It happens to everyone: your child is sick and you’ve been up all night. You have a deadline on your project. You may be a little cranky, so you had a fight with your spouse or significant other. Your boss expects you to work late, and your child has a Little League game.
If any of these sound familiar, you may really be on overload:
- You hear yourself saying, “I just don’t have time,” to your family and yourself. A lot.
- You wake up at 2:00 a.m. thinking of something you forgot at work. Now you can’t go back to sleep and you know you are going to be tired tomorrow—which adds to your stress.
- You’ve gained 5 pounds this week, because you’re reaching for your favorite comfort food. Yet you don’t have time to exercise.
- Your job/life is undergoing big changes. You have that anxiety from stress all the time.
As a recovering 24/7 recovering workaholic, I know first-hand how it feels. Stress is not a bad thing in itself, however. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, “stress can be defined as the brain’s response to any demand.” Any big change in our lives and demands on us that we feel are beyond our control can trigger this response.
Not all stress is bad. It’s served us well since we were running around killing our dinners, picking berries and living in caves (the “fight or fight” response). But in today’s hectic and noisy world, with more “noise” from constant connection all day and night, our bodies are overwhelmed from too much: too much work, too much social media—too much of everything.
Although changes can be positive or negative, real or perceived, how we handle them makes the difference in whether our lives work well and we get things done that are important, or makes us sick. According to The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey they do each year, “an extreme amount of stress can take a severe emotional toll.” While people can overcome minor episodes of stress by tapping into their body’s natural defenses to adapt to changing situations, excessive chronic stress, over an extended period of time, can be psychologically and physically debilitating.
Here are ways to really deal with stress:
1. Learn to delegate. Smart and/or hard-charging people often believe they are the only person who can do a job the way it should be done. Telling someone else exactly how, rather than setting expectations on what success would look like, takes just as much time. There’s no way employees get better because if they never practice, they never learn. When we set expectations and teach people how to manage a project and handle customers, and empower them to do so, we give ourselves more time and give them an opportunity to learn.
2. Plan tomorrow before you leave work today. Making a list of what must be done first thing tomorrow before you leave work gets that whirlwind of “What did I forget?” out of your mind and on to paper. Take time to prioritize the most important and critical things first, so your list won’t be overwhelming. Schedule your day around that instead of everything on your to-do list.
3. Learn to take “turtle steps.” If your list is overwhelming, break it down into smaller steps to work on, say for 15 minutes. Even accomplishing 15 minutes toward one of your important goals can help you feel you are making progress. As you break each task, try to delegate most of each task, and after all the detail work is done, put it together yourself at the end.
4. Get Outside. Excessive chronic stress, without downtime, can harm our health. And we likely won’t get downtime if we don’t schedule it. Even ten minutes a few times a day to walk outside, away from your desk, can make a big difference to our stress level, and help us accomplish more when we get back to the office. Introverts especially need it–it replenishes the energy we expend on the constant meetings and interactions with people.
5. Ask yourself: Is this mine? We often take on tasks that we decide are important, but they aren’t ours to do. I had a client who spent valuable energy and time worrying that his boss wasn’t getting project information to the next higher level in the company. When he realized that once he turned it over and ensured his boss understood the timeline, and let it go, he had much less stress. In another example, my neighbor stressed herself out worrying about what the other parents thought because she didn’t bring homemade cookies to the ball field when it was her time to do team snacks. When she finally realized that whatever they thought wasn’t her business, her stress level improved.
Stress can move us into new directions, and make us want to accomplish great things. But an excessive level, it can ruin our health and keep us from being effective leaders, of our organizations, families and communities.