I can’t think of a single person in my life who isn’t at least partly stressed. And I’m not alone.
Stress is a reality for 3 out of 4 Americans, and one of the main culprits is the workplace. Whether the stress comes from their boss, their colleagues, their own expectations, or just the rigors of the job, the feeling tends to be the same: you have too much on your plate and you can’t handle it. If you feel this way, take heart: you are not alone either.
We are all working longer hours, and work is seeping into a larger portion of our lives: holidays, weekends, vacations, first thing in the morning, last thing at night. An office used to be a thing you went to for a certain number of hours a day, now, work is an entire plane of existence. An office was once a place, and now it’s a state of mind. Worse, we’re spending more and more time there because we carry it with us. We can’t pack up and leave this place behind for the day as easily as our grandparents once left their offices. We now pack up our office itself, bring it home, into our beds and our relationships, to our kids’ soccer games and to the bars with friends.
Those in the workplace with a college degree “spend 10 percent more time working now than they did in 1980,” which was not a lax period for the workforce. The total effect of all these work hours has been brutal on the individual. And it’s not just what we think of as high-stress jobs like ER doctors and policeman. It’s everyone’s job. 2 out of 3 American workers suffer sleep problems due to work-related stress. And this disrupted sleep ends up spiking the very stress that causes it, setting us up in a cycle that’s tough to break.
Of course, the workplace is only one arena where stress rears its ugly head. In the 21st century, stress seems to have spread to all corners of our lives. Who knew having a Wi-Fi-connected smartphone in our pocket with the ability to know every fact in the world and access to everyone we ever met could have a downside?
All this stress is simply unnatural, as in literally not what nature intended. Our minds and bodies can’t handle it. We once needed our stress reflexes to avoid predators out on the savannah. We evolved to survive those types of situations. Now, though those moments are unlikely, our body still reacts as if bison are lurking around the corner. (Evolution is slow!) Stress once arose out of a biological need; it was a threat response that meant life vs. death. Though the modern world has gotten rid of many of these bodily threats, we are still walking around with brains that aren’t so sure.
“Stress is defined as a reaction to environmental changes or forces that exceed an individual’s resources. That’s important: Stress is a response, the feeling of the world imposing itself on us. Notice I said ‘the feeling.’ That’s because—newsflash—the world is not actually imposing itself on us. The world is just going about doing its spinning. So stress is not about a hard reality that you are experiencing but rather your perception of that reality.
Once we accept that to be true, that stress is a response, then our next step is to embrace the obvious flip side: there are things we can do about it.
That idea is empowering. I used to get stressed out by all kinds of things: being stuck in traffic, running late, right before the big game or the big presentation, and in the lead up to a tough conversation. I was constantly on edge and rarely felt ‘at ease.’ But I’ve worked hard to evolve and to lower my stress response. I’ve conditioned myself to effectively manage that response in situations where it once spiked. No longer am I being driven by that uncomfortable feeling that I can’t handle what’s coming. I’ve developed the tools to do the driving myself: I accept what is, I know what I can control and what I can’t, and I have built the confidence to handle any situation thrown my way.
Everyone in your life and office is expecting you to be your best self and stress is the daily enemy that gets in your way. But what are we doing to combat it? Well, first ask yourself this: what are you doing to invite it?
Stress is a choice. I know what you’re thinking: Who the hell is this guy telling me I’m choosing to have to do five things before I can leave the office, and my boss is now asking for x and my wife needs me to do y, while my kids beg for z? Trust me: Stress has to pass through our brains first. The event is not the stress. Our reaction to the event is the stress. The events themselves are inherently neutral. They simply take on the meaning, feeling, and emotion we assign to them. If you take nothing else from this section, remember that. Your mind is the ingredient that makes stress what it is. Stress doesn’t exist independently outside of us.
In my first book Raise Your Game I emphasized a favorite phrase of mine: control the controllables—whether it’s on the basketball court or in the office. The key is to work on your own effort and attitude, which is all you can really do anyway. Your day is going to be filled with things beyond your control, but your response is 100% your choice. You may not always have control of your situation or circumstances (in fact, you rarely do), but you always have control in how you respond. Choose responses that empower you, move you forward, and improve your situation. It’s that simple. And that hard. So stress starts inside of us and with this knowledge and understanding, we can take action against it.