You think it’s just a rough patch and things will get better. That your boss will suddenly realise how much of a hardass they are or once you get a promotion your days will be stress and problem-free. But you can’t get away from stress. It’ll always be there and you’ll always have to deal with it.
Might as well just quit your job and give up on life now then, huh?
You could do that. But there’s only so much running away from stress you can do before you realise that all you’re doing is making yourself boring and subdued as well as anxious and miserable.
It’s easy to associate stress and work with bad stuff — your colleague seemingly purposely talking loudly on the phone or your boss not replying to an email for three weeks. But stress — i.e. the physiological and psychological response that’s caused by stimuli and potential threats — is not inherently bad, and is, in fact, one of the most important components in living a healthy and meaningful life.
Too much of it certainly takes its toll. But unlike what we’re told, stress doesn’t make you more likely to have high blood pressure, suffer from anxiety attacks, get cancer, or die at a younger age.
Stress is your friend; it’s your body’s way of preparing you for what’s to come, of making your heart stronger, bringing you closer to other people, enhancing your immunity, and connecting us “directly with the most challenging and important aspects of our lives.”
So the last thing you want to do is to get rid of it. Rather, you just want to change how you perceive stress and deal with it.
When stress arises, our tendency is to either deny it or get lost in it. We have an argument with a colleague and turn to our phones and post for Likes to feel a bit better about ourselves. Or when a project didn’t go as it should we get home and throw our heads and cry profusely.
To transform stress, we first need to disrupt this automatic reaction from playing out and become able to “see” or identify it. We can do this with the technique of mental noting.
For example, instead of crumbling into a sad heap on the office floor, you may say to yourself: “I’m stressed about the amount of work I have to do today”, or, “I’m stressed about my relationship with my manager”, or, “I’m stressed about my future career prospects”.
As well getting it out of your head, noting gives what was previously a vague and undefined fog of emotions and thoughts some boundaries — like taking a file from your manic home screen and saving it in a titled folder. Doing this creates some separation and distance between you and it, and thus helps pull yourself out from being under its control.
When you can see your stress more clearly, you’re able to choose a response that’s less reactionary and more in line with and supportive of your values. Nobody wants to be the one in the office who can’t keep their shit together, but more than that, in the context of building a career or working a job that means a lot to us, “deep down we know that things that are important shouldn’t always come easy.”
Stress can either be incapacitating or enhancing. It can either kill you or make you evolve. And your power is in that you have the choice which one it’s going to be.
As many stressors in our lives affect us on a deep and personal level, even after noting them it can feel as if making a choice is simply not an option. Your ego is on the line, and should you choose to act in a way that doesn’t feed it with quick rewards like looking better among colleagues or getting something it wants like validation, sex, or control, it can suffer and make you feel like you’ve shrunk to the size of a pea.
But you’re not a pea. And your identity is not dependent on the perception and actions of others — it’s grounded in your morals, values, and the way in which you face adversity. In a few words, it’s about the choices you make.
When you align with this internal, fundamental sense of self, then your response to stress has a much better chance of being in accordance with your real goals and values. You won’t be as easily deterred or debilitated by stress, but will rather be inclined to use it to achieve mental toughness, broader perspectives, and a greater sense of meaning and appreciation for work and life.
So when your colleague is cackling down the phone next to you, instead of getting flustered and planning how you’re going to hurt them slowly and painfully, you may stay focused and reserve judgement as a challenge for yourself. When your boss doesn’t reply to your email for three weeks, instead of using a full loo roll for your tears, you may go knock on their door and speak to them in person.
Stress is inevitable. But your response to it is not. Regain the power of choice and see how you can use stress to make you not just a stronger person, but to see your job and life in a new way.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller. Connect with him on LinkedIn for more articles on remote working, technology, meditation, and everything in between.