Stress is a myth. According to Al Siebert, the widespread belief that jobs generate harmful stress is an "artificial consensus" reality, fed by the tidal wave of books, articles, movies, shows, anecdotes and workshops that amplify work-related pressures. The intention is good, but as the adage goes, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions,"--and for those of you who feel afflicted by stress, I'm sure you will agree that 'hell' is a fine synonym.
In this article I explore some strategies to cope with stress (external) and reduce strain (internal), in addition to highlighting the importance of focus for managing the two and learning new things about ourselves in the process.
A Simple Plan for a Complex Problem
Sometimes we are caught in the midst of strong emotions and we get tunnel vision. We are unable to stop, ask ourselves questions, and reassess our position. Being prepared with strategic questions beforehand can make that process easier when emotions flare.
Make a list of six or seven things that you feel irritated, upset, or distressed about. For each one, ask yourself the following questions:
• What pressures am I feeling?
• How are my work and my life different than they were a year ago?
• What is difficult for me now, and what difficulties am I expecting?
• What feels distressing to me?
The key is to take your time with each question and to be thorough. Descriptive phrases work best: show then tell. Once you've done that, write about your general feeling regarding what you wrote down.
It is important to remember that you can't make feelings go away by sheer will power, but you can move through them, recast them, reinterpret them, and modify your reactions to them. The feelings are not the enemies so don't chastise yourself for having them.
Create Balance with Positivity
Going through the process of charting the negative factors in our lives can be draining and often cloud of purview. That's why it's equally as important to do the same as above for all the positives in your life.
Think back and make a list of the positive activities that invigorate and revitalize you. Then, ask yourself the following questions:
• What do I have fun doing?
• What do I get enthusiastic about?
• What would I like to do that I keep putting off?
• Who do I enjoy sharing good experiences with?
• When do I sleep best at night?
• What positive aspects of my life am I ignoring?
Armed with these two lists, you are in a crucial position to make decisions about how to remove stress, reduce strain, increase the energy-increasing activities in your life, and find more moments of pleasure throughout the day.
Hatch a Plan
Research from University of Chicago professor Salvatore Maddi, conducted in the 1970s, suggests that there are three qualities that increased resilience and job satisfaction among managers at AT&T.
The first was emotional commitment. They felt responsible to the people they led and wanted to help them succeed.
The second was the belief that they could influence outcomes. They would determine specific goals, devise plan, make lists, and decide what steps should be taken to attain said goals.
The third was a desire to problem solve. They were energized by challenges and enjoyed seeking alternatives to resolve issues that arose.
You can apply this three-step approach to any of the negative instances you detailed in the first list. The positive list can supplement this process. You can intersperse activities that grant you pleasure, relief, or vitality.
Some Pro-tips for Personal Care
To some, especially males, this all may sound silly or effeminate. Talking about feelings? Listing the reasons I am strained or what stresses me? Maybe you believe the best method is to pile-drive through the hard times. That approach is bound to fail, and the reason is that it forces you to suppress your daily experience under a mountain of will that is actually rubble, which can easily be shaken to dust. In other words, you'll lose control and when that happens, you'll wish you had dealt with your stress and strain earlier.
Here are my pro-tips for personal care:
• Awareness. The process of creating these lists and hatching a plan will generate awareness. You may learn new things about yourself; about why you think the way you do; and about how it affects the people around you.
• Mind-Body Connection. The distinction between mind and body is completely arbitrary. It's mainly a matter of perception. Indeed our minds and our bodies are inextricably linked, and in constant communication. Learning to interpret your bodily responses as communications from the mind and mental states as informed by your body allows you to view yourself more holistically.
• Social Support. Relying on others can be difficult, embarrassing, and awkward, but that's normal, especially when you are unaccustomed to open communication. Finding confidants and people whose advice and input you respect can help you gain new insights and feel supported, which can mollify strain and stress.
Please take these suggestions seriously. People who ignore their emotions, refuse to communicate, and opt for the bulldozer approach tend to be more fragile than those who listen to themselves, ask for support, and accept their weaknesses.
And the fact is that pressure from work, family, responsibilities, is not easy to manage. It may appear that some people are immune to strain from external pressures, but that's a misperception. The difference is that some people have better strategies to cope. Now you have one too!
The Secret Ingredient
All of this is nearly impossible to accomplish without focus. From the get-go, you must make a clear decision to center your mind on the task of finding alternatives, devising a plan, and staying the course.
It's important to note that focus is not the same as concentration. Focus conjures up something deeper than concentration, and that's strength. According to our dictionary definition, strength is "an extremely valuable or useful ability, asset, or quality." Strength subsumes our learned skills and innate talents, which means they operate both intuitively and deliberately. However, to activate our strengths, we must focus, such that the strengths get channeled into what we are doing.
In the context of managing pressure, strain, and stress, focus is necessary because it summons the best of yourself, and lets you to glean alternatives you wouldn't have otherwise. When faced with adversity, this kind of focus bring you closer to a resolution.
Focus on Finding Yourself
Ultimately this post is about finding yourself. I don't mean that in a transcendental or spiritual way, but rather in a lived and practical sense.
When you take the time to focus on what surrounds you, how you feel about it, why you react to it the way you do, and the steps you can take to remedy inefficiencies, pain-points, and stress, then you will be in a better position to control outcomes and direct the course of your life.
About the Author
Anurag Harsh wears many hats. He is an entrepreneur, a public company executive, a digital guru, a blogger, a McGraw-Hill published author, an angel investor, and a classical musician who has performed two sold out solo concerts at Carnegie Hall. Follow him on Twitter.