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Choosing Your Battles: When to Let Stress Work For You

[Originally published November, 2015]



Something that I've found influences my work productivity (and consequently, my level of satisfaction with my work) more than I ever realized is self-communication. That sounds weird. But really what I mean by self-communication is the ongoing monologue happening in my head at any given moment of the day

And I've found that how I communicate with myself -- basically, the thoughts I think -- goes a long way toward determing not only my productivity level and the degree of satisfaction with my own work, but also my level of stress in the workplace.

Whether it's workload, coworkers, working conditions, or any number of external or internal factors, just about everyone experiences work-related stress. There are a ton of studies on that very topic. One of my favorites, however, is the study summarized in a TED talk by Kate McGonigal, a plucky, redheaded health psychologist who posits that we can make stress our friend.

Say what?

Yep. I won't summarize the entire video here -- you should seriously take 15 minutes to watch it -- but in short, Kate's studies seem to indicate that stress is only bad for you if you believe that to be the case. In reality, what stress looks like physiologically (heart pounding, breath quickening, forced sweat) is actually our bodies preparing to meet a perceived challenge.

Interesting.

So while I don't doubt the theory itself, nor the power of the mind and our thoughts, I'm not sure I can successfully manage to always think of stress as a positive thing. Too often, stress is a perceived negative because it results from negative circumstances. But our minds can be trained, And what I can do is start training my mind to think about stress differently. I can start choosing my stress battles in the workplace.

My goal, rather than to let stress build up to the point of completely overwhelming me, is to let stress step in and save the day by helping me power through...

  • A looming deadline

  • An uncomfortable or tense conversation

  • A mistake or error that needs to be corrected

In these and other similar situations, my goal is to pay attention to how I communicate with myself. Rather than feeling my beating heart and thinking, Ugh, I'm so nervous, I need to take a deep breath and calm down so I can get this done... I want to train myself to think something more like, Okay, I feel the rapid heartbeat. That's my body getting the blood flowing and ready to overcome this challenge, and let the stress propel me forward.

Do I think stress is always going to be beneficial? Maybe not. But because stress is inevitable and unavoidable, I'm glad to find a method of thinking that doesn't try to completely exclude it from our lives but rather embraces it for the positives it has to offer.

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