Is Stress Crushing Your Career?
Stress is all around us, and work is a primary contributor. When we are stressed out at work, it becomes harder to focus and make any headway. Add in family, other relationships, managing finances, appointments, errands and vacation plans (if you even get to take one), and it all adds up to too much.
According to Dr. Isaac Eliaz, a trailblazer in integrative medicine since the 1980s, when you experience stress, your brain emits chemicals that cause adrenalin to be released. What happens when adrenalin shoots through your body? Your heart rate and blood pressure rise and your immune system weakens. If you are experiencing stress on a regular basis and don’t find techniques to manage it, you can be on your way to an ulcer, asthma, heart disease or even a stroke. I can personally attest to this.
Several years ago, I was drowning in stress. I was focused on ramping up my work/life coaching business, which included placing experienced professionals in top financial services roles, showing companies how to create positive work cultures and writing books and articles. I was also raising three children (one of whom is disabled), traveling frequently, scheduling kid’s activities, doing the shopping and shift cooking (based on who came home first and needed to eat right away). I resorted to having family dinners on Sundays only.
My heart was in a constant state of behind the eight ball. I couldn’t keep up. Laundry piled high while it waited for the weekend. Do you know that something as small as a missing sock can elicit stress?
I developed a heart condition that caused my heart to emit inconsistent electrical signals at 20,000 PVCs a day. Most people have about 50-100 and don’t even notice them. I was a frequent visitor to the local Emergency Room. “You are stressed,” my Stanford heart doctor told me. Yet to stay consistent with my keep-it-all-together approach to life, I denied it -- which created even more stress. My family called me Mary Poppins, which to me was not a compliment. How can anyone be practically perfect in every way?
I went through a personal shift, which included a successful heart surgery. After that, I was determined to adopt a new way of living. The core focus was to reduce stress in my life. I began to meditate, first for five minutes, then 10. Now I meditate for 15-20 minutes before I have my morning coffee. Breathe in and out, let thoughts enter and go, relax, appreciate the sounds of nature. Just breathe.
I scheduled walks outside during my workday and let go of worry if everything didn't get checked off my daily list. I got massages. I surrounded myself with positive, like-minded people. When negativity came into my space, I told myself that I was not responsible for the other person’s journey, only my own happiness. It helped me to listen with empathy, yet not absorb other people’s issues.
Over time, I took my new lifestyle philosophy to my clients. As a career and life coach, I have shared stress-reducing strategies with job seekers and corporate clients many times over and helped thousands of people find meaning in their work and life. Sometimes that means making a shift to alleviate the pressure.
An executive in Northern California I know well quit his 100-hour a week financial services job after having a heart attack in his mid-30s. He now works for a large corporation in business development and gets to spend time with his family. “I make a little less, but I leave at 5,” he says. “I can duck out early to see my kid’s sports games or plays. My stress is gone and life is balanced.”
What if you don’t want to make such a major shift as changing careers? The good news is there are many things you can do to help lower your stress levels, whether you are a leader or part of the team. Here are five:
1. Practice positive thinking.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the positive thinking that usually comes with optimism is a key part of effective stress management. Sometimes you must start small. This is a good day; I appreciate that my colleague brought me coffee; I noticed that my assistant was in an especially good mood today; I am looking forward to going for a walk during lunch. Make the self-talk as easy as possible. Soon enough you will be going with the flow of your day, regardless of what is thrown on your path.
You will shift your way around potential stress issues to a place of relief, contentment, and eventually, happiness. The more you direct positive thoughts to your well-being, as opposed to letting stress paralyze you, the easier it will be to reduce stress and allow happiness in at work and in your life. This approach will help you shift your attitude so that stress is not the dominant emotion.
2. Just breathe.
Breathing calms your mind, your heart and your stress levels. Being calm helps you focus and become more productive. When you are more productive, you can’t help but forget about stress and get into the flow state. The publisher’s overview of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow explains that during flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity and a total involvement with life. Have you been in this state? Stress just melts away. So take time to consciously breathe deeply to help you shrug off stress and get into the flow.
3. Go outside.
Communing with nature can do wonders for the soul. I can tell you this from personal experience, as this was a key part of my conscious shift to a life of wellbeing. But don’t take it from me. Stanford scientists studied the effects of being in nature, and they agree.
4. Get something fun on the calendar.
Having something fun to look forward to can get you through even the toughest workdays. When you are stressed, pull up a picture of where you are going -- a concert, a surf break, a trip to a country you’ve never been, a hike this weekend. You will soon forget about what’s causing you stress.
5. Play music while you work.
In an article in Psych Central, Jane Collingwood notes “the soothing power of music is well-established. It has a unique link to our emotions, so can be an extremely effective stress management tool.” She sites several studies to support the positive effects of music. So if your work environment is condusive to popping in earphones, do it. Play your favorite music and watch your mood rise along with your level of productivity. Just don’t sing too loudly!
There are also a number of strategies that I recommend specifically for managers and for employees to help them beat stress. I’ll explore those in future articles. In the meantime, try some of the tips above. Hopefully you will begin to feel the weight of stress lifting off your shoulders and experience a happier, more joyful outlook.