disease than those who said their job was manageable. But those who said their work pressures were much too high were 35 per cent more likely to suffer.
Yet stress can be a love-hate relationship – whilst we don’t consciously want to feel stressed (let alone give ourselves heart disease), there can be unconscious benefits of stress, such as feeling important, feeling that you’re doing as much as you possibly can, or even enabling you bury your head in the sand about other uncomfortable aspects of your work or life.
And the “fight or flight” stress response is often what gives us the kick up the butt to get the job done (procrastination report crisis, anyone?) At appropriate levels, stress increases both efficiency and performance. But as Harvard’s Yerkes and Dodson have identified, this relationship doesn’t continue indefinitely. You don’t need the science to know that, once you’ve tipped over the stress edge, efficiency and performance decrease instead.
Know your stress triggers
Researchers define stress as “a physical, mental, or emotional response to events that causes bodily or mental tension”. Simply put, stress is any outside force or event that has an effect on your body or mind.
What has the greatest adverse effect on you? Getting familiar with your specific stress triggers will help you be best prepared to handle them, slow down and most able to eliminate or avoid them. Keep a stress diary for a week, and make a note of what causes your stress levels to rise and to fall. What patterns do you notice?
Using this information, or simply reflecting on the last few months, do a personal “Stress SWOT”:
• What are your Stress Strengths: what personal qualities can you draw on during stressful times; what do others say they admire about you; what support and resources do you have?
• What are your Stress Weaknesses: what are your bad habits that trigger stress; what are the festering situations where you are experiencing problems; where do you lack resource or support?
• What are your Stress Opportunities: how can you use your stress strengths more; what actions can you take to counter your stress weaknesses and slow down?
• What are your Stress Threats: what will happen if you don’t take steps to tackle stress better; what is stress costing you?
On-ramps and off-ramps to stress
Reversing the feelings that put you on the ramp to stress is what will take you off it again. When we break down that “Aaaagh, I’m so stressed!” feeling, there are both psychological and physiological elements.
Psychologically, there is a sense of despair, lack of clarity, overwhelm, hopelessness, fear of failure or letting yourself or others down. Physiologically, your heart beats faster, your muscles tense, your breathing becomes shallow.
To bust the stress, you therefore need to tackle both the “mindset” and the “bodyset” elements. This simple technique addresses both, and can take less than a minute to do.
An Instant Slow Down Stress-Busting Technique
When a stressful situation next kicks in, try this “A-B-C-D” technique – Air, Be, Critical, Delightful.
1. AIR – breathe!
Take the deepest, fullest breath you possibly can. Breathe right down into the bottom of your stomach, as if you are inflating a balloon inside your tummy. This moment of flooding your brain with oxygen will help you gain perspective. On the out-breath, drop your shoulders, unfurrow your brow, let go of the tension.
2. BE – how do I want to ‘be’?
You may be feeling powerless, but you retain the power to choose how you want to be in response to the stressful situation. Simply notice the words that come to mind as you ask yourself this question. Maybe you want to be calm, grounded, serene. Maybe you want to be challenging, powerful, bold. Maybe it’s honest, open, fair. Being conscious of the key qualities you actively want to bring to the situation puts the power back into your hands.
3. CRITICAL – what’s ‘critical’?
What is the most important thing at stake here? Maybe it goes beyond the obvious challenge that is presenting itself. Perhaps the most critical thing is maintaining an authentic and direct relationship with your boss. Perhaps there is one particular element of a project that is truly critical, and the rest you could let go. Tuning yourself back in to what outcome really matters most will lift you to a bigger picture view of the situation that puts your stress in context.
4. DELIGHTFUL – what would make it ‘delightful’?
What would make the situation easier, more pleasant or more bearable? If you could change something, what would it be? Maybe you’d ask for more help than normal; maybe you’d gather colleagues to brainstorm ideas; maybe you’d force yourself to take a break at lunchtime; maybe you’d tackle the work in a different location. Even ideas that initially seem unrealistic may have something in them that inspire you to tackle the situation in a slightly different, less burdensome way.
Much as we may say we want a stress-free life, most working women would die of boredom without at least a tinge of stress in their lives. Accept that you’ll never eliminate stress, and nor would you want to (even if it feels uncomfortable at the time). Focus instead on recovering as quickly as possible from stress surges using techniques like those discussed here.