Work Stress: 5 Tension-Busting Tricks From Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

5 Tricks From Cognitive Behavioral Therapy To Reduce Stress At Work
frame made of hands at wheat...
frame made of hands at wheat...

If you're stressed at work on a daily basis, you're not alone: job-related stress in America is on the rise, with more than eight in 10 US workers saying that their jobs are stressing them out. Our unsustainable definition of success has created a culture of burnout, and it's taking a toll on our well-being, creativity, productivity and corporate bottom lines.

And when it comes to getting through each workday with less stress, changing the way we work may begin with changing the way we think about work. Reframing our perspective can play a significant roll in reducing tension and anxiety, according to Dr. Frank Ghinassi, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Our emotions start with our interpretation of events," Ghinassi told the Huffington Post. "It’s not so much the facts that drive what we feel, it’s what we think about. It’s the cognitive interpretations we make about the events of our lives that ends up driving how we feel.”

Simple practices derived from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help. Unlike some other forms of therapy, CBT -- an effective type of treatment for depression and anxiety disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health -- focuses on a patient's thoughts and beliefs, rather than her actions.

If you're experiencing stress at work, try these five CBT-inspired strategies to bring new perspective to your day and reduce the tension, negativity, self-criticism that can keep you from doing your best and most fulfilling work.

1. Prioritizing & Letting Go

When daily tasks begin to pile up, our stress levels rise to meet the increasing demands. Pausing to prioritize these tasks and let go of those that are less important can be a powerful way of reducing stress, says Ghinassi.

“For many of us at work, we buy into the illusion that we are capable of doing all of the things that are asked of us in exactly the time frame we’re being asked," says Ghinassi. "The first step is to reassess, cognitively, what our capacity is.”

To start, create a list of the 10-15 things that you need to accomplish that day, and rate how critical each task is. Three or four of the tasks will probably be absolutely crucial, and at least four or five will be comparatively unimportant. Then comes the letting go part: Accept that those few items at the bottom of the list are not only unlikely to ever be completed in the course of the day, but the truth of the matter is, they may not need to be done at all. Cross those items off the list and focus your attention on the most important matters.

2. Building An Oasis

When you feel your attention wandering and your mind getting caught up in loops of worries and stressful thoughts,
stepping away from your desk can help you center yourself and regain your focus.

Ghinassi advises taking a quick break to "reset" yourself whenever you start feeling stressed, whether twice a day or as often as every 45 minutes. Try finding a quiet conference room, outdoor space, break room or stairwell where you can be alone and engage in one to four minutes of a calming exercise -- deep breathing, visualizing positive imagery, or listening to soothing music. (If you're not sure where to start, try choosing from one of these breathing exercises.)

3. Using Probability

The project is going to flop. My boss is going to kill me. I'm going to get fired. I won't be able to support my family.

Nearly all of us have been guilty, one time or another, of "catastrophizing" -- a type of thinking in which every perceived slip-up or failure leads to our downfall. In addition to stressing us out, this type of black-and-white thinking (either things will work out as we want them to, or everything will go horribly wrong) can lead to a sense of impending doom that probably isn't justified by the actual situation.

To keep these destructive thoughts at bay, Ghinassi suggests introducing probability into your thinking. When your mind starts spinning apocalyptic outcomes, ask yourself, “What’s the probability of something truly bad happening here?" In most cases, the probability will be very low. Then, once you've assessed the actual likelihood of a terrible outcome, ask yourself, “If there’s a one in 10 chance of the worst-case scenario happening, am I going to waste 30 minutes worrying about it? What do I feel that low-probability event deserves?"

When you frame it this way, Ghinassi explains, catastrophic thinking turns from a compulsion into a conscious choice. You have every right to worry about the situation for as long as you want, but the question becomes, is this the way you want to spend your time?

4. Mood Monitoring

This simple CBT exercise is an effective way to recognize and challenge negative thought patterns.

Gather a pen and piece of paper, and allot yourself exactly two minutes. During that time, make three columns on the paper. In the first, write down the stressful or upsetting event (“Monday at 2 pm: presentation to board members"). In the second, write down the feelings you're experiencing in single words (unprepared, anxious) and rate them between 1 and 100, with 100 being completely overwhelming. In the third column, spend the rest of the two minutes writing every thought that's going through your head.

Then fold the paper in half, and don't look at it again until 24 hours have passed. Once you've gotten out of that emotional headspace and have some distance from the situation, look back at what you wrote.

“I guarantee you that what you’re going to see are a lot of distorted, inaccurate, black-and-white, catastrophic thoughts," says Ghinassi. "We ask you to underline those and challenge them.”

The idea here is to recognize themes that come up again and again, to challenge the thoughts and words you use to describe stress-inducing situations, and to calibrate your emotional reactions to them.

5. Cognitive Flip

When you feel out of control in a situation, curb your stress levels by reminding yourself of what you can control. Ask yourself what concrete actions, small or large, you can take to improve a particular situation -- even if you feel powerless, you can always control at least your own reactions. Focusing on what's within your power will remind you that you do have the ability to shape your own outcomes.

What are your tips for reducing stress at work? Share your thoughts in the comments or tweet @HealthyLiving.

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