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These Three Bad Habits Are Making Your Work Stress Worse

Finding alone time to chip away at a stressful problem might actually be counterproductive.

These Three Bad Habits Are Making Your Work Stress Worse
[Photo: shironosov/iStock]

There are plenty of workplace stressors you can neither avoid nor minimize–you’ve just got to deal with them. Maybe your performance review is around the corner and you’re worried you won’t meet expectations. Perhaps you’ve just been criticized by your supervisor or a colleague and are anxious to get back on your game. Or possibly it’s that the project you’re managing is destined to go over budget.

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These experiences can be stressful in their own right, but sometimes people create more stress than a situation requires. Research going back some 100 years, on the so-called Yerkes-Dodson curve, finds that most people have a “sweet spot” in terms of stress, or what psychologists refer to as “arousal.” Too little, and you won’t be able to generate enough energy or motivation to work. Too much, and you’ll crumple under the pressure, unable to focus on the task at hand.


Related: Stressed At Work? Research Suggests It Isn’t Just Your Job


So when you’re laboring under a certain degree of unavoidable stress, you need to make sure it’s the right amount to keep you plugging away, but not so overwhelming that your performance and productivity plummet. To keep things in balance, try kicking these three common habits people fall into when coping with work stress.

Mistake #1: Trying To Go It Alone

One side effect of stress it that it can sap your focus. You tend to get stuck in a cycle of thinking, called “rumination,” about the thing that’s stressing you out. In addition, since stress is your brain’s and body’s response to something you deem potentially dangerous, you become extra sensitive to things going on in your immediate environment (due to the fact that many of the stressors our evolutionary ancestors faced involved physical threats, not conceptual ones).

To compensate for these distracting tendencies, many people try to isolate themselves from other people when they’re under pressure. “If only I can get a few hours alone this week to really focus, I’ll be able to get a better handle on this,” you may think. But this habit might only make things worse. In fact, one way to help yourself get productive work done while you’re stressed is to work together in a group.

After all, another psychologically hardwired lesson from humans’ evolutionary past was safety in numbers. When we’re feeling threatened, we gravitate toward teams. Your brain will likely be able to stay more focused in stressful situations when you’re working with others than when you try to hack away at a problem on your own–that is, just as long as you don’t spend the whole time talking about whatever’s stressing you out.

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Related: 7 Steps To Take When Your Work Stress Becomes Too Much To Handle


Mistake #2: Sacrificing Your Downtime

Depending on the root cause, some stressful situations unfold over long periods of time–a few days, a couple weeks, even the better part of a year. If you work for a company that’s struggling to survive, you may see no end in sight to the high-pressure environment you’re working within. In cases like these, you need to find ways to escape at least for a while. Unfortunately, many people’s first reaction is to do the reverse–cutting back on personal time in order to slog through a tough situation.

Remember, stress isn’t just a response to what’s already going on around you–it’s also your reaction to negative things that might happen but haven’t yet. So it’s important not to sacrifice the habits and routines that sustain you over the long haul. And somewhat counterintuitively, one solution is to do things that lessen work-related stress in the near-term. Yoga and mindfulness exercises are common ways to create a sense of peace and serenity. No, they won’t eliminate your dread of what might still be on the horizon, but they can dampen the arousal that’s getting the best of you right now.


Related: Here’s How To Find A Minute Of Mindfulness Anywhere


The other alternative is just to find something truly enjoyable to do, whether or not it induces calm or mindfulness. Go to a movie or concert. Play a game. Do some exercise. In this case, you’re focusing your motivation on something desirable, rather than something stressful. The motivation to do pleasant things competes with the motivation to avoid negative ones. So if you can immerse yourself in positive activities, you’ll shift your motivation away from the focus on the stressors for a while. This can at lest help you keep stress that you can’t totally eliminate at manageable levels over long periods.

Mistake #3: Losing Perspective

When a big negative outcome feels like it’s right around the corner, it’s likely that your fear outstrips the potential reality. Stress causes you to magnify the imagined impact of the event you’re worrying about, which makes it hard to actually plan for it.

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To regain some perspective, force yourself to think through the worst-case scenario as methodically as you can. For example, if your company does go bankrupt, what would that actually mean for you within the first week  after it’s announced? The first month? How hard would it be for you to find another job? Would working somewhere else really be that bad?

When we’re under stress we can’t seem to control or mitigate, we tend to believe that bad outcomes will be much worse than they typically prove to be in reality. The researchers Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson have found that people regularly overestimate the long-term impact of negative events. Just telling yourself that you’re worrying needlessly isn’t likely to de-stress the situation, of course–you’re going to feel what you’re going to feel.

But to help you manage those feelings, try just accepting the worst imaginable outcome rather than struggling to avoid it with everything you’ve got. This way, if it really does come to pass, you may find yourself more resilient and adaptable than you’d thought.