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resilient to stress

Strategy

How to get out of your head when stressed

Published 15 August 2022 in Strategy • 7 min read

Focusing on fostering connections, completing something difficult and helping others can make us more resilient to everyday stress, says Dr Samantha Boardman.

The day started badly: you spilt coffee on your favorite shirt, you missed your train, and when you finally arrived at the office you opened your inbox to find a rude email from a colleague. By the time you finish work, you are so worn down by the unrelenting barrage of daily hassles that all you want to do is curl up on the couch and watch Netflix with a glass of wine. 

Sound familiar? Often when faced with stress, our kneejerk reaction is to retreat into our own cocoon and to seek out passive activities.  

While this energy-saving behavior might make us feel better in the short-term, withdrawing from active participation with the world can be counterproductive if we want to learn to better cope with stress. Instead, we should be seeking out activities that can boost our emotional stamina and actively engaging with what might be stressing us out. 

In my book Everyday Vitality: Turning Stress into Strength, I argue that the three main wellsprings of vitality are all outer-orientated:  

  • Meaningfully connecting with others 
  • Engaging in experiences that challenge you 
  • Contributing to something beyond yourself 

Modern society puts a lot of attention into self-care. We are told that happiness is in our heads, or can be found by going off on a three-month silent retreat or spending a day at the spa. But these activities may make you feel more devitalized in the long run. By disengaging from the world, we miss out on the rewards that can come from fostering connections with others, completing something difficult or contributing within our communities. 

To try to override our built-in tendency to retreat, here are some practices to help build resilience to  everyday stress: 

Get curious about stress 

We live in a society that heaps pressure on individuals to be happy all the time, and to avoid stress at all costs. Stress, we are warned, causes depression and disease, will prematurely age us and even make us die earlier. Yet some stress can be beneficial for our brains. The term ‘cognitive wobble’ is used to describe the sense of uncertainty when you are being stretched, challenged and learning new things. 

Rather than trying to shut down stress, getting curious about what triggers it can help us learn to handle negative emotions better the next time they rear their head. After all, it’s not necessarily stress itself that is bad for us, but how we perceive it. A study of 30,000 Americans by the University of Wisconsin found that people exposed to large amounts of stress, and who viewed stress as harmful, had a higher risk of dying than those who viewed stress as a helpful response. 

If you find yourself feeling frazzled, ask yourself what might have triggered this response? Keep a diary of your daily stressors to create a record to learn from. How did you handle that stress? What steps can you take to deal with it better next time? 

Create a ‘bad day backup plan’ 

Given that daily micro-aggressors are unavoidable, pay attention to the small actions you can take to prevent stress from derailing your day.  

When we sleep badly, binge on unhealthy foods and forget to make time to move our bodies, we are more likely to perceive stress in a negative way. If you are feeling overwhelmed, taking the stairs or doing a lap around the block can shift your mood.  

The three main wellsprings of vitality are all outer-orientated
We should be seeking out activities that can boost our emotional stamina and actively engaging with what might be stressing us out.

Ask colleagues how they handle stress. Some people might go and sit in their car and listen to heavy metal music. Is there a certain song you can play to help lighten your mood when feeling irritable? 

Try to avoid replaying events over and over again with co-workers. By stewing over a stressful day in the office together, you end up reliving it rather than finding ways to move on. 

Practice self-distancing 

One way to stop yourself from falling into the rumination trap is to practice self-distancing. Take a step back from your emotions and ask yourself, how would I describe this one month from now? This can help to create clarity and perspective. 

Alternatively, imagine what advice you might give a friend if they were in your situation. It turns out we’re often really good at giving advice to others but terrible at following it ourselves. This is known in psychology as Solomon’s Paradox. King Solomon was excellent at dispensing advice to his subjects, but his own personal life was a bit of a train wreck. 

By adopting an “other orientation” and considering how someone you admire might handle a similar situation, you can pull yourself out of the self-immersion that may cloud your judgment.  

Seek out micro moments of connection  

As executives climb the corporate ladder and graduate into a corner office, they may find themselves missing out on the kind of daily interactions with colleagues that help us feel connected. As the saying goes, it’s lonely at the top. 

In this scenario, it’s important to be deliberate about fostering connection. This can be as simple as taking the time to express appreciation for a job well done. Showing gratitude not only makes others feel better about themselves, but can improve your own mental health by blocking toxic emotions such as envy, resentment and regret. 

For managers, it helps to set aside times when you are approachable. Have an open lunch once a week; arrange check-ins with team members at regular intervals; step outside the office and walk down the corridor without your phone. Body language can be powerful, and if you are hunched over your devices you are limiting the opportunities for spontaneous connection. When you are in a more social environment, such as the elevator or cafeteria, look up, look out and engage. 

Be deliberate about making time for hobbies 

Other casualties of stress are hobbies. People often paradoxically think that if they work for another hour, they will solve a problem. But taking some time away to focus on something else – be it a physical activity or spending time with a partner or friend – can give you renewed energy and ideas when you return to your work. It’s very rare that people get that ‘aha’ moment when sitting at a desk. 

It’s important to prioritize these activities by putting them into your calendar. Booking time with a friend helps to reduce the flake factor as you are likely to not want to let them down. 

If you take a step back to discuss your shared purpose with colleagues, and what are you trying to build with your work, it can be a source of strength

Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology at New York University, has developed a science-based strategy to close that intention-action gap called WOOP (Wish Outcome Obstacle Plan). For example, if your wish is to spend more quality time with your partner, and the outcome is that you will feel more connected, identify the obstacles to that quality time. Perhaps, you are never home before 9.00pm or spend too much time on your phone. Once you have identified the obstacle, come up with a concrete plan to overcome it, such as leaving your phone in another room. 

Give advice to others 

Asking people to give advice to others is another way to get them to revitalize their own motivation. Why not ask your team members to help with the onboarding process for new staff? Ask them, what advice would they give new hires about maintaining a healthy balance and managing stress? This will give them a chance to reflect on what they found challenging during their first few weeks, and what strategies worked, and importantly, didn’t work for them. 

This could also be an opportunity to normalize failure and imperfection. Sharing stories of the times we messed up can be powerful and create connections. For example, maybe you decided it would be a good idea to turn up to the office super early in your first few weeks, but after several days of “red eye” starts, you were exhausted and couldn’t remember anyone’s name.  

Connect yourself to a bigger purpose 

One day, Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, visited the construction site and came across three bricklayers. He asked them what they were doing. One replied, “I’m laying bricks.” The second said, “I’m building a wall.” The third said, “I’m building a cathedral.” In the stressful day-to-day grind, it can be easy to become consumed by the minutiae of daily tasks. But if you take a step back to discuss your shared purpose with colleagues, and what are you trying to build with your work, it can be a source of strength. 

It’s also important to examine what is important to you personally. Ask yourself, what are the three things you care most dearly about in your life, and then look at how you are spending your time. Often there’s a big gap between what people really care about and what eats up their days. If you work to create more overlap, you can inoculate yourself against some of your daily stressors. 

Authors

Samantha Boardman

Samantha Boardman

Attending psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College

Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an attending psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College. She received a BA from Harvard University, an MD from Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, and an MA in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the founder of positiveprescription.com, a website devoted to making tweaks and changes that are life-enhancing and resilience-building by combining conventional medicine and psychiatry with positive psychology. She has been featured on TODAY, is a regular contributor to HuffPost and Psychology Today, and has written for New York Magazine, Refinery 29, Goop, The Wall Street Journal, and Marie Claire.

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