Stress can kill — yet it is also essential for life. In this article, Bob Patchett looks at how best to control and manage stress.

If, as you cross the road, you hear a loud horn and a screech of brakes, you do not pause to ponder what is happening and what you should do about it but, without hesitation, leap on to the nearest pavement. Your pulse will be racing, but very quickly you will calm down. Panic causes a chemical to surge through your body, but this quickly dissipates. This is the stress mechanism that could have saved your life and that of your forebears over millennia as they faced primitive dangers.

However, if you encounter one crisis after another, the chemical fails to dissipate and that can cause illness and even death. If we continue a life of constant crises we will not live to enjoy our pension, so we need to recognise the problem and take steps to resolve it.

Workplace stress may be caused by fear, pressure or chaos. We may be fearful of some task we have to undertake, such as making a presentation. However, this is normal; indeed a little stress helps you concentrate on the task. So, think about the event and consider first — why you? You may not be a world expert or an accomplished speaker, nevertheless you were chosen as the best person to give the talk, and people will come to hear what you have to say rather than judge your performance.

Then consider what might go wrong. You may lose your place in your notes, or drop them, so keep them together with a string or staple, pause to pick them up and find your place — and continue. In the middle of one talk the speaker’s trousers suddenly dropped down, but he put down his notes, hoisted up his trousers, and continued speaking. His failure to show embarrassment defused the situation, and at the break the incident was hardly mentioned as people were more interested in what he had had to say. So accept that the worst may happen and, if it does, pause, deal with it, and then continue without apologising or showing distress. These things happen frequently, so don’t worry if they happen to you.

Constant work pressure is more difficult to deal with. Say “no” if you really do not have the time; cut out unnecessary work, such as meetings that you can manage without, and do not overcommit yourself. If this does not work, speak to your boss. Of course, he or she will also be working under pressure and, although doubtless a most noble and caring person, is not primarily interested in your mental state or work-life balance. So write down what comprises your workload, showing clearly why it is impossible to manage successfully, eg by proving how long various tasks take. If none of this works, the only way to preserve your health is to leave.

Chaos means lack of order: how things really are or how you perceive them. So take control of your job and stop it controlling you. Be aware of all that needs to be done and develop a plan for dealing with it. When you have a moment go through your workload and note every outstanding task — regular and one-off jobs. When you have noted everything, mark each task as either “major”, “urgent” or “quick”, and then make a completely new list for each. If you are not sure whether a task is major or urgent, include it in both lists. Ideally have each list on one sheet of paper or in one PC or iPad file, such that you can see it at a glance. For a paper system, a loose-leaf book is ideal in that it will allow you to rewrite pages, as crossings-out and additions make reading difficult.

To make your system work, review the lists at the end of each working day, making sure to add any new tasks, and — hopefully — cross off some achievements. You can see what needs to be done, so plan your next day’s work accepting that you will have interruptions and unexpected demands. Don’t plan to fill your day but rather list those tasks that you really should be able to complete. If at the end of that following day you have time to spare, refer to your lists and, if you have the odd few minutes now and again, look to your quick list.

Doing this at the end of the day has two great benefits: first you will be able to relax knowing that you are in control, and second, you will give your subconscious mind the chance to work on the following day’s problems. This latter function is truly effective; next day you may find yourself moving quickly towards resolution of a problem that looked difficult when you first put it on your schedule.

So far the solutions for dealing with stress are external — dealing with your work environment. But you also need to look to the person inside yourself. Even if you have a largely sedentary job you need to be physically, mentally and emotionally fit. So try to get exercise, eat healthily and relax. Specifically, practise a few stress relief exercises whenever you feel yourself getting stressed, but also as a regular habit. Where you are, the time you have and any other environmental conditions may dictate what you are able to do, but here are three suggestions for exercises that you may adapt to your own needs and comfort.

The first exercise is one that you probably do instinctively. You may have been hunched over a computer or sitting in a boring meeting, so you just stretch your limbs or have a walk to the washroom to stretch your legs. Take this a step further. Every so often make a conscious effort to stretch every limb, every muscle, every part of the body, not forgetting the neck and shoulders. This gets the blood and other chemicals in the body flowing freely which, in turn, energises the brain.

For another exercise pick an object — an ornament, a ring or even a paper clip — and concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else. Look at its shape, its colour, its material. See how light is reflected on it. Concentrating for a few minutes on this one simple object slows your brain so that, when you are interrupted or have had enough, you can tackle the next job more calmly.

Finally close your eyes, relax as well as you can, then imagine you are in a favourite place such as a beach, wood or garden. Again, enjoy the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the feel of the ground. It is your secret place that nobody can invade. This is an excellent way to get to sleep at night, although not ideal for 11am in the office, so set an alarm. When you have practised a few times, you will find that you are able to switch off your surroundings and go to this place whenever you want, even if for just a couple of minutes.

Stress is essential for dealing with sudden threats, but keep it in the emergency box and don’t let it interfere with everyday living.

Last reviewed 26 August 2014