The University Record, June 5, 1995


Best way to survive stress is to control your reaction to it

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

"What brought you here this afternoon?" asked HRD consultant Christine Carlsen-Jones at the start of her Workplace of the '90s seminar on Keeping Cool with the Public in Stressful Situations.

"Too much to do and not enough time to do it," shot back one woman in the packed session, the most popular of the two-day conference.

Other answers poured out faster than Carlsen-Jones could write. Interruptions. Lack of information. Disorganization. Angry people. Constant changes. Lack of organizational support. Hypocritical bosses who don't follow their own rules. Co-workers who dump on you.

After filling two poster-size pages, she stopped writing and asked, "Is this depressing enough? Now which of these stressors do you have any control over?"

Staff reductions over the last several years have caused chronic work overload and increased the job-related stress level at the University and many other workplaces, she noted.

But unless you have the power to "RIF" a bad boss, hire competent new co-workers or cut back your job responsibilities to a manageable level, about the only part of job-stress you can control, she said, is your own reaction to it.

The goal: to do your work effectively, with interest, compassion and patience and to end the workday with a sense of satisfaction and the possibility of rejuvenation. The alternative: leave the office frazzled, drive home too fast, chug down sweets and caffeine to generate a second wind, clang pots and pans as you rush to fix dinner, then shout at children, husband, dog--whoever's unlucky enough to cross your path.

"Stand up if you eat breakfast every day," Carlsen-Jones asked the group, most of whom were women. She went on to list a number of other self-care activities that counteract the physical and emotional damage induced by chronic stress. These include exercising at least three times a week, quitting smoking, not drinking caffeine, cutting down on salt and sweets, doing yoga or meditation and soaking in a long, hot bath.

"Now draw three concentric circles on a sheet of paper," she directed. "In the center is you, in the outer circle, your stressors, and in the middle circle, your buffers--things you enjoy like walking the dog, meditating, reading, talking to a good friend, gardening, listening to music. Building time into your day for these buffers can go a long way to managing the stress that you're under.

"What if you have too many buffers and you get stressed out trying to fit them all in?" asked one woman, triggering knowing giggles from others.

As the first step in reducing stress by bringing life back into balance, Carlsen-Jones asked the group to draw a three-by-three grid, labelling the boxes as follows: contributions, hobbies, leisure, family, alone time, personal/spiritual growth, work, relationships, friends. After participants filled in the boxes with the items that fit their own lives, they were asked to notice which areas were nearly empty or overloaded.

Carlsen-Jones also discussed the power of self-talk. At first it might seem silly to tell yourself out loud that you're valuable, or good or competent, she said. But a growing number of studies and experiments demonstrate the value of the power of positive thinking.

After guiding participants through basic deep breathing and relaxation techniques, Carlsen-Jones closed the session with tips to ease long days with stressed-out co-workers.

Instead of spending time at the office complaining or back-biting, try circulating a question of the week, she suggested. What are you looking forward to the most this summer? What's the best vacation you ever had?

"The more we know about each other, the better we work together," she said. "And the better we work together, the better we all wind up feeling at the end of another hectic day."