Why does it seem like some people effortlessly manage stress while others are easily overwhelmed?
The answer may lie in the differences between our anxiety threshold — the level of anxiety that, once reached or surpassed, affects our performance. In this post, I’ll share my three-step stress management system.
Stressors Hidden in Plain Sight
Everyday life is filled with activities and situations that can provoke stress or anxiety, like:
- Financial uncertainty or temporary setbacks
- Insecurities about one's abilities, social status or environment
- Fear-provoking interactions with authority figures
- Situations that require sustained concentration or focus
- Time pressures, multitasking and meeting assigned obligations
- Fatigue and lack of stamina
- Battling traffic and work commutes
- Unexpected changes, interruptions and uncertainty
When we reach our anxiety threshold, symptoms can manifest in a physical way (tight chest, panic attacks, feeling edgy or tense), a psychological way (fear, obsessive thoughts, and worst-case-scenario thinking), or a behavioral way (avoidance of anxiety-producing situations, which has its own side effects on work, school or social life).
Given the profound effect anxiety can have on our performance in and out of work, it's well worth the time and effort to understand our unique anxiety threshold.
My Three-Step Stress Management System
Here's how I'm tackling this personally. I'd love to hear in the comments how you manage your anxiety threshold, as we all operate differently!
1. Understand what triggers my anxiety most.
I notice positive correlations between actions and effects throughout my day and week.
For example, pre-pandemic, if I commuted across Los Angeles too many days in a week, I felt less resilient, creative and rested. Even when I was a passenger rather than I driver, I still felt worn-down after the commute. To address this, I made special efforts to schedule my week so that I commuted across town no more than three times a week.
How do you spot these patterns in the first place? I take emotional inventory in the morning and evening:
- I ask myself how I'm feeling: mentally, physically and emotionally. (I used to journal this, but now I just have an internal conversation with the mirror.)
- In the evening, I review the day to see what, if any, activities contributed to these feelings.
- I notice any prolonged patterns over days or weeks.
2. Assign value to the patterns I identify.
Not all stress is created equal. That's why I objectively determine which stress is "worth it."
Eustress is a word describing stress that has positive effects. For example, the physical stress of exercise can lead to feelings of accomplishment and pride afterward. The mental stress of completing a big work project can result in a tremendous feeling of fulfillment after it's over and you've produced the desired outcome.
Sometimes, it's a yes/no question: "Is the juice worth the squeeze?"
Other times, I dig deeper: "What about [this anxiety-producing situation] supports or nourishes me? What about it drains my energy or resources?"
3. Mitigate accordingly.
When I'm in mitigation mode, I look to decrease pressure and noise.
In the case of cross-town commutes, I can schedule appointments and social outings to fall on the same days. I then schedule "home" days where we don't have to leave the house if we don't want to.
The same goes with work travel -- if I have a few consecutive days where I'm frontstage and "on," I almost always schedule a few days of unplugged downtime so my body and brain can reset.
I used to feel uncomfortable about expressing or explaining this to others, but it's all in the language and intent. I get zero pushback when I say things like this:
- Can we please reschedule tomorrow's meeting to [future day] at [time window]? Thank you for your flexibility!
- May we move our meeting [this week] to [next week]? I'm working through an unintended schedule conflict, and want to be fully present for our conversation. Thank you for understanding!