A few lucky people seem to innately thrive on unrelenting pressure. But for most of us, it can be plain exhausting and eventually debilitating. Stress can feel like being gripped in a vice that’s ruthlessly tightening its grip. Unchecked, relentless pressure can set you on a path to burnout, depression, chronic fatigue, heart attack and a sense of failure, often with long term consequences.
While there is no single silver bullet, magic wand solution, there are simple ways to build resilience, thrive and succeed in a high-pressured job.
First we need to understand what’s causing stress and it’s not your environment or employer! If it was, there would be no one turning up to work. Next time you’re in a hospital notice how differently 2 nurses (same level, same shift, same ward, same number of patients) do their job. One will be cheerful, friendly and caring while the other seems rushed, surly and totally stressed out.
This is because our individual emotional responses to the same situation are very different. Our upbringing, beliefs, values, filters, past experience, health and context all collude to create a unique response.
Emotional responses are a normal part of being human and we need a certain amount of stress to function. There’s nothing like a looming deadline to get a job done! But some emotional responses are futile, unhelpful and destructive. With no real benefit, these sneaky saboteurs have the potential to light your fuse and push you over the edge.
5 Emotional Saboteurs
- Disappointment – stems from an expectation that hasn’t been met
- Frustration – arises when there is a barrier between where you are now and your desired outcome
- Anger – often triggered when one of your values or firm beliefs has been challenged
- Self-doubt – caused by underestimating your own ability or worth
- Fear – a protective response designed to keep you safe
If these emotional responses are becoming all to familiar, it’s time to release the pressure cooker steam.
How to Diffuse Your Emotional Time Bombs, Build Resilience and Thrive
1. Identify and name the emotion/s you are experiencing
Different emotional responses require different antidotes. To take constructive action, you need to know what you’re dealing with. Ask yourself:
- What am I experiencing?
- How am I experiencing this?
- How is this response serving, supporting, nurturing or challenging me in a good way?
- If it isn’t serving a useful purpose, how would I like to feel instead?
Naming the emotion/s you’re feeling, creates clarity and choice – it puts you in the driver’s seat.
2. Simply notice and acknowledge what you’re experiencing.
With conscious awareness of the emotion/s you’re feeling, you can now decide whether to engage with them or not.
As humans, we have a tendency to catastrophise negative events. Have you ever noticed how much worse something seems when you’re lying awake in the dark? Yet somehow, in the morning it doesn’t seem so bad, even though nothing has actually changed overnight.
The degree to which you’re experiencing a negative emotion has a direct impact on your stress levels. Do an Emotional Pulse Check to decide whether the emotion is warranted or extreme.
If your response is in the red zone, identify the risks of staying there. Left unchecked, what could this emotion lead to?
From here you can decide which beliefs you could change or actions to take to return your stress levels to the safe zone.
3. Insert time and space between the trigger and your response
Being super vigilant for the first signs of unhealthy stress helps you choose your response before your rising emotions run riot and cause you to react in a way you may later regret.
Whether it’s something you see, a feeling, thought or sound, recognising a trigger early allows you to buy time. From here you can insert a circuit breaker, lessening the intensity, releasing the pressure and giving you time to choose the most constructive response.
Simple Circuit Breakers:
- Stand up and move away from the space you are in
- Take slow, deep breaths
- Visualise an image that mentally takes you to a peaceful place
- Exercise – go for a run or a brisk walk around the block
- Talk it through with an independent, wise, calm and trusted colleague
- Sleep on it and defer taking action until the next day
Circuit breakers can snuff out the fuse before the flame ignites an extreme and destructive emotional time bomb.
When Julie received a howler of an email from her manager berating her for neglecting to tell him about a critical issue that had been escalated to him, she knew she could choose to be furious, frustrated and upset. She’d sent him an email, had tried to meet with him all week (he’d been too busy) and he hadn’t returned her numerous calls.
A 10 minute, deep breathing walk around the block helped her regroup, gain perspective, remain calm and clear and decide the best way to manage the situation. Half an hour later she was leaving her manager’s office with the problem resolved when he smiled and said, “I don’t know how you did that. In the past you’d have come in here ranting and raving and we’d have had a real showdown. Instead you remained calm and now we both know how to avoid situations like this happening again – thank you.”
4. Change your story
You may not be able to control or influence the circumstances that triggered your stress but you can change the meaning you put on it.
When Andrew missed out on a new role he had his heart set on, he was understandably disappointed. Without realising, he started to fuel the disappointment with reasons why he wasn’t successful. “The panel had already decided who they wanted – the interview process was a farce!”
By choosing this belief, he inadvertently chose anger which was like throwing petrol on the fire of his disappointment. True or not, this belief wasn’t going to change the outcome or help him overcome the resulting stress.
Reframing the stress inducing loss to ‘the interview was a great experience – this job simply wasn’t meant for me at this time’ helped Andrew accept the outcome and seek feedback to be better prepared for future opportunities.
5. Actively choose your response
If the emotions you’re experiencing are creating prolonged stress, decide and implement a better alternative. You have way more control over your emotions than you may realise. Ask yourself, ‘If I wasn’t feeling X [insert unhelpful emotion], how would I choose to be instead?’
- Accepting – this too will pass
- Curious – to better understand
- Optimistic – to create a better outcome
- Pragmatic – able to see multiple perspectives
- Confident – certain of your own ability to get past this
- Calm – drawing on all of the above to create resilience
If prolonged stress is hindering your well being, relationships and ability to do your best work, it may also mean that this simply isn’t the job for you. Choosing to leave doesn’t mean you’ve failed! Even making the decision to check if this IS the right career for you will put you back in control.
Regardless, taking your Emotional Pulse every day will give you the awareness you need to stress less, stay calm, build resilience and thrive.
So now I’m wondering, what do you do to keep your stress levels in the healthy zone?
Caroline Cameron is an executive career coach, speaker and author of The Great Life Redesign – change how you work, live how you dream and make it happen TODAY!
Caroline helps mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.