By Patricia Bouweraerts —
It’s bound to happen to the best of us.
A nails-scraping-the-chalkboard crisis, or a steam-coming-out-of-the-ears conflict can come out of nowhere. The problem’s complexity can be broken down into a handful of steps, though, professors and psychologists say.
For example, curt or sarcastic emails may be so troubling that they seem to beg for an immediate response. But figuring out if you are reacting from the body, emotions or mind can help to fit stress relief to where the anxiety is felt most strongly. Then, after cooling down, thinking through options can make the problem less complicated, with solutions clearer.
Psychotherapists aren’t in absolute agreement on the specific steps to take, but major methods aren’t all that different either. What follows are a few sets of straightforward and practical strategies where there are similarities, overlap or even much consensus among experts.
Avoid or approach problems at work
Initially, there are two basic courses of action to that disturbing document delivered by email. One can move away from it, or toward it, said Yani Dickens, Ph.D., director of training and Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Counseling Services, University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).
“You can approach or avoid something stressful,” he said. “If an email makes you upset and you want to avoid it, you can focus on other types of tasks for a while. Approach is to practice your response and problem-solve it.”
A person might write an email response and wait to send it later, or think about other options. Before quickly sending back a harsh response, someone can say to him or herself, “just wait, don’t do it,” Dickens said.
“People may act out of habit, but there are a lot of strategies and options about how to cope with things,” he added.
Fit the coping method to how you feel stress
Different types of coping methods work best for each individual, Dickens said. Some people respond to walking it off, some to deep breathing, and others to talking with a coworker.
This is because people feel stress differently — some with their thoughts, some in their body. When receiving a sudden harsh critique at a team meeting, he said the way that someone handles the negative energy depends on the person and how they feel the stress.
“They can practice changing their thinking, practice relaxation or take their mind off of it … or exercise can help,” he said. “They could tailor their response to the type of stress.”
For those that experience physiological — heart racing, or similar responses in their body — deep breathing helps. People that feel the stress in their thoughts, called cognitive anxiety, may try “cognitive reframing.” Reframing is when the person asks “is this really a threat to me?” Or, “have I managed this in the past? If so, I can also manage this now.”
Dickens said that people should learn a wide variety of stress-relieving methods and practice them when they’re only a little stressed, to better prepare for the crisis times. He added that it also helps to figure out what works best for each individual in certain situations. Some options to reduce anxiety are:
- Deep breathing for a heart-racing reaction, walking for physically-felt stress
- Cognitive reframing or behavioral techniques for stressful thoughts
- Talking with coworkers, seeking social support if appropriate
- Communicating assertively, or problem-solving, depending on the situation
A set of stress management techniques
It is widely known that drinking plenty of water helps people stay hydrated, and is healthy. Dickens said that it helps a little with stress, as well.
“It’s a way of reducing emotional vulnerability,” he said. “Take care of your body’s needs.”
After a person has calmed down, problem-solving may be approached in a step-by-step way.
Dickens refers to the four options for troubleshooting problems that are described in Marsha M. Linehan’s 2015 workbook, “DBT® Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition”:
- Problem-solve by changing the situation; avoid, leave or totally get out of the situation.
- Change or manage your emotions in regard to the problem.
- Accept and tolerate the issue, trying mindfulness or meditation.
- Stay unhappy, or make it worse with an ineffective response.
We know that when you’re in a distressed physical state, the last thing you want to do is calm down. You’d probably prefer to punch someone’s lights out or tender your resignation.Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster
How do you handle stress? “Unhook” from a stressor
Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster, authors of the 2006 book, “Working With You is Killing Me: Freeing Yourself from Emotional Traps at Work,” describe stressors at work as hooks.
“We call the experience of feeling caught in an emotionally distressing situation at work being hooked,” they wrote. “Emotional hooks vary widely from person to person and job to job. … A hook can be as simple as a rude remark or as complex as professional sabotage. … The workplace affords numerous opportunities to get hooked, and almost no guidance about how to deal with it.”
The authors write that responses vary from getting angry to shutting down, from freezing up to panicking. Even though people differ in their reactions, though, there is a sequential method for unhooking from problems. These steps apply to people with any style of handling stress, and are completed in order:
- Unhook physically in a healthy way
- Unhook mentally
- Unhook verbally
- Unhook with a business tool
“We know that when you’re in a distressed physical state, the last thing you want to do is calm down,” Crowley and Elster wrote. “But the fact is that if you want to change your life at work, you have to focus on relaxing physically first.”
In addition to a brief walk, and deep breathing, they also include splashing some water on your face. Other methods to manage more long-lasting stress include exercise, yoga, stretching, and not overindulging in alcohol, food or television.
“Here’s an easy method for calming your body through breathing,” they wrote. “Breathe in for three counts, hold it for three counts, and breathe out for six counts. Repeat this exercise until you feel your system cooling down.”
Unhooking mentally, the second step, is a systematic process of thinking through of a problem, and it sometimes helps to write out the answers:
a. What’s happening here?
b. What are the facts of the situation?
c. What’s their part
d. What’s my part
e. What are my options?
“As you can imagine, that fourth question, ‘what’s my part?’ is usually the toughest to answer,” they wrote. “When a situation causes emotional distress, your natural reaction is to blame the primary offenders, not yourself. Still, if you can uncover your part in the difficult situation, you can also find your point of leverage.”
