Learning to surf - 5 ways to prevent stress affecting you at work

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surfJon Kabat-Zinn


Stress in the workplace is normal – there are deadlines to meet, more work than hands on deck and you don’t necessarily get on with everyone in the office.  With the global economic downturn, there is greater insecurity and fear of job loss. Each year and decade seems to be getting faster than the previous with new technology that keeps us connected to work 24/7. Excessive stress however, can interfere with your productivity and have a negative impact on your physical and emotional wellbeing. Most people get this – but what can we do to prevent the negative impact of stress on our lives?


What makes some people more susceptible to the effects of stress?

Have you noticed that some people seem to be consumed by their life and work circumstances while others may be challenged but generally get on with life?

The key to surfing the waves of challenge is to:

 UNDERSTAND your reactions
 CHOOSE your actions


Do your coping strategies still work for you?

In this classroom of life we learn from a young age to cope with likes and dislikes, challenges and pain. We often take on the strategies of our parents and the significant others in our lives. In the workplace we adapt our strategies to cope with the specific challenges we face in the corporate environment.

Symptoms of excessive stress:

  • Feeling anxious, irritable, nervous or overwhelmed
  • Depressed or loss of interest in work
  • Problems sleeping and always tired
  • Struggling to concentrate or make decisions
  • Deteriorating health
  • Social withdrawal
  • Relying on alcohol or drugs to cope

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms the chances are that your existing coping skills are no longer working for you. It is time to make some changes!

It’s also a good idea to see a health professional if these symptom continue.


5 ways to prevent stress affecting you at work

As beauty is in the eye of the beholder – so stress is in the eye of the beholder! It’s all about your attitude to the challenges you face.  Here are ways UNDERSTAND your reactions and CHOOSE your actions:

1.      Increase your self awareness

Practice mindfulness

Left to itself, the mind wanders through all kinds of thoughts — including thoughts of anger, craving, depression, revenge, self-pity, etc. As we indulge in these kinds of thoughts we reinforce those emotions in our hearts and cause ourselves to suffer. In most cases we are rehashing the past or rehearsing the future.  By practicing mindfulness we bring our attention to the present moment, noticing our thoughts, emotions and body sensations as they come up and without judgement.


Mindfulness at work – become more aware of being aware!

Start slowly - Bring mindfulness to 1 work activity

Some examples:

  • Actively listen to a colleague
  • Notice your words, the language and tone that you use
  • Take 3 breaths before answering the phone
  • Take a few deep breaths or look away from your computer before sending emails


Identify your emotional triggers

Have you ever reacted to something but weren’t quite sure why? Some emotional reactions are justified e.g. fear in the face of danger, but some reactions are not justified or the intensity is not justified given the situation e.g. blowing up because someone spilt the milk.

  • Notice your thoughts and emotions as they arise
  • Notice your triggers
    • are they thoughts about the actions of others?
    • are they thoughts about your actions – past (fear) or future (anxiety)?
    • are you judging yourself for present actions?

Its important not to judge yourself, as this just brings on more stress. Most of us are conditioned to continually judge our experiences and we sometimes even judge our judgements!

By noticing your thoughts and emotions you get to know your triggers – allowing you to make better choices when faced with similar situations.


Know your strengths

We all have a good dose of both strengths and weaknesses, yet so many of us dwell in what we can’t do or what we would like to do better. Acknowledge your weaknesses and work on them where possible. But most importantly work on your strengths, use your strengths regularly and in fact actively talk about what you love doing and what you are good at.

Generally we all love doing what we are good at. Words like ‘motivated’, ‘passionate’ and ‘excited’ spring to mind when I think about my strengths – how do you feel about your strengths?

Working to your strengths helps you prioritise and helps you stay positive.

 2.      Prioritise and Plan

Are you feeling overwhelmed? Is there too much to do and too little time in the day?

Then it’s time to take control over your life and your situation again. It’s the feeling of being out of control that makes the situation stressful.


Start by implementing some time management principles

  • Prioritise your tasks each day – it’s so much easier to say ‘no’.
  • Do the important things and the urgent things take care of themselves.
  • Be realistic - Don’t over-commit yourself – we are often our worst enemy. It feels good to be part of the action, but taking on too much adds unnecessary stress.
  • Delegate where possible – getting some control back of your life may also mean giving some control away. You don’t have to do everything!
  • Ask for help – You may feel compelled, responsible or accountable to do it all yourself, but that is usually a perception based in pride. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it could be the best thing for the situation and your own wellbeing.


3.      Be positive

Have you noticed your constant mind chatter? It can be quite eye-opening, if not amusing! Is there a predominance of negative and self-limiting thoughts? Turning negative thoughts patterns into positive thoughts or affirmations, will change your pattern of thinking, which will in turn change your outcomes.


If you truly want to change your world, my friends, you must change your thinking … spoken by Sir Lawrence Olivier in “Time”


Bring mindfulness to your thoughts and language. Phrases like ‘I can’t’ can be replaced with ‘How can I’. It may seem trivial, but I used to often say “I can’t wait to see you” – I have replaced it with “I can hardly wait to see you”. Much of our language is habitual so it will take a committed effort to notice your language and use predominantly empowering language. You may want to ask a friend to help you with this.


4.      Take care of yourself

Excessive stress has negative effects on your physical and emotional wellbeing. These effects often impact on your relationships at work and in your personal life. Taking care of your own needs makes you stronger and more resilient. It’s important to schedule work, family time AND downtime each day – rest and relaxation is a priority!


Making lifestyle changes in all areas is usually not possible or sustainable. By making a conscious effort to include small positive changes in the following areas of your life over time, you will find your stress levels start to decrease and you will become more resilient to life’s challenges.


Exercise – at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity daily

Healthy food – maintaining an even level of blood sugar

Sleep – work out a bedtime routine that is conducive to restful sleep of about 8 hours per night.

Fun – “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” Humour and laughing are great stress relievers!

Friends – Spending time with family and friends adds a wonderful dimension to our lives and they help us make it through the tough times.


5.      Being grateful

Being grateful for all that you have in your life brings a constant sense of appreciation and a positive mindset. When there have been tough situations during the day, consider what that situation may have brought into your life. It could be a greater sense of perseverance, courage, compassion, a resolve to make changes or even a sense of strength through personal survival. All challenges in our life carry their lessons and it’s only through reflection and gratitude that we may learn the true meaning of these lessons.

Cultivating a sense of gratitude takes practice and a daily Gratitude Journal is a good way to start. Gratitude develops over time by purposefully and consciously reflecting on the all the things you are grateful in your life. Before long you realise that this has become your default mode and that those around you have changed – your world has changed.



Potentially stressful situations are abundant in life. Whether we rise to the challenge or we are overwhelmed by the problem depends on how we ‘see’ the situation. For this reason, the key to surfing the waves of challenge is to UNDERSTAND our reactions and CHOOSE our actions.

I have presented here only a few highlights of the ways I have helped build resilience in my clients. As we are all unique, there are many ways of coping with life’s challenges.
What strategies have helped you cope in stressful situations?
Do you have a story of how changing your perception of the problem has changed the outcome?

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