When the demands of a busy life start to “stress you out,” how do you handle it? It's important to have a strategy in place when stressful situations arise. Recently when I began to feel overwhelmed by the stress of multiple demands at work, I implemented my Emergency Stress Protocol. I thought I'd share it with you, in case you find it helpful too!
Coping with Stress
When life is throwing things at you with both hands, stress can affect you physically, psychologically, and emotionally. If you're like me, you can end up feeling distracted, unfocused, tense, and headachy. Why does that happen, and what can we do about it?
What is stress, and what does it do to us?
Stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Another definition of stress is “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change.” It is important to understand that stress isn’t the thing that’s happening, it’s your body’s response to what’s happening.
Our bodies are designed to use stress as a defense mechanism. We favor sameness because we want to feel safe and secure. The unknown and unfamiliar has historically been seen as dangerous and our body perceives change as a threat. In response to stress, our body then triggers the “fight or flight” response, shutting down unnecessary body functions and preparing us to run or fight when necessary. This is the body’s way of protecting us from danger.
One problem in the 21st century is that our bodies can’t distinguish between the threat of a tiger or an argument with a friend. The same physical reactions occur, but since there is no reason or opportunity to burn it off by fighting or fleeing, the effects of those “fight or flight” hormones can build up and wreak havoc on our physical and psychological health.
While we often hear of “fight or flight,” we now know that a more correct description is “fight, flight, or freeze.” Our bodies are designed to prepare for action, but if that’s not possible, then the freeze response takes over and that is when our body starts to shut down.
When our body and mind are assaulted by continuing stream of demands, changes, and stressors, they’re affected in very predictable and destructive ways. The body and mind are designed to protect us but if the sources of stress are continuous, we will experience chronic stress. According to an article on the National Institute of Mental Health website, “…with chronic stress, those same nerve chemicals that are life-saving in short bursts can suppress functions that aren't needed for immediate survival. Your immunity is lowered and your digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems stop working normally. Once the threat has passed, other body systems act to restore normal functioning. Problems occur if the stress response goes on too long, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided.” (See also this interesting article at HelpGuide.org.)
What does this have to do with productivity?
In the 21st century, most of us have few physical threats in our life (most of the time), but our body still reacts to modern-day threats in the same way, with a flood of hormones and all of those same physiological and biochemical processes occur. In those cases, the self-defense mechanism can interfere physically with our ability to do the stuff we actually need to do.
A certain amount of stress can be a good thing. The stress response can help us make things happen, but only to a point. In its discussion of what stress is, the Stress.org site tells us that “Increased stress results in increased productivity – up to a point, after which things go rapidly downhill. However, that point or peak differs for each of us, so you need to be sensitive to the early warning symptoms and signs that suggest a stress overload is starting to push you over the hump. Such signals also differ for each of us and can be so subtle that they are often ignored until it is too late. Not infrequently, others are aware that you may be headed for trouble before you are.”
What I did — the ESP (Emergency Stress Protocol)
When dealing with stress you can experiment with my Emergency Stress Protocol. This is what I did last week when I started to feel that overwhelm.
The first step is to close the door, sit down, close your eyes, and breathe for a minute.
Then clear the decks–get everything off of your desk and out of sight, and minimize all app windows on computer screens.
Next step is to get out a pad of paper and a pen and set a timer for 10 minutes. Write down everything on your mind without trying to organize your thoughts. Dump everything out of your head onto the piece of paper.
When the timer goes off, put down your pen, and put your paper away and go for a walk. Get up and move, go on a walk or run, and just try to move for 10-15 minutes.
Then drink a glass of water (hydration actually does help!), then get out your paper and pen, set a timer, and do another brain dump. You will add more things that are on your mind onto paper.
When the timer goes off, close your eyes and take some deep breaths.
I then recommend taking your list and pen to another location and reading through your list. Ask yourself,
- What tasks can I cross off?
- What can I ask someone else to do?
- What can I pay someone else to do?
- What can wait?
If it’s not urgent and the task can wait, then tell yourself, “I’m not procrastinating. I’m choosing to do this later.”
If the task can’t be done where you are, then acknowledge it and tell yourself, “I will do this later.”
If you can, make a note beside each deferred item of what specific action you’ll take next, when the appropriate time comes.
If there is something that can be done quickly, act on it — take 15 minutes to take action on it and cross it off your list.
Benefits of this process?
This process–the Emergency Stress Protocol–can help you get back on track and get rid of that panicky feeling. Deep breathing helps us to feel calm and to refocus. Physical activity helps us to burn off some of the excess energy caused by the flood of hormones. When we write all of our ideas and worries down, our brain knows that everything is captured and quantified. The decision-making process allows us to regain a sense of control.
Taking these steps helps us deal with not only the physical threats of stress, but also the psychological effects, enabling you to live a more peaceful, healthy, and productive life.
What do you think?
What are your best tips, tools, or tactics for dealing with those stressful times in your life? Please share your comments, questions, or ideas in the comments section below or on The Productive Woman Facebook page–or email me!
Resources and Links
What is Stress? (additional article)
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