Real Insights Blog

Best practices: How to manage and reduce stress

Some stress in your life is good. You want to feel challenged, alive, and striving for excellence.
November 1, 2011

By Chris Palmer and Angeli Gabriel

Some stress in your life is good. You want to feel challenged, alive, and striving for excellence. But here we’re talking about stress that leaves you despondent, enervated, and even phlegmatic – the very opposite of the way you want to feel.

In order to manage stress, you must first pinpoint the things that are creating it. This is crucial in directing your efforts to most effectively reducing the amount of stress in your life. In fact, you might be surprised to find out what exactly is causing your stress.

For instance, work is a common source of stress. However, dig a little deeper and ask what specifically about work causes stress? Is it the amount of work? Is it your relationships with bosses and co-workers? Is the work itself unfulfilling? If questions like these aren’t asked, then you risk misdirecting your time and energy toward unsuccessful ends – which can create additional stress. By first identifying specifically what causes stress at work or in any other aspect of life, you can take action to more precisely and effectively eliminate that stressor.

Stress in your job can be reduced by keeping two principles in mind. First of all, try to focus on things that are important, rather than urgent. Urgent yet unimportant tasks that come up throughout the day can easily cause you to veer off-track from your most important goals. Keep in mind that unimportant, urgent matters (for example, interruptions, gossip, some meetings and phone calls, and other people’s minor issues) should rarely be given priority over important yet not urgent matters (for example, preventing crises, getting feedback, building relationships, planning, preparation, reflection, learning, personal development, and seizing new opportunities). In this way, you can more easily focus on reaching your goals while eliminating distractions and stress.

Second, try to devote your professional life to a cause you care about. Having your heart in your work makes a world of difference in the amount of effort, time, and energy you put into it. When you spend hours of every workday in a field for which you have no passion, then you can become resentful, harassed, and anxious. Pursue work, if you can, in a field that is meaningful to you, because every minute you spend doing it will help reduce stress.

In order to reduce stress in your personal life, you must take care of yourself physically, socially, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and financially. You can only take on daily challenges if you are physically healthy. Your social and emotional well-being will give you the strength and confidence to overcome stressful setbacks. Meanwhile, taking care of your mental and spiritual health will eliminate some of the typical causes of stress and provide you a foundation upon which you can grow.

A fulfilling and meaningful life is what most of us hope to achieve. This can only happen if we learn to face the stressful challenges that arise at work and at home in a healthy, constructive, and effective way. By identifying the specific causes of our negative stress and then appropriately addressing each one, we can manage and reduce stress in a way that will lead us ever closer to reaching personal and professional fulfillment.

Chris Palmer is the director of American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking and author of the Sierra Club book “Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom.” Angeli Gabriel is an anthropologist, filmmaker, and MA candidate at American University.

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