Tough Topics Challenging Office Conversations

Responding to Stressful Workday Situations

If we look closely at how we think throughout a workday, it turns out that for most of the day we’re simply bouncing from thought to thought — without much awareness of the quality of those thoughts.

Drew Amoroso

And when it comes to experiencing stress during a workday, much of that stress can be attributed to very specific workday situations we encounter. For example:

  • A new task comes up that you’ve never done before — you become anxious about figuring out how to complete it.
  • Someone sends you an email asking you for an update — you tense up because you know you’re behind.
  • You receive some negative feedback from a client or a supervisor — the feedback feels like a personal attack and you internalize your emotions. 
  • You’re spending extra time on something you thought would be simple — you start to beat up on yourself for not being efficient and managing your time better.

These are workday situations we all can relate to. If we’re not aware of how situations like this can make us feel anxious, fearful or frustrated, we can move through an entire workday simply internalizing the stress that comes with these thoughts.

But here’s the big secret: We can train our brain to have a different response to a situation that would normally trigger us to sit with a stressful thought for our entire workday. One way to process stressful situations is a technique called “When This, Then That.”

The goal of this four-step process is to identify a stressful thought that’s connected to a workday situation you encounter and to come up with a plan for how you’re going to “reframe” the thought the next time that situation arises.

Here’s how it works.

STEP 1: Identify a recurring stressful workday situation you encounter.

Bring to mind a particular situation that causes you recurring stress. It could be receiving a certain type of email, interacting with a certain person on your team, or that moment when you feel like you’re way behind on a project.

For the sake of an example, one situation from early on in my career that always caused me stress was the moment I received very poignant, constructive feedback. When someone would tell me that they disagreed with me or gave me critical feedback, it felt like a personal attack, and I was quick to internalize it.

“We can train our brain to have a different response to a situation that would normally trigger us to sit with a stressful thought for our entire workday.” 

Choose and write down a single situation that causes you to feel an immediate sense of stress.

STEP 2: Write out the reactive thought thats the root cause of the stress.

In this step, write down the very first thought that comes to mind when you encounter this situation. It’s normally this first “reactive” thought that causes us to experience stress.

In my example, this is the reactive thought I used to have: “This was an attack on me, they don’t think my work is good enough, and this is going to change their viewpoint of me.”

STEP 3: Draw a line through reactive thought.

This step is in part symbolic, but drawing a line through this reactive thought is a powerful way to acknowledge that you’re actively choosing to let go of the thought and replace it with one that suits you better.

STEP 4: Identify one to three things you’re going to do the next time this situation comes up and you can catch yourself having this reactive night. 

In the final step, come up with a plan you’ll set into action when this stressful situation arises. The goal is to outline a process that will help you convert a reactive thought into a set of constructive actions. Think of it as a mini roadmap that will help you navigate this situation each time it comes up.

In my example, I decided that anytime I received feedback that made me uncomfortable, I was going to:

  • Get up from my chair and take a deep breath.
  • Move out of my workspace and take a several-minute break.
  • Remind myself that the feedback I received had nothing to do with me as a person and that it wasn’t personal. The feedback was about my work — and every piece of feedback I get is a golden opportunity to improve. I should welcome feedback because it gives me perspective and sharpens my ability.

And so, every time this situation arose for me, I walked through this process. Working through a process like this allows you to acknowledge much faster that a reactive thought is causing you stress — and you can take some simple steps to address it with intention.

Over time, the anxiety you feel around a situation dissipates because you recognize what your mind is doing, and you have a process in place to address it.