Tips for effectively managing stress

by Chris Winfield-Blum  - September 16, 2020

I was recently talking to one of my team members about his role and he was discussing the current levels of stress he's feeling on a new project and asked me how I deal with stress myself. I thought it would make a good article, but I should say that I do not consider myself an expert on all things stress, but I have successfully managed to reduce my levels of stress over the years through my choices, my work habits and ability to reflect and move on from stressful situations.

Stress really affects people in different ways, and we all have differing "stress profiles" based on our personality, experience, training and everything else going on around us at that moment.

Stress is a factor in many health-related issues and should be taken seriously, an article at lists; heart disease, worsening asthma, obesity, and diabetes among their 10 serious stress-related health problems. Ultimately, you need to take personal responsibility for making decisions to reduce or remove stressful situations from your day-to-day life. Sometimes those decisions can be the hardest types but will lead to a more harmonious and fulfilled life for you and your family.

"Categorise your stress sources"

To start with, it is important to internally categorise your stress sources;

  • Is it a result of the role you're in?
  • Is it a result of a toxic environment?
  • Is it a result of a toxic friend, associate or family member?
  • Is it a result of your own ego, attitude, insecurities or lack of action?

Being able to reflect on your where your stress is coming from will then steer your course of action to relieving or removing that stress. It also gives you an opportunity to find methods and approaches to ensure that stress is "left at the door", whichever "door" that happens to be. Meaning, if the stress is because of the office you can consciously leave it in the office and focus your energies on positive aspects of your life outside of that space.

So now that we are effectively categorising our stress sources we can look at specific approaches to dealing with stress for each.

"This role is super stressful"

It is really important that you understand what is "normal" levels of stress for a role and then take the appropriate action to either resolve the causes of stress or remove yourself from that situation. Often the cause of stress in a role is a lack of knowledge or experience in aspects of the role that you working on.

Some basic approaches for reducing role or task-based stress by increasing knowledge and experience could be;

  • Retrain in areas you're struggling, hopefully, facilitated by a team member that you know has the knowledge you need. Ensure that this training isn't just a presentation or "handover" - but a deep dive into as many aspects as you need to feel confident with your tasks going forwards.
  • Shadow a more experienced team member while they do the tasks that are causing you the most stress. Watch, take notes and ask questions about why they made specific decisions along the way. The more background you have in relation to those decisions the more confident you will be when you go back and perform the tasks yourself again.
  • Take the time to specialise and excel on tasks that you have higher levels of competencies so that you are the "go-to" team member for those, rather than the tasks that you are not as strong with.

"This toxic environment is driving me crazy"

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A toxic environment is something that is more challenging to address as your ability to influence change is dependant on your own position within the environment as well as where the toxicity is coming from. If you're a leader and the toxicity is coming from your subordinates than I suggest working on your culture through team development and workshops; while also agreeing on what are the acceptable norms for the environment, your core values.

If, however, you are not a leader (by position) in this environment your ability to influence the toxicity is limited. You should reflect on what you are doing, if anything, to improve the situation. Further, if you have tried to improve things and nothing has changed, you may need to decide to remove yourself from that environment and find yourself somewhere that is more aligned with your own values and expectations.

From experience, toxic cultures are really hard to shift without full support from leadership so keep that in mind.

"This (friend, associate or family member) stresses me out"

Friends and associates are easy, any relationship like this should be two-directional, but we've probably all had friends who are "takers" over the years. You should both get "something" out of your relationship and if not, then I would be putting your energy into somebody that is more worthy of that energy. Again, that's easier said than done but consider this; a social study found that we form an average of 396 personal relationships but only 33, one in 12, will stand the test of time.

Now, family, that's a harder one because as the saying goes "we can't choose our family" - I do not have a lot of stress in my family life fortunately but I can only suggest that you identify areas of your family life that you can avoid or learn to ignore if it is stressing you out.

"Who do they think I am?", "I'm not an idiot!", "Why did they get the promotion over me?", "Why don't they appreciate me?"

Being self-aware enough to identify when you are creating your own stress is a challenge but you should reflect on how you are responded to external information. Ego is probably one of the biggest, self-inflicted, stress sources I have witnessed over the years; whether it is being unhappy with the way that somebody is talking down to you, or getting upset about the type of tasks that you're being assigned, your own ego becomes a factor. Additionally, your own attitude, work habits and an inability to separate one stress source from another can all lead to, what I consider to be completely avoidable stress.

Taking time to reflect on those areas that cause you the most stress could support the development of strategies and adjustments that would decrease that stress over time.

So by this stage, we have identified a handful of potential stress sources and have discussed methods or approaches to improving the relevant situations and hopefully decreasing your overall levels of stress.

Now I would like to talk about a handful of other approaches or considerations that you may find useful!

"Don't stress what you can't change!"

While I understand that this is often easier said than done, a lot of the time, at least for me, the stress levels I feel are directly related to the amount of energy that I am putting into correcting the situation. This is why it is important to identify what you can and can not change in a given situation; further, the factors that are outside of your influence should be left for somebody who is better placed to make a positive change.

A practical application of this situation is stressing and worrying about what is happening currently with COVID-19. While we should be paying attention to the aspects of this situation that we can control and influence, such as wearing a mask, social distancing etc, I try not to stress about vaccines and lockdowns, they are not things that I can influence in any way.

"Do not dwell on the past"

You would have heard this a lot, but I'm a firm believer in never dwelling on the past (it can't be changed!), instead, I reflect on the outcomes of my actions and note how I could have done things better and apply that to future situations that are similar.

Look, I get that people have regrets; people make bad decisions and it can have very serious consequences, because, well we're people. I just find our energy is best spent on things that can effect positive change in the present and future. That's not to say we can't have remorse for those we've hurt, and guilt for things that were a result of our poor decisions.

"Find your happy place"

We all need a place where we are at our most "chilled", where we are relaxed and able to be happy. It could be at home reading a book, at the beach, at a coffee shop reflecting on your week or with your kids. Whatever it is, you need to ensure that you find a balance in your life that will allow you to have those moments.

"Take responsibility for yourself"

I touched on this earlier, but it's so important I will say it again, it is your responsibility to ensure that you are not consistently under high levels of stress. If it is your job causing it, do what you can to improve the situation but if that fails, move on. If it is your relationship, again do what you can to make it a healthy relationship, but if that is not successful then you are both likely to be happier apart from each other. You can not, and should not rely on anybody else to improve your situation for you, that is simply not fair on them, nor yourself.

I hope this article will be useful to anybody who finds themselves in stressful situations regularly and I would love to hear from anybody the strategies they have utilised to improve their stress levels over the years.

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Chris Winfield-Blum

Software enthusiast, operations & project manager, MBA graduate, team builder, creator, developer, writer and father.

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