Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free
Fall is typically a time of change. Days shorten, weather cools and pressures at work ramp up. Gone are the vacations and slower pace of summer, replaced by increased work demands and strain.
Work stress has a variety of causes. High work loads with unrealistic deadlines, a lack of control over your work day, a work culture of blame or being expected to perform on tasks for which you’ve had insufficient training all create strain and stress.
How Can You Manage Work Stress?
Although there are many effective coping strategies for managing stress, it is helpful to think of stress and how you manage it in two different ways. You can manage stress by managing the stressor, that is, by solving the external problems that are causing you stress. Using these strategies, you might work with a supervisor to gain necessary training or to change unrealistic deadlines. These strategies are highly effective when you have the ability to exert some control over your workload and work pressures.
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A second method for managing stress is by managing your reaction to these stressors. These strategies don’t change the demands of the job, but they are effective in reducing the amount of strain you experience when faced with pressure at work. There are a wide range of strategies that can help you manage your reaction to stressors, including relaxation therapy, which involves stress management, psychological intervention and meditation techniques.
Stress has an impact on our bodies and our minds. Racing thoughts, a pounding heart, muscle tension and difficulty focusing are all common symptoms of stress. In relaxation therapy, the focus is on diminishing or alleviating these symptoms. Relaxation therapy includes specific techniques to help you quiet the mind and relax the body. In one recent study, a customized relaxation program was effective in decreasing work stress and increasing overall life satisfaction (International Journal of Stress Management, August, 2012). This particular study focused on teachers, who often are faced with budget cuts, large class sizes and expectations to address problematic social circumstances faced by students-all external stressors that they often have little control over. In this study, participants in the relaxation program experienced decreases in work stress and overall life stress, as well as increases in life satisfaction.
An Example of a Relaxation Exercise:
Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for several minutes. Begin by breathing deeply. Inhale fully and pause for a moment, before slowly exhaling. Gently close your eyes and imagine you are standing at the top of ten steps. You can imagine the steps inside or out, whichever is more relaxing to you. Step from step ten (the top step) to step nine. As you do so, imagine yourself sinking more deeply into a state of relaxation. Take a few deep breaths on step nine and then step down to eight, again imagining yourself sinking even further into relaxation. Continue imagining yourself slowly making your way down the steps, pausing on each to breathe deeply and with each step, sinking more fully into a state of relaxation. When you reach the bottom, imagine yourself in a calm and serene environment, for example you might picture the beach, a mountain lake or some other relaxing scene. Anchor yourself in this scene by touching the tip of your thumb to your forefinger. This will be your cue return to this state of relaxation during times of stress at work. Now gently count to five and open your eyes.
This exercise is similar to one used in the study mentioned above. Participants in that study customized the relaxation exercise by imagining work stressors, while in a state of calm, thus bringing the feelings of relaxation into their workday.
Relaxation techniques won’t change the demands and pressures you face at work. However, when you find a technique that works for you (the example above might be one or you might search for others), you might find that the intensity of strain you experience in the face of external stress has decreased. This change in your own reaction to stress can change how you handle stressful situations and how you feel about your work.
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