Coping Skills To Use When Work Gets Tough

Two people at a table look at a laptop together.

Have you ever felt anxious at work?

You’re not alone. The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey consistently finds that most people find work a significant source of stress. While every source is different – maybe it’s a high pressure environment, personalities don’t mesh, or your office is understaffed – there are ways to overcome stressful moments at work. 

What does stress at work feel like? That can differ by person and situation, but some cues you’re enduring a high-stress moment include:

  • Feeling irritable or impatient 
  • Your thoughts are racing and it’s hard to focus 
  • Nervous energy (you can’t seem to easily sit still) 
  • Shortness of breath or feeling hot 
  • Grinding teeth or clenching the jaw 

While these feelings may pass, not acknowledging them or not seeking out ways to alleviate them can lead to burnout, which can be harder to treat. Instead, do what you can in the moment to help calm yourself and keep moving forward. 

Physical stress release  

The physical side effects of high stress can be uncomfortable, to say the least, and often call out for immediate relief.

If you’ve received less-than-stellar feedback from a manager or have experienced a deadline change, you might know those sudden stressful feelings – they can feel like a smack in the face. They get your blood pumping and your mind racing. 

In the moment, consider a few breathing exercises: 

Deep breathing

Stress can impact breathing, forcing us to take quick, shallow breaths. Take a few seconds to breathe deeply, into the belly. Fully expand your abdomen and hold the breath for just a few seconds. Exhale slowly. These deep, thoughtful breaths can help regulate the body’s nervous system just enough to help you feel calmer and able to think more clearly. You can even do this technique at a conference table because it’s so discreet. 

4-7-8 breathing 

Take a few minutes and find a place where you can focus on your breath. Exhale through the mouth to the count of eight. Then, inhale through the nose for four seconds. Hold that breath to the count of seven. Repeat for a few cycles until you’re feeling calmer. This technique can do double duty, as it also has long term calming effects. Some research indicates that it can also aid sleep

There are lots of breathing techniques that might be helpful in a stressful moment, so try a few to find the one that works best for you and the environment you’re in. Other ways you can physically lower your stress levels include: 

Feeling grounded

When you’re in a stressful moment, it can be hard to remember that it’s just one moment. Remind yourself of your surroundings by thinking about your feet on the ground, the colors you can see around you, the smells, what you can hear. Focusing on these senses brings you back to the present moment so you can focus on the problem with a clearer head. 

Tension release

Muscle tension is a common feeling when the body is stressed. To release them, tense each muscle group, first your toes, feet and then the legs. Next, your core and then your arms and upper body. Finally, squeeze the muscles in the face, even scrunching your eyes so tightly that they close. Building up all this additional tension and then releasing it will help relax the muscles, helping to alleviate stress in the body. 

Build a support system

Creating conditions for success isn't always simple, especially when a workplace consists of so many people and moving parts. Wires can get crossed easily and stress can build and build until it feels unbearable. 

Communicating feelings in a workplace isn’t always an easy endeavor, especially when times are stressful. Often, we tend to bottle emotions up and soldier on, thinking if we can just get through the next meeting, day, week, or deadline, things will get better. 

“Stress can also cause a person to pull away from people. They may want to draw within themselves and isolate themselves from loved ones,” explains the American Institute of Stress. “When this happens, communication is impaired and they’re not able to receive proper support and care from their community. When a person is feeling stressed, it’s easy for them to misunderstand another person’s intentions or what they are trying to communicate.” 

Here’s what you can do ease miscommunication in times of stress:

  • Ask questions. When things are happening quickly, questions are usually the first thing to go. Clarifying details or asking for more information about the project can help bring back the critical thinking that’s needed in a stressful team environment. 
  • Write it down. Creating a timeline, journaling, or setting up a brainstorming session can help anybody in a stressful moment. This will help you work through swirling thoughts in your head and remind you of your goals.
  • Vent. Venting might not solve your problems, but it will help you feel better. Seek out a coworker or friend and spend just a few moments getting to the root of your feelings. Saying it out loud often has a releasing effect, where it doesn't feel so overwhelming afterwards.

Building a support system, whether it be colleagues you can turn to in times of high stress or tools that can help you communicate to a manager, is an important factor in identifying and coping with tough times. 

The American Stress Institute also encourages practicing communication skills in less stressful times so that it becomes easier when it truly matters. 

“Instead of waiting until you reach a boiling point, let your friend, spouse, or loved one know when something frustrates you,” the organization says. “By expressing frustration or disappointment gently, you can de-escalate potentially stressful situations. Likewise, we should be willing to listen when a loved one expresses their feelings. Let them explain how things affect them and try not to interrupt.”

Finally, not all stress can be cured by good communication or breathing exercises. It might be something even bigger that requires more help. Don’t be afraid to seek out professional help when work life (or life in general) feels too heavy. 

Written by Kara Mason.

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