Merge's Blog

Three steps to less workplace stress

Dr. Michelle May is a member of my mastermind group, a small group of professional colleagues that serve as an informal advisory panel to each another.  Even though she usually spends her time helping people break free from emotional eating, I persuaded her to guest on the blog today, writing on a subject that I know is on the minds of leaders (and their employees) everywhere – managing workplace stress!  At its core, stress is a medical issue so I knew that Dr. May would have valuable advice to offer.  And she didn’t disappoint!

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When you’re experiencing stress, your impulse might be to power through, freak out, or stick your head in the sand (procrastinating, eating, drinking…you get the idea). As we’ve all noticed, behaviors such as busy-ness, overworking, smoking, overeating, drinking alcohol to excess, isolation, and taking our frustration out on others, perpetuate the stress reaction.

Of course, stress is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, stress can:

  • Protect you from harm.
  • Help you react quickly in threatening situations.
  • Signal you to respond to changing circumstances.
  • Motivate you to perform to the limits of your ability.
  • Add excitement to your life (think roller coasters!)

However, when you experience excessive or chronic stress, or lack adequate skills to cope with stress, it takes a toll both physically and emotionally. Since a stress-free life is not possible or even desirable, it’s important to learn to manage it, before it manages you.

Three Steps to Less Stress

  1. Pause: Instead of trying to escape what you are experiencing, pause and take a few deep breaths. Do a slow head to toe scan to become aware of what you’re thinking, feeling, how your body is reacting, and what you’re doing as a result, without judging it. Just observe what’s there.
  2. Assess: While some situations are universally stressful, such as the loss of a loved one or the risk of bodily harm, stress is more often the result of your perception and interpretation of life’s events.  Until you pause to become aware of your thoughts, you may not be aware of that they are the source of your stress. Are any of these common sources of stress familiar?

“I’ll be late!””

“I feel like everything is out of control!”

“I have to get this perfect.”

“Why did I say (or do) that?”

“How could that happen?”

“I want everyone to like me.”

“I have too much to do!”

“I shouldn’t eat this.”

“Why did I eat that?”

“What will they think?”

“I am not good enough.”

“It’s not fair!”

“I have to be right.”

“I can do it all, have it all, and be it all!”

Note that most of these thoughts are about the past or the future, not about the present moment. That’s important because you have absolutely no control over the past or the future. But you can control what you think about right now.

  1. Accept what is. Let’s face it: society places a lot of demands on our energy and time. This often creates unrealistic expectations and a sense of urgency, leading to stress.  It’s important to respect your own personal strengths and limitations and use self-compassion when you’re experiencing stress: “I’m feeling overwhelmed and tense. I can’t do everything on my ‘to do’ list; no one could, but I’m doing my best-and that will have to be good enough for now.”  When you accept the situation (and yourself) as it is in this moment, and just allow it to be, you won’t compound the stress response by overreacting to it. It’s like imagining yourself at the center of the storm; you are calm and centered while everything whirls around you.

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Well, Dr. Michelle’s advice to pause, assess and accept what it is makes a lot of sense.  But as is usual, it’s the implementation that’s the challenge!  So what are your difficulties when it comes to reducing workplace stress, for you and your staff?  And what (if anything) are you doing to overcome it?  Let’s share our stories!

Michelle May, M.D., CSP is the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training that help individuals break free from mindless and emotional eating. She is the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle (Download chapter one free).

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