Know Your Stress

Updated on April 9, 2011

By Andrea R. Nierenberg

Everyone has some stress. There’s so much to do in our departments and only a certain amount of time to do it. We get it done, yet often at a harried pace. What can we do to alleviate some of the stress?

Slow down.

The word “harried’ suggests that our system is running on adrenaline. It is almost like an addictive drug and if not monitored can be dangerous. When we’re under stress, particularly long-term stress, the chemicals our body produces to save our skins in time of real emergency, are called upon far too often.  They slowly eat away at our good health and well being.

Under stress our brain is in control. It perceives a “danger” and sends a host of forces out to defend itself. It sends signals to release powerful chemicals into the bloodstream – cortisol compounds, adrenaline and the like – just in case we have to fight – or run – for our lives. The “Fight or Flight” response has enabled us to stay alive, be alert, and survive in a tough world.

We’ve all seen the picture of the 100-pound woman who is able to lift a car with one hand because her child is under it. Stress chemicals are truly performance enhancing drugs. Just keep in mind that 90% of all illness is stress related.

Occasional stress? This is actually good– it adds a little juice to life and keeps us sharp – some stress works for the system. It provides creative tension. Too much stress is deadly. This is the balance issue people really need to tackle.

Short-term stress is really no problem if you’ve built up a “reserve tank” with healthy habits and know a few tricks to zap stress as it’s coming at you. Shifting from the “what’s wrong?” of the situation to the “what’s good?” in the situation is helpful. Shifting your focus from the stressor at hand to something you can be grateful for and appreciate will actually shift your heart rate variability and cause harmony in your system. Creating a positive emotion to replace the negative one will help you repair the effects of the stress. Knowing how to spot the stressful situations before they zap your energy is key.

So the first step is to slow down and take a good look at the long and short term stressors in your life and how they affect you.

On the right side of a piece of paper write down a list of the daily things you do that give you energy. (Playing with your kids, getting challenging yet solvable issues at work, taking a walk, spending time with a friend, loved one or co-worker, feeling gratitude and appreciation, meditation, prayer, etc.) These are our ‘energy gains’.

On the other side of the page write Energy “Drains” and list the things you do that sap your energy and/or light. (Rushing to pick the kids up for practice, the boss who always gives you last minute work, the dreaded dentist appointment, negative self-talk, forgetting to exercise, saying yes to everyone except yourself.)

Take a good look at a one or two day chunk of time and see if you can discover a pattern or get an idea from looking at your gains vs. your drains.

Make this exercise more significant and give each “Gain” a score +1 – +5 and give each “Drain” a score of –1 – -5. Add up the columns and see where you are at the end of the day. Look at your numbers. Tell the truth.

If you consistently end each day with an energy deficit you need to make the commitment – right now – to fix that situation. Not enough energy for too long means you are in a state of depletion and that means long-term stress on your system.

Where might you add some energy “gaining” activities – even short ones – to balance out the drains?

Long term and chronic stress is a problem and needs to be proactively addressed in order to maintain good health. Understanding how you use – or lose – your energy every day is an important piece of information.

You can’t fix the problem if you don’t really know what or where it is.

Reducing stress is really about managing your energy differently. When you have an energy leak, you get stressed and the body sends out an alarm and the adrenal glands respond (and too often keep responding.)

So, knowing where the leaks are is the first step in fixing them.

Take several deep breaths and sit down with your paper to begin taking charge of your stress and your life.

What can you eliminate or change to reduce the energy drain or stress? Can you ask for help? Can you say “no”? Most people are over scheduled and over whelmed by trying to do too much. Add work to that load and the stress begins to feel even worse.

Secondly, take a look at your perception of the situations you described on paper.

Is your “Drama Quotient” too high? Are you perceiving any situations as  “terrible, horrible, or awful” when someone else might look at the same situation as bothersome, annoying, or “whatever”?

How we label things can affect how we perceive them and how our body reacts to them. Naming something imposes meaning on the thing we name. Taking things too personally (like upset customers) can intensify our reaction.

Take a work situation for example. When you we think about it objectively, most upset customers are not out to get you, they’re just out to get justice. How you perceive and label their behavior affects how you take it in.  In order to preserve the health of your body and mind, it’s a good idea to see difficult situations as challenges you can skillfully navigate.

Learn to create a respectful distance between you and someone else’s negative emotions. Stepping back from the “triggering” that occurs as our “Fight or Flight” reaction tries to kick in we have a split second to shift our perception and move right into “solution” mode.

Learning to empathize and manage a communication with an emotionally charged person is a high level skill. The sooner you master it, the easier your job becomes. (In the office and at home.)

When your perception of a situation changes, your response changes. The opportunity to have a healthier response is available to you once you become aware of what your triggers are. Awareness is always the first step. Become a student of your own reactions. Once you begin to see what triggers you, you can get to work at reducing the impact on your system. Most of our reactions are habitual and we are hardly aware they exist until we’re right in the middle of them. By then the stress is already in motion and some of the damage is already done.

Learn to take a breath and count to ten. That will give you enough time to assess the situation. You can change the situation, or you can change your perception of the situation. If it’s something you’ll laugh about in two weeks – start laughing now (at least on the inside.) Make it a priority to preserve your health and well-being. Put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.

Andrea R. Nierenberg, author, consultant and business speaker is the force behind The Nierenberg Group. For more information, visit

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