Unhooking verbally, the third step, involves communicating to achieve the end result you’re looking for. It’s deciding what words will work better to resolve a situation.
“Taking the high road isn’t about smoothing things over or being too nice,” Crowley and Elster wrote. “It’s about communicating effectively, in a way that enables the listener to hear you and consider your ideas. It creates a bridge (not a wedge) between you and the person whose behavior is driving you crazy.”
Their fourth step, using business tools, involves documenting or referencing existing written communications in a company. Tools can include but are not limited to:
- Emails that can be cc’d, documenting a discussion, or reaffirming a meeting decision
- Job descriptions stating limits of what can be expected of an employee
- Meeting agendas focusing conversation, establishing points or guiding discussion
- Written documentation of something that happened; time, date and description of facts
Three ways people typically respond to problems at work
Crowley and Elster added that there are three ways people typically respond to a problem:
“Individuals respond to emotionally upsetting circumstances differently,” Crowley and Elster wrote. “Some people react physically. Their bodies send them physical signals that indicate the presence of emotional distress. …Some people react to hooks by experiencing emotional symptoms. They feel strong negative emotions such as anger, fear, panic, anxiety, embarrassment, confusion, depression, repulsion, helplessness, or despair. …Another common reaction to hooks in the workplace involves unproductive mental activity. A difficult relationship or scenario on the job may generate obsessive thinking, spacing out, constant distraction, paranoia, revenge fantasies, forgetfulness, or an inability to concentrate.”
In a third study, people who were ‘funny people’ — i.e., who often used humor in their interactions, reported that they coped better with the everyday stresses of their jobs than their counterparts who were not humorous.Paul Robbins, Ph.D.
Ineffective and effective methods to relieve stress
Paul Robbins, Ph.D., author of “Coping with Stress: Common Sense Strategies,” writes that the coping methods research has proven ineffective are alcohol, drugs, self-defeating mind games, ruminating, comparison traps, perfectionist thinking, overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, guilt trips and feeling trapped.
“Being stuck, feeling trapped in a situation which arouses considerable stress, is a situation that happens all the time,” he wrote. “My suggestion to people frozen in bad situations is to take another look at possible options. …Let your imagination roam over a much wider range of possibilities than you have previously considered, even far out possibilities. Then, get very practical. Do some serious research on any option that looks plausible.”
He writes that the stress-relieving methods which have been proven more effective are exercise, the support of friends, diversion, prayer, muscle relaxation and meditation, taking direct action, positive mindset, and preparation for stressful events.
Diversion can be anything that somehow breaks the routine — including novels, soap operas, music, hobbies and gardening.
It is also widely known that a change in scenery may break up a routine.
In a sudden crisis stress situation, music might be a helpful coping method. Robbins writes that there has been scientific research proving music helps cardiac patients.
“In one study, for example, patients who were recovering from acute myocardial infarction reported less anxiety after listening to 20 minutes of music than patients in a control group who did not listen to music,” he wrote. “The researchers also reported reduced pulse and respiratory rates in the patients who listened to music.”
For taking direct action, Robbins writes that even very small steps will reduce pressure and make a person feel better. Most importantly, a small and successful action can be encouraging and give the confidence needed to take bigger steps.
Optimism and hope also have a surprisingly high effectiveness level.
“People facing the severe stress of a coronary bypass operation who were optimistic were better able to generate active coping strategies to deal with this stress,” he wrote.
Research on humor has shown some initial and promising results in increasing pain reduction and immune system function. In one study, humor reduced tension and anxiety. In another study, people who used humor as a coping strategy reported better physical health than those who didn’t use humor.
“In a third study, people who were ‘funny people’ — i.e., who often used humor in their interactions, reported that they coped better with the everyday stresses of their jobs than their counterparts who were not humorous,” Robbins wrote.
Adjusting the work space may help with how to handle pressure at work
For some personalities, a clutter-free, clean desk can head off stress, while highly creative people work well in cluttered, book- or art-filled environments, Dickens said.
“There is some research that shows an aquarium may help with stress,” Dickens said. “Make the space yours — for some people it’s plants, for some paintings or pictures.”
He likes setting up his desk position so that he’s able to see people when they approach, but adds that others don’t mind either way.
“Different people have different preferences over how they position their work space,” he said. “Not having control over it may be stressful for some people. If you’re a manager, it’s good if you can give people some input on their work space, if it’s reasonable.”
People may act out of habit, but there are a lot of strategies and options about how to cope with things.Yani Dickens, Ph.D.
Coping style is somewhat inherited
In Paul Robbins’ book, he reports that a scientific study in Sweden determined three major coping styles; problem-solving, social support and avoiding the stressor. Groups of fraternal and identical twins were given a coping inventory, and the results were statistically analyzed to separate influences of hereditary and learned behavior.
“They concluded that there is a ‘moderate heritability’ of coping style,” he wrote. “So, while it is still reasonable to believe that how we cope is largely learned in our experience growing up, there is a significant genetic influence as well.”
Reduce sudden stress to promote long-term mental health at work
If a working person is stressed over time, how does his or her response change?
“People habituate, and then the stress response is lower … or they can become exhausted and overwhelmed,” Dickens said. “Prolonged stress can hamper the immune system.”
Robbins advises people to experiment with different stress-relieving methods, and also to carry them out with moderation.
“I have always felt it is a good idea not to get locked into one way of doing things,” he wrote. “If what you are doing doesn’t work, try something else. The results may surprise you.”