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Maintaining Productivity in High-Stress Situations

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broken ropeBuilding solid systems, having well-established rituals, and approaching life with a mindset of responsibility and productivity will eliminate a lot of stress.

But life will always manufacture situations that are out of our control. The universe is bigger than we are, and circumstances that stress us out are part of it.

Causes of High Stress

High stress might come from positive changes: for example, the intensity and anxiety of starting a new job. You may love the opportunity and better salary, but the change itself is stressful and the new position requires learning, adjustment, and establishing new routines and work relationships. That’s stressful, even though the cause of the stress is good.

High stress might come from an emergency situation, such as a car accident, illness, or family crisis, which requires us to put work and productivity on hold. Other stress-causing circumstances, however, might continue indefinitely. You’ve got to be able to function and be productive, even when you have a new baby at home keeping you up all night, or you’re recovering from a break-up, or your kid is having trouble at school.

And some stress-causing circumstances, like the new job situation, are directly related to our ability to be productive. That new client doubled your work load, which is a great thing for your income but a stressful thing for your schedule. Meanwhile, life with all its normal demands continues.

Reduce Stress with Rituals

yoga stanceYour rituals are your lifeline in stressful situations. It might be tempting when you feel overwhelmed with a particular circumstance to push aside your normal routines.

Don’t give in to this temptation.

You need those rituals more than ever. When you’re stressed, when the pressure is intense, those rituals give you stability. They give you predictability in a time when things seem overwhelming. Don’t cheat yourself out of that safe space, that comfort.

Cling to your rituals for structure in the midst of stress. Write them down, and check them off as you go through each one. It might feel mechanical and unproductive, but it’s not. Even if circumstances demand that you shorten rituals or do them less often, maintain that shortened version or less-frequent version of your ritual. Rituals give you a feeling of normalcy, which your brain desperately needs in stressful circumstances.

Let Some Areas Go to Minimum

Stress has severe effects on the way your brain functions. When I’m tired, hungry, or just distracted by a loud environment, I’m not going to be able to do as much, or do it as well or as quickly as I normally can. Stress is much worse in its effect on our ability to reason and be creative.

It’s senseless and unfair to require yourself to produce the same way you do in optimum situations.

Choose some areas that can get by on the minimum for a while. What can slide? What can be reduced? What can be put on hold? If you have several open projects, close one or two for now. Reduce your social obligations. Take some time off from that board you’re on or the big home improvement project you had planned.

Some things can wait, and allowing them to wait will free you up to deal with the other, demanding, stressful stuff. It’s not ideal; that’s okay. You’re not setting up a new way of life. You’re setting up a temporary coping measure. Put a time limit on these minimums, if that gives you some peace of mind: pencil in a date when you’ll look at your reductions and decide if you can bring things back up to their normal level.

Talk About the Situation

man and woman discussingNo one knows what you’re thinking unless you share it. This is obvious, right? But we often assume that other people realize we’re stressed, and will offer to help or give us adequate space to deal with what’s stressing us out.

Like all assumptions, that’s a dangerous idea.

You might not let your stress show. Or people might not know how to help.

Communicating with people you trust about the stressful situation helps to reduce the stress, too. It’s social support; when you can talk to a trusted family member, friend, or therapist, you’ll be better able to psychologically handle the effects of high-stress situations.

It can be hard to start talking. Sometimes you have to force yourself to take that step. If talking out loud to someone is too difficult, start with a journal: writing things down can be therapeutic. See if you can move from a writing exercise to a trusted friend, family member, mentor, coach, or therapist.

Keeping everything inside your head is not the best way to deal with stress. Talk about it, and you’ll be able to see it better. Talk about it, and you bring it down to size. Talk about it so you can see yourself separate from the situation — see what you can control and what you can’t. Talk about it so you feel understood, not alone, and so you can find ways other people can help you.

Get the Extra Help You Need

My Mom needed full-time care for the last month of her life, so we had friends and hospice nurses come in regularly to help. That way my sister, my Dad, and I could take a break together. We could talk. We could get out of the house. We could breathe a little bit.

We also called on our friends from the church and community for help with food and childcare for my baby and my sister’s two young children. We had friends showing up at our door almost daily with meals, even in the midst of their own busy lives. The thought of their ongoing generosity still brings me to tears.

You don’t have to be dealing with something as intense as cancer to ask for help. When I have a particularly full workweek, I schedule more childcare and ask my husband to take the kids out of the house for an evening or weekend afternoon. When you’re overwhelmed by any circumstance in life, you are living in high stress.

Ask for the help you need so you can quit feeling overwhelmed.

There are people in your life who can and will help you: you can hire them or you can ask them. Or both. Several years ago, I fell and broke my shoulder. Our four kids ranged in age from six months to five years old at the time. The youngest was still nursing, and I could only use one arm. I called a friend who came over and helped me do laundry, clean up, take care of the kids, and prepare meals. I needed help, she needed money; I paid her a little bit, and she gave me an enormous amount of help.

Hire a housecleaner, a laundry service, a cleaning service, a virtual assistant, get some childcare, trade for services, outsource work, barter with people, call on your family, call on your friends, call in your favors. Get help. You can have it, you need it, and when you ask for it you will get it.

Don’t Stay in High Stress

woman going out the doorStress isn’t always avoidable, but chronic stress is not okay. We can’t eliminate all stress from our lives. But we can, and should, seek to reduce it. If you find yourself in a never-ending high-stress situation, you need to look for ways to change it.

Ongoing chronic stress is damaging to your brain and increases the likelihood of mental illness. Chronic stress is linked to digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, and weight gain.

If you can’t eliminate the high-stress situation from being part of your life, you can build rituals into your life that help reduce stress. Exercise, meditation, prayer, learned optimism, and positive social interaction are all helpful. It’s important to build habits into your life that will help you defuse the tension in your brain, relax, and focus on positive productivity.

Have you found other specific ways to handle high-stress situations? What rituals or resources do you turn to when you’re under high stress? 

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Posted by Annie Mueller  | September 28, 2015 at 7:41AM | Reply

Sonia, thanks for your comment. I think you’re absolutely right about why routines/rituals help so much during stressful times.

I am very sorry to hear about your Dad. I hope he is well.

Posted by Sonia Harris  | September 24, 2015 at 6:54PM | Reply

This is a great article. I am particularly interested in using rituals to reduce stress. I know that maintaining routines in high stress situations has helped me. I think it is about being engaged in something that doesn’t take too much active thought whilst still using part of your brain to deal with a crisis. I curated this content on my own blog and whilst writing it received a phone call that my dad was in hospital. A very surreal situation.

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