Opening my eyes, still tucked in the cozy warm bed. The sun is coming through the window, invitingly calling me to get up. But I can’t notice it. I didn’t sleep well. My mind is rushing through things that must be done today. I get up, drink some water, wash and sit straight on the computer. Open the email and there are about 50 unread messages. Eagerly scanning through I find five down the list one with the subject of “URGENT” and read “What happened to the file? I thought everything was ready to print, but at the studio they are having issues?”. It agitates me as I didn’t expect to have those problems and didn’t plan time for that.
Few more emails down and a client is asking “How are you getting on?”, reality is I haven’t even touched the project. Suddenly I get a new email that the deadline for the self-assessment accounts submission is due soon. All the while three friends are writing on Facebook from the day before and I didn’t reply knowing I cannot fully direct my attention in the conversation to respond properly. None of this is what I had on my task list for the day. It’s morning and I am already buzzing with tension and stress.
Fast heart-rate, shallow breathing, stiff neck, sweatiness without exertion and overall tension. Once you get all this you know you have crossed the line into the land of unhealthy stress. Yes, that’s right there is a healthy type as well, but more on that later.
When we are over-stressed to the point where I call it “unhealthy”, everything we do starts to go backwards or at least to halt its progress. Focusing on tasks becomes difficult and there is an overall sense of lack of direction and orientation. It feels like we were hold a rope with a heavy load on the other side and have lost the rope which is now fast moving between our hands and it is impossible to stop it. Grumpiness overtakes our behaviour and we become more snappy for the tiniest of issues (like a drop of the tea has spilled and is running down the side of the cup – “OMG the world is going to an end, why is everything happening today”).
So how do you get stressed to that level?
Stress is the result of the equation between workload / time. There are some other factors that play in the game such as how much rest you get, how well you eat, loss, how happy you are, etc. But I am looking into the everyday work-life type of stress. The main way to control that is using that equation.
Simply, if you have workload that requires more time to complete it than you have time available, your stress levels rise. There comes a point where you completely loose any sense of how much time you have, how much workload is at hand and what is the most sensible thing to do next.
In those situations the best thing is to stop everything you do, step back and assess. Realise and accept that it is impossible to complete everything, or even if it is possible, you won’t aim to complete everything. Commit to complete three items from everything that is on you and define a time that is sensible to do it. Focus only on doing that and then get on with it while ignoring everything else.
This doesn’t work in every situation, but I have found it useful for times where I become headless because of stress. It is better to deal with part of the problems and reduce the load rather than try to tap into everything, complete nothing, waste a lot of energy and end the day with a greater level of frustration than in the beginning.
Stress doesn’t always lead to negative results. There is stress that we need in order to move forward. Think of stress as anything that is put under pressure, even physically. A good example is lifting weights. If you are sitting on a bench there is no stress on you. At the moment you lift 15kg there is stress added. Now if your normal level of strength allows you to lift 20kg comfortable, 15kg is not a very stressful load. Imagine adding 50kg though – suddenly you are overburden and things start to go downhill and become detrimental or even dangerous.
The same is with everyday work. If there is no stress we won’t have much reason to move or do anything to change our current state. Adding stress or in other words challenges, forces us to be proactive in overcoming those challenges. The problem comes when we overestimate our abilities or underestimate the challenge and we end up dealing with something that is too big of a bite.
The golden state is to constantly have a level of stress that you can overcome, it is challenging but not too much. So if we take the example with the weights again. Our comfortable weight being 20kg means that we can add 1kg and lift 21kg. By doing that we are going beyond our comfort to reach a new level, but are not crossing into the unhealthy stress zone.
Stress is necessary. It is part of life. Think of it as a tool or a skill to learn to manage. Add the right amount of stress and you are moving forward. Add too much and you begin to go backwards.
Stress can be managed with the right mindset and this is what it means to be able to work in stressful situations. It is a skill applied in survival and high risk jobs. You have to stay practical, reasonable and not let emotion take over. Learn to say “no” and focus on a few things that get you a small step forward. That is many times better than stopping or retreating.