Part I: Using Your Head to Manage Stress

During busy times, many companies are short staffed, and our employees are overworked. Still, the customers keep coming. Business owners and front line staff feel grateful for the income, but stressed by the constant unmet demands.

It’s no secret that stress is a leading cause of physical illness, but the extent of the problem might surprise you. Studies show that between 80 and 90 percent of all illnesses are stress related. If that’s not a shocker, try this: Nearly 100 million Americans suffer from physical illnesses caused by the stress in their lives. That’s a lot of people and a lot of stress.

Our bodies have a physical response to stress called the fight or flight reaction. This reaction is part of our physiological make up and is designed to protect us in crisis. How can you control your body’s innate response to stress? The answer is you can’t. Your body will react to whatever you find stressful. The key to managing is stress isn’t in our bodies – it’s in our minds.

Stress isn’t caused by events; it’s caused by our perception of events. No two people respond to stimulus in the same way, and yet we tend to assume that certain people and events are inherently stressful. Rush hour traffic may drive you crazy, and barely bother someone else. Of course, there are some events – the loss of a loved one, divorce, and ironically, being diagnosed with an illness that would stress just about anyone. But our every day stressors are really about our perceptions. And the good news is that we can control our thoughts. Here are a few tools to manage stress through your mind:

  1. Self Questioning: Let’s say your spouse comes home grumpy and barks at you about something trivial. Before responding, take 10 seconds to check in with yourself and ask a few simple questions:
    • Is this worth my stress?
    • Will this matter a day or week from now?
    • Is this a battle I want to fight?

    If the answer to any of these questions is negative, take a deep breath and let it go. Walk away; turn your attention to something else, focus on something positive that happened that day. Remember that your goal is to prevent that stress response from starting.

  2. Big Picture Reminders: Have something in your office, your home, your car and in your wallet or purse that reminds you of what’s truly important in life. Have a photo of someone you love most in the world, a quote that makes you feel grounded or a prayer in all of these places. Ironically, most of our stress is caused by the minutia of every day life. If only we could take a minute to remember what’s most important to us, we would be able to manage the small things easier.
  3. The Relaxation Response: The minute you start to feel your body tense up use your thoughts to reverse the process. Go somewhere in your mind that completely relaxes you. It can be a moment from a vacation you enjoyed or a made up place in your mind. In the book “Emotional Intelligence at Work” author Hendrie Weisinger notes that the relaxation response is most effective if you know your place before hand and practice going there in your mind several times before a stressful event. So try picturing this place now in your head. Go there a few times in the next week. That will make it easier for you when you have to use it to manage a stressful situation.

There’s a lot of bad news about stress and what it can do to us, but the upshot is that we ultimately have control over what stresses us and how we respond to it. All of our emotions and behaviors flow from our thoughts, so it is worth taking the time to learn how to manage them.