Taming the Saber-tooth: Three Ways to Cope with Stress at Work

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Stress and anxiety are increasingly becoming issues in the workplace. A study by the International Labour Organization revealed that increased competition, longer working hours and higher performance expectations are all contributing to an increasingly stressful work environment. Digitization and always-on technology have blurred the boundaries between work and personal life, removing the natural buffer between them and costing us our health.

When humans lived in the untamed wilderness, we had to deal with threats in our environment. If a hungry saber-tooth tiger targeted you as a tasty treat, you needed to quickly decide whether to put up a fight, run flat out in the opposite direction or do your best to look like a rock.

This automatic fight, flight or freeze response is no different today. Our minds and bodies still respond in the same way to everyday stressors. If we’re dealing with a crazed knife-wielding lunatic, this response makes complete sense. But most of the threats we encounter are purely psychological. The saber-tooth has evolved. Our brains haven’t.

The tricky thing about stress is that it’s a necessary emotion. Studies by the University of Berkeley have found that stress entices the brain into growing new cells that improve memory. If the stress isn’t prolonged, it’s harmless and can even be beneficial as new nerve cells keep the brain more alert and improve performance. The irony is that as soon as stress continues beyond a few moments into a prolonged state, it suppresses the brain’s ability to develop those cells. That’s when our hardwiring works against us. Chronic stress exhausts us, mental performance suffers and our health deteriorates.

What to do about it? We cannot necessarily change our environment, but we have the power to shift our response to that environment by building resilience.

Shut down the committee.

The voices in our heads are great at pointing out our failures. They use words like “worst,” “always,” “never” and “should” to make any event seem catastrophic. Becoming aware and detaching from these thoughts can be challenging. It’s easier to play the victim than it is to take responsibility for changing the situation. Think you’ll never get that project so you shouldn’t even ask? Check in with a trusted friend or colleague and ask for their insight and advice. Using your support system shuts down the cycle of negative thoughts. Dealing with real data instead can help you reframe a situation, find a solution you may not have considered and take action. And if you do fail at something, it doesn’t mean you are a complete failure. You’ve experienced a setback, but you also have an opportunity to approach the next challenge in a different way.

Stay positive when the going gets tough.

When all is going well, it’s easy to stay positive and upbeat. When you’re having a really tough day, it becomes more challenging. When you find you can’t stop thinking about that snarky email, consciously shift your thoughts to something positive. Write down three amazing things that happened to you recently. The key is that these amazing things don’t have to be life-changing. They can be tiny, simple things that you would usually take for granted — simple pleasures in life that make you feel peaceful, joyful or grateful. The act of writing them down takes cognitive effort that shifts your perspective to a more positive one and breaks the cycle of rumination. Extra points for reviewing the list the next morning to keep things in perspective.

Find courage in the face of fear.

Fear is an inevitable emotion you’ll encounter at work. Fear of failure, rejection or humiliation can be paralyzing. Maybe you’re afraid to ask your boss for that raise, or you’re afraid to challenge a colleague or client. Facing your anxiety can be easier if you recognize that discomfort in these situations is to be expected and focus instead on the end result you’re striving for. This is high intention with low attachment. Shifting your focus to intention changes your perspective — high intention. Taking the long view helps you pick yourself up and try again, even if you are rejected this time around — low attachment. It takes a lot of effort to embrace the discomfort of fear and stay the course. Acknowledging that gut-wrenching fear is a natural part of the process helps you come out on the other side both wiser and braver.

Shifting your perspective is a powerful tool when dealing with stress. Changing the way you perceive day-to-day pressures gives you an opportunity to take back control and become more confident in stressful situations. Building resilience is not a series of isolated activities — it’s a practice that can help you turn your saber-tooth tiger into a kitten.

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