A tried-and-true strategy to manage stress the moment it hits and rise to the top
“Get it done.”
These 3 simple words can trigger a visceral stress reaction. Your heart starts to race, your pulse quickens, and that sinking feeling of foreboding begins to creep through your body like hot ice. Your mind starts racing… there’s not enough time, money, people to get it done… but you bite your tongue, knowing your substantial limitations will fall on deaf ears. Your boss’s expectations are unrealistically high, the last minute adds and revisions are piling up, and every tick of the clock puts you dangerously closer to blowing your deadline and letting everyone down. How can you possibly get it all done?!
This is the moment you either can either sink or swim.
This is when you either succumb to the suffocating pressure, curl up in the fetal position, and give in… Or you beat back the overwhelm and regain control of both yourself and the situation to rise up against seemingly insurmountable odds and give it everything you’ve got.
As a former full-time Hollywood art director, I’ve lived through this dreadful scenario countless times and I admit, I’ve given into that stress. But after years of trial and error, I’ve developed this 5 step strategy for those terrifying moments when the odds are stacked against me – a strategy to fight back to the overwhelm, remain calm and collected, and take back control of the situation to get it done.
MY STRESS ROCK BOTTOM
Early in my art directing career, I was working out-of-town in New York City, supervising the set install of a new sports talkshow. What was pitched by the client as a “simple gig” of overseeing and QC’ing the in-house crew’s installation of existing scenery quickly evolved into an entire re-do of the set – something I was completely unprepared and understaffed for.
Now, instead of simply making sure scenery got put in the right place and the host desk didn’t have fingerprints on it, the executive producers had tasked me with repainting the studio, repainting the scenery from blue to grey, building new shelves, and shopping new set dressing for these new shelves. I was alone, it was Saturday night, my boss was 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, we were shooting the show the next day, and I was freaking the f*** out.
As these last minute demands flew at me like bullets, I felt my entire body growing tenser and tenser. My brain throbbed as I tried to think through every scenario I could to make it happen, but panic was starting to wash over me like a tsunami. “Where would I get crew on a Saturday night? Even if I worked straight through the night up until showtime, would I have enough time? Is there a paint store open at this hour? How can I shop for set dressing and paint at the same time?!” As these frantic questions swirled faster and faster in my mind, the overwhelm took hold and darker thoughts emerged: “This is hopeless. I’m going to let my boss down. I suck at my job. I’m a failure.”
Tears welled in my eyes and before I knew it, I was so stressed out I was hyperventilating in a full-blown panic attack in a bathroom stall.
While this story does end happily with me pulling myself together, finding a crew, and knocking out all the notes to get a good looking set on air in the knick of time, I had a massive epiphany that day: Never again would I let myself feel so overwhelmed, so powerless, and so out of control, especially because of work.
Through a combination of coaching, self-awareness, and plenty of trial and error, I developed more resilience, more mental fortitude, and this simple 5 step coping mechanism to stop feeling overwhelmed in the most stressful of moments.
5 STEPS TO MANAGE STRESS IN THE MOMENT
When you’re on the verge of shutting down in the face of insurmountable odds, these are the 5 steps you need to manage stress in the moment and rise to the top:
It sounds too simple, but deep breathing evokes a powerful physical relaxation response. When you practice focused breathing, you’re giving your brain more oxygen and triggering your parasympathetic nervous system to transition your body from a state of stress into a state of relaxation. This lowers your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and releases muscle tension.
So when shit hits the fan, take focused deep breaths. Like, expand-your-tummy-to-the-point-where-you-feel-fat deep. Count to 5 as you breathe in (1-2-3-4-5)… and then count backwards to 1 as you breath out (5-4-3-2-1). Or if you’re more of a visual person, use the GIF below – just breath in as the polygon expands and out as it collapses. Repeat this until your heart rate has slowed and your mind has settled enough to move on to the next step.
