If you're stressed out, inward investigation might help

How to get some relief

How often have you heard (or said): “I am stressed out!”. This statement is heard in many areas of our life. It’s said so often it seems almost as if it is some sort of badge of honor. Is this implying that if we aren’t stressed, then somehow we are not really pulling our weight? Yes or no, it is clear that there is a lot of stress and little being done to actually reduce it.

Common approaches I hear to reducing stress have to do with exercise, trying to relax or managing our lives differently (e.g. time management). In my personal experience, exercising often relieves my “stress”. This is a great outcome from exercise, yet a lack of exercise is rarely the source of my stress. Exercise by itself changes how I feel, but it does little to get to the underlying source of the stress.

In my experience as an executive coach, getting to the source of stress and working to reduce it, requires that we investigate ourselves deeply. By this I mean that we describe our stress in a very detailed way that allows us to more fully experience what is happening to us, as well as find keys to relieving the stress.

I’m fond of saying that there are three axioms of the human experience that we all share.

  1. We all think, feel, and act. This means that we all have a cognitive part of us that thinks, we have sensations and emotions, and we all behave or our bodies are in action.
  2. The way we think, feel, and act, are all connected and relate with each other. Just imagine for a moment that you are standing on the edge of a tall building. Did you feel the fear? Did your body clench even the slightest?
  3. We are semi-conscious of how we are thinking, feeling, and acting. This axiom is partly unfortunate as it is part of the reason it is hard for us to change. If we are unaware, how can we change. The good news here is that the more aware we become, the more choices we will have.

With the understanding that we all think, feel, and act, we can now investigate our stress. Differentiate your stress into what you are thinking, how you are feeling (both sensations and emotions), and behaviors and actions. As an example, a client reported that he is stressed out over an upcoming deadline at work. When I first asked him about it, he puts it into external terms.

His boss has asked that he complete a deliverable earlier than originally planned and his team is struggling making the required progress. Further investigation is focused on my client’s personal experience. I learn that he is THINKING (self-talk): “I can’t get all of this done on time.” “My team is mad at me because I caved in with my boss’s request.” “I’m going to have to work this weekend to get done.”

Switching to how he is FEELING, I learn that his shoulders are tense, his hands are clenched and his breath is short. Emotionally, he says he is mad, and a further query on my part has him revel that he is fearful. BEHAVIORALLY, he reports that he is avoiding some of his team, and has been short with his wife. A systematic awareness of an issue often leads to some level of relief.

It is hard to become aware of having tense shoulders without then relaxing them. When we admit that we are fearful, we often are relieved as we may quickly see that the fear is to some degree overblown or irrational. I have found that an inquiry into all three areas (thinking, feeling, and acting) is key. Leaving one or two aspects of our experience out of our investigation hampers our efforts to understand what is happening and therefore we are less likely to shift.

With practice, we can learn to differentiate our own stress. This is often a very big step for people without some support. Options include talking to a trusted friend or your spouse. If you go this route, I suggest that you ask her (or him) if you can tell her about your stress and simply ask her to listen. After you have fully told her about your experience, then you might ask her if she has any questions. I recommend delaying getting advice until you have thoroughly investigated your personal state.

Another option is to seek professional help. This can be a coach like myself or perhaps a counselor or psychologist.

Get clearer and more aware of your stress with inward investigation!

Categories: Business Insights, Human Resources