When Stress Is Good
The much-maligned “S” word will make you more focused and resilient if you know how to control it. Here’s how to turn hair-raising frustration into bankable productivity.
“It’s a mistake to run away from your stress completely. It’s there to keep us activated and engaged,” says Redford Williams, a professor of behavioural medicine at Duke University, North Carolina. “If you’re never stressed you can’t rise to the occasion and you won’t be motivated or effective.” The trick is to locate the sweet spot between indifference and outright meltdown. Brace yourself, because it’s time to set your stress dial for optimal performance.
The MH STRESS TEST
Answer these questions on a Tuesday, the most stressful day of the week. At the end, add up your points to see where your stress levels are at and how to deal with them.
Choose one of the following answers for each question:
Always = 4 points | Frequently = 3 points | Sometimes = 2 points | Never = 1 point
1. How often is the palm of your hand cooler than your neck? (Place your palm on the side of your neck, just above the collar. If your hand is noticeably cooler, then you’re feeling stressed.)
2. How often do you get headaches, neck ache or muscle tension?
3. Set reminders on your phone for 9.20am, 12.45pm, 3.05pm and 5.10pm. When the alerts arrive, register your breathing: is it rapid and shallow?
4. How often do you think about your faults, failings or mistakes?
5. Do you feel unable to control the important things in your life?
FIND YOUR MOTIVATION
Score: 8 or below. You’re too relaxed and missing out on the benefits of your body’s survive and thrive response. “It must’ve been stressful for Apple employees to compete against each other and present to Steve Jobs, but the competition stress is vital to success,” says Todd Buchholz, author of Rush: Why We Thrive in the Rat Race (R173, Kalahari).
Apply that pressure yourself. “Present your boss with a list of things you want to achieve on top of existing goals. Then appoint “stress coaches” from your pool of colleagues and friends. This board of respected advisers can objectively assess your progress,” says Buchholz. “They’ll give you advice and the stress of meeting their expectations will force you to push yourself.”
Create a challenge in the office. You’ll develop a culture of targets, whic wi’ll provide performance-boosting motivation.
STAY IN THE ZONE
Score: 9-12. You’ve mastered the art of a balanced nine-to-five. Here’s how to keep it working for you.
The sweet spot is that point somewhere between “coasting along and being paralysed by panic”, says Dr Robert Rosen, psychologist and author of Just Enough Anxiety. You may be able to galvanise yourself against a heavy workload, but repeat the test every six months to ensure the scales are still tipped in your favour.
GET BACK IN CONTROL
Score: 13 or above. There’s too much stress in your life and it could be damaging your performance. Keep a lid on its negative effects.
First cut the emails you send to nearby colleagues, says Professor Cary Cooper, psychologist at Lancaster University. A study in the Journal of Personality found that banter moderates stress-related rise in your heart rate.
Next, analyse. “Ask four questions,” says Williams. “Is the source of stress important? Is the stress justified? Can I change the situation? Is it worth doing something?” This “mindful” approach makes the source objective. The psychological distance you create flips your brain into problem-solving mode.
Now rearrange your to-do list. Put reading tasks immediately before stressful meetings. A study at the University of Sussex found that reading silently for six minutes reduced stress levels by 68%.
If all else fails, log on to tetris.com. Oxford University research found the game reduces stress-related memory flashbacks. Perfect after a tough meeting – though not if your boss catches you.