2. DISCONNECT & ASSESS
Now it’s time to take a step back from your stress ball of a situation. Become an outsider looking in. Get curious about what emotions you’re feeling and why you’re feeling this way. Ask yourself this question:
- What do I feel right now? (Afraid, anxious, overwhelmed, upset, angry, excited…)
- What’s causing me to feel this way? (lack of support, disorganization, unrealistic deadline, not having the necessary resources…)
When you disconnect from an emotionally intense situation, you create space between you and your emotions, allowing you to act rather than react. By identifying your feelings and their triggers (i.e. “I’m overwhelmed because I have way to much work to do in an impossible time frame,” “I’m afraid that if I can’t get this all done that means I’m a failure”), you can deconstruct this tangled web of overwhelm, self doubt, and fear and manage each source of stress individually. Consider this: it’s a lot easier to find your iPhone charging cable when it’s neatly coiled and stored in your work bag, instead of twisted in a rat’s nest of your 20,000 other charging cables!
Singling out each emotion and its cause will give you the clarity you need to take control of yourself, setting you up to successfully take control of the stressful situation at hand.
3. GET ORGANIZED
Once you’ve done your emotional housecleaning and stepped back from the “panic attack in the bathroom” ledge, it’s time to get organized and channel your stress into a concrete “to do” list.
Those stressors you just identified? Turn them around to create action items that you can take charge of and literally write down each task you need to accomplish to complete your work.
When your mind goes into panic mode, small things often get blown up to seem like astronomical issues, so writing out a list forces you to logically think through each step in the process, helping you gain perspective, uncover tasks that can be combined to save time, and discover pieces of the puzzle you hadn’t considered.
By writing it down, not only are you saving energy by releasing your brain from the exhausting task of holding on to all those thoughts, but you’re also taking the cluttered thoughts swirling around your head (much like your emotions) and organizing them into a coherent list of tangible actions you can then take in order to “get it done.”
And let’s be real, who doesn’t get satisfaction out of crossing off an item on your “to do” list?!
Even though you have your list of tasks written down in front of you, it may still be more complicated than you have the time, money, or people for. But don’t stress. Just prioritize.
The fact is, there are a limited number of hours in the day. There is a limited amount of money in the budget. There are a limited number of people who you will be able to find and hire to help you. While I will never condone giving up and accepting defeat, it’s important to be realistic and understand that these limitations might prevent you from accomplishing everything you want to.
Scan through your “to do” list and put a star next to every task that is essential to the completion of your job. What must you get done in order to achieve the larger objective of your goal? What will cause your project to crumble and fail if it’s not completed? These become your high priority tasks – the stuff you must start with.
Next, think through the items that didn’t make the “high priority” cut. These remaining items will likely fall into the category of smaller detail-oriented tasks or finishing touches (aka the “fluff”). If you’re sure your project will fly without them, these become low priority. If you happen to cross these items off, fantastic! If not, don’t waste your time and energy sweating it.
Think of it like this: If you give your best friend an unfrosted birthday cake, not only will you have delicious cake to eat, but the overarching gesture of thoughtfulness and kindness is communicated. Plus you can spin it – “naked” cakes are so in these days! Alternatively, if you give your best friend a fully decorated cake, you’ll still have cake to eat and you’ll still be communicating that you’re a good friend. The icing on the cake is just that – icing on the cake!!
5. TAKE ACTION
You are calm. You are in control. You have a to do list. And you know where you need to start. The time has come to take action and go full steam ahead.
YOU’VE GOT THIS
Stress is an inevitable part of life. Whether it’s sitting in traffic when you’re late for work, standing in line at Starbucks when your parking meter has expired, getting lost in an unfamiliar place, or pushing to hit an impossible deadline at work, stress is ever-present.
While you can’t always control the source of your stress, you can control yourself. Learning how to manage stress in the moment takes time, but it’s a valuable skill that will serve you for your entire life. The ability to manage stressful situations in a productive manner will not only result in a calmer, more empowered you, but this skill will also positively impact your relationships, your work, and every other piece of your life, ultimately lowering your stress levels and leading to a happier, healthier existence!
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