Sometimes you can’t simply avoid stress or make it go away. How can you handle it when there’s no other alternative?

I often write on this web site about ways to avoid workplace stress or stop it happening in the first place. That’s obviously the best course of action, but this isn’t a world where you can always find the ideal situation, however hard you try. You need options to help you when stress cannot be avoided. Here are some suggestions.

What can you do when you can’t avoid a stressful situation or escape from one that has already grabbed you? Is the only course to try to tough it out?

I don’t think so. Here are some other approaches that you can try when prevention or avoidance aren’t available.

  1. Never neglect the obvious. Nothing will elude your attention as consistently as whatever you take for granted. Before you give up, or try some exotic remedy, try considering whether there are some totally obvious aspects of the situation or your working habits that are producing some of the stress. Perfectionism is a common one. Another is neglecting your physical needs for periods of rest, What are the most obvious (and therefore most neglected) actions you could take to improve your situation? Close your eyes and take a break from the world. Get up every 45 minutes for a brisk walk, even if it’s only around the office. Stop going over and over the same thoughts and simply move on.
  2. What ways of coping are hidden by convention or supposedly obvious “truths?” What aren’t you seeing because someone told you in the past that it won’t work, or wouldn’t be allowed? Are you maybe contributing to your own stress by following conventional working patterns, when the situation needs an unconventional style? What are you assuming won’t help, without even trying it?
  3. Which of your unconscious habits might be part of the problem? Worrying is a mental habit that can pile on the pressure. So is feeling guilty for feeling stress at all. How you work may also be part of the difficulty. Perhaps you always work directly on your computer, when some time making hand-written notes might help to break up the monotony and give your eyes a rest. We all become so used to our habitual way of doing something that we can’t even conceive of handling it differently. Try. It may feel odd and uncomfortable at first, but it might produce ways that can lessen the pressure.
  4. What distractions can you remove? Turn off the e-mail notifier. Close down IM. Decide not to answer phone calls for the next hour. Find somewhere to work away from your desk, where casual callers won’t find you. Distractions are terrible thieves of time and ruin your productivity. If you’re under pressure, especially time pressure, constant distractions will raise your blood pressure quicker than almost anything else.
  5. Slow down. Yes, I know that seems like the last thing that will help, but if that’s what you think, you’re wrong. Pressure tends to make you speed up, try to cut corners, jump to quick conclusions and snap judgments, go faster and faster. All of these increase the rate of mistakes and the need for re-working. Then that makes you feel even more stressed, so you speed up some more. It’s a vicious cycle that continually adds to the pressure. So slow down. It may feel counterintuitive, but it’s often the best way to save time overall.
  6. Don’t assume that you don’t already have the answer. Often the best way to produce a mental breakthrough—the kind that lets you jump right to a solution, without needing to spend half the time you thought it would require—is to take all the bits and pieces of ideas and thoughts you have already and play around with them. Shift them into new patterns. Try fitting pieces together that don’t seem to belong. You’ll be amazed at what will pop out. Best of all, since all the pieces are familiar to you, it may not take much time to craft the new combination into a workable solution.
  7. Eat regularly, but lightly. Drink often, avoiding alcohol or caffeine. This is simply commonsense. You’ll need energy to cope with the stress, so that means sufficient food. But not too much at a time, or you’ll start to feel sleepy and sluggish, which is the last thing that you need. Caffeine in large doses will keep you awake but send your mind buzzing like a hamster on a wheel. Alcohol will numb your brain.
  8. Move around as often as you can. Our brains and bodies are linked. If your body is stiff and cramped, your back aches from hunching over your work or sitting in a bad chair, your head aches from poor lighting or just the continual tension, and you feel lousy, you aren’t going to be able to produce your best work—and now, when the pressure is on, is when you need that most. Movement is good for you. Use it to help lessen your physical and mental tiredness.
  9. Get a regular change of scene. It’s easy for some place to become so associated in your mind with the pressure that you start to feel stressed and anxious just by going there. A change of scene can refresh your mind and help you lighten up. Anxiety makes you grim, and grim isn’t going to help you.
  10. Get as much sleep as you can. Anxious people often tell themselves that they won’t be able to sleep, so they stay up late working. But almost any sleep is going to help and it’s easy to over-estimate how long you’ve been lying awake in the dark. It may feel like hours, but it could be just a few minutes, while the rest of the time you were sleeping. It’s worth a try anyway. Depriving yourself of sleep is going to make the pressure worse. And, since one of the keys to getting to sleep is sticking to regular habits, make sure you go to bed at your usual time. Burning the midnight oil is best avoided if at all possible.
  11. Know when you’ve had enough. Sometimes, the only sane thing to do is give up and get some rest. Do it. Don’t kid yourself that you can keep going when all the others have given in. Knowing your own limits is the best way to preserve your health and avoid making mistakes you’ll regret bitterly. Whatever anyone else says, when it’s time to quit, just do it.

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