Despite numerous scientific studies claiming that a certain level of stress is needed to perform your job well, the reality is that we don’t always know how to manage stressful situations, which can take its toll on us.
Although stress has always been a common feature of our working lives, since the pandemic stress levels have reached all-time highs. According to Gallup’s 2022 State of the Global Workplace report, 50% of workers in the US and Canada reported having experienced stress in the workplace the day before. And, what’s more, female workers in the region reported the highest levels of stress worldwide (54%). In fact, The American Institute of Stress reported that US workers are so stressed, around one million people miss work each day because of it.
We spoke with therapist Ana Lombard, a stress management specialist and author of the book “#POSITIVEstress: Turn Stress Into Your Ally,” to find out how to turn stress on its head and transform it into a driving force to be more productive (and happy) in both our working environment and day-to-day lives.
Positive stress vs. negative stress: which is which?
Stress is a physiological, defensive response to a situation that is perceived as threatening or demanding. We often interpret it as a negative, however it doesn’t have to be. When we’re in a state of stress, we exhibit a series of impulses that can actually help us handle difficult challenges, whatever they may be. According to Lombard, “Stress can give us that extra bit of adrenaline that we need in order to boost many of our skills.”
This is what is known as eustress or “positive stress.” It’s the type of stress that spurs us on to deal with problems in a reactive manner, to take initiative and respond to tricky situations appropriately. Positive stress is that response that occurs naturally when a situation requires a lot of effort in order to be resolved. On a physical level, it allows us to be energetic which helps us in our daily tasks.
However, we often go overboard with this response which leads to distress, or “negative stress.” Distress can translate into a sense of anguish, unease, pain, tension, anxiety and restlessness. The difference between the two is that while positive stress gives us the ability to tackle life in a calm and decisive manner, distress causes anxiety and can jeopardize our health.
So, is it possible to fight it?
The three phases of stress (and why they’re important)
“If we learn how to harness adrenaline, which causes stress, we can boost our abilities,” Lombard says. The specialist explains that positive stress can work like a lever, activating parts of our brain that were ‘dormant’ and helping us to tackle problems from a different perspective or with more creative solutions. “Creativity is one of the areas that is successfully boosted when we learn to use positive stress to our advantage.”
To do this, it’s vital to learn how to differentiate between the three phases our bodies go through when faced with a stressful situation:
When we come across a problem or dangerous situation (or one that our body perceives as a threat), we start to secrete adrenaline. In a work setting, this could be the first time you speak to a new client, a meeting with your boss, a disagreement with someone in your team or a last-minute problem.
After this initial reaction comes the second phase with the full release of adrenaline and cortisol, whose role is to increase your blood sugar levels. The release of these hormones can be beneficial for the body because it helps us rise to the challenge of a dangerous situation.
The final phase consists of a return to calm. This may seem insignificant at first glance, but it’s the key to handling stress positively. The problem, according to Lombard, is that there are too many people who live their lives “hooked” on the primary phases and need that “high” of adrenaline and cortisol to stay alert and be productive in their jobs. It’s this long-term exposure which becomes a negative, unhealthy and detrimental thing.
Therefore, it’s important to always revert to the recovery phase in order to correctly deal with the build-up of stress. In Lombard’s words, “After going through the necessary stress phase, you have to act as if you’ve run a marathon: rest physically, intellectually and emotionally in order to recharge your batteries”.
How to boost eustress in the office
In order to go from the positive stress phase to the rest phase, Lombard recommends stopping and taking ten minutes for yourself. However, there are other things you can do at work to turn your back on distress and boost positive stress:
1. Implement breaks into your work day
Lombard suggests that if workers were allowed to take breaks at work without feeling guilty, companies would have far fewer losses and the amount of stress-related sick leave would be significantly reduced. Lombard explains that resting is essential for you to be able to acknowledge the work you’ve done and appreciate your achievements, both on an individual level and as a team.
Breaks are also necessary to go from the states of reactive stress to the recovery phase and eliminate negative stress. Lombard recommends going for a short walk outdoors, where you can also benefit from the advantages of vitamin D, or release tension by listening to music. The key is in “finding a moment that you can enjoy.”
2. Ask for help when you need it
Lombard claims that in any setting — and potentially more so at work — asking for help is practically considered a taboo, but knowing how to ask for help when it’s needed indicates strength. “Asking a colleague for help is also a sign of recognition of their work and an opportunity for you to learn,” she says. For this reason, Lombard recommends talking to your colleagues and mapping out synergies at work. This way, you will reduce negative stress and build up your self-esteem.
3. Be conscious about how and what you eat
For Lombard, diet is intrinsically linked with negative stress. “Our brain lets us know that it’s tired and needs energy, but in the office, instead of eating, we scarf food down.” She warns that not chewing food properly and having a poor diet can cause negative stress levels to skyrocket. Therefore, if you want to boost positive stress, eat slowly, even if you only have half an hour, and increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet.
4. Don’t overlook your workspace
For Lombard, it’s vital for workers to have a comfortable and ergonomic workspace for positive stress to flow. According to Lombard, “How comfortable your office chair is and the losses your company has could be closer linked than people think.” Don’t be afraid to bring this up when asking your boss for a change in office furniture!
5. Learn to put things into perspective
Transforming negative thoughts into a positive learning experience may seem complicated at first, but it’s a vital step if you want to keep stress at bay. You can try to do this with meditation, playing a sport or learning breathing techniques. What’s essential is to know how to handle the situations that cause you distress and act calmly so you can capitalize on the stress. This way, you can boost your skills, analyze the situation from a more creative perspective and build your self-esteem. You’ve got this!
Translated by Jamie Broadway
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
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