Three Strategies for Stress Success
By Kim Stamp
This article was written during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which means managing stress was at a peak.
However, if you are in a management position of any kind, you likely face work-related stress on a weekly basis, even without a pandemic! In an effort to be relevant for the long term, this article discusses stress management applicable to everyday life, not just the strange world of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stressful days are a given for those of us who manage, in any capacity, an outpatient physical therapy clinic. There is already so much written about both work-life balance and stress management, but I find that putting into practice what I’ve read to be far harder than the articles and books indicate. Have you noticed that stress seems to have a cascading effect? Once things start to go off the rails in one area, it’s easy to feel like “everything” is out of control. This cascading effect is generally caused by our stress-handling capacity being diminished. If we aren’t making regular deposits into our “stress bank” we will eventually run out of the emotional ability to handle stress. These deposits come in the form of taking care of ourselves through good sleep, exercise of some sort, decent nutrition, time away from work, and various other things that you find rejuvenating. If we are not regularly making these deposits, we will not be stress-resilient. In our busy environments, it’s often very difficult to carve out time for good self-care but it is absolutely essential for us to do so!
Over the years, there are three principles that have consistently helped me manage my stress. We will walk through each of these strategies as well as some practical examples of how to put them into practice. I use the word “strategies” purposefully here because I believe that we need to have strategies in place for managing stress before it happens so that we are not caught off guard. These three principles are nuggets of truth that I remind myself of regularly. Sometimes, in the quiet of my office, I may even say them out loud to myself!
CIRCUMSTANCE VS. STORY
The first strategy is to differentiate between the circumstance and the story. Generally, what causes us the most stress is not the actual circumstance (or person) that we are dealing with. The element that really elevates our stress level is the narrative that we begin to tell ourselves about that circumstance. For me, the stories begin to spin in my mind before I even realize what is happening. The reality is rarely as dire as the narrative we are crafting in our minds! Perhaps you need to redirect a difficult employee at work. Before you even schedule a meeting with them you envision in your mind the way they are going to react and how that conversation is going to go (badly, obviously!). By the time you sit down with them you are, quite possibly, in a full-blown panic, only to have them instead be fairly receptive to your redirection and the meeting ends calmly. What a waste of energy!
The key to this strategy is to catch yourself as early in the process as possible. It’s very grounding to remind yourself to focus on the circumstance and what is actually true in any given moment. It’s also helpful to remember that you are only responsible for your actions and reactions. If a meeting goes badly, we are not responsible for how an employee reacts; we are only responsible for our responses to that reaction. Once a stress-induced narrative begins to spin in our mind, it’s a little more difficult to get things back on track, but it can be done; it just takes discipline on the part of your mind and emotions. This strategy is like working a muscle that has been dormant, but, with repeated effort it becomes much more easily executed.
KNOW WHAT YOU CONTROL
The second strategy for pro-actively managing your stress is to recognize what you can and can’t impact. Most of us waste a lot of time worrying about things we cannot influence or control. We spend an insane amount of energy focusing on past mistakes or past decisions that didn’t pan out the way we hoped they would. Here’s the thing: we can learn from our mistakes, but we cannot change anything in the past. Somehow though, we seem to think if we obsess over it enough, the outcome will be different. That’s simply never going to happen. We must learn to take from our past that which is helpful and then move on.
Conversely, we also spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over things that haven’t happened yet. Perhaps nothing has brought this to light more clearly than the pandemic we have all been living through. As businesses began to shut down and states implemented stay-at-home orders, patient numbers began to also dwindle. It was very hard during this time not to focus on the future and begin to imagine every possible worst-case scenario. There is nothing like a pandemic to remind all of us that we control very little! While we most certainly need to plan for the future, we just need to remind ourselves that we do not control it.
A simple way to practice this strategy is to ask yourself if you can definitively influence whatever it is you are stressing over. If the answer is no, then you need to let it go. If the answer is yes, then you need to put your energy into figuring out how you can influence or impact the situation. A good, calming, question to ask yourself if you are stressing about the future is “what is the next thing I need to do right now?” This helps us to not get paralyzed by the threat of the future when things feel out of control. So, to be absolutely clear here, you can’t influence or change your past. You can only learn from it, and then use that information to influence what is happening in the present. And, secondly, you cannot control your future. You can, however, impact it by the choices you make each day.
GIVE MEANING TO DATA
The final strategy is to give meaning to your data. The company I work with has a robust system for churning out data. Each week I get a report with all kinds of stats related to the eight clinics I manage. When these reports first started coming out, I felt overwhelmed by them and consequently, they didn’t help me much. Not only that, it created this sense of stress over feeling like I wasn’t doing enough. I took some time to think about the metrics that were most important to me in evaluating the success of the clinics, and I began focusing on that data when setting goals and making changes at the clinic level. Now, I use four solid KPIs that help to both inform me and guide me. My point is that data is useless to us unless we give it meaning and value. And, data and statistics will inevitably be a source of stress if we don’t understand how to use it to influence our operations. We live in a very information-heavy society and we must learn how to filter all that information in order to find that which is useful and impactful to us.
Going forward, as you move through your month, take the time to differentiate between the circumstances and the stories, keep yourself in the present by determining what you can impact and, lastly, direct your focus to three to five data points that are meaningful to your business. If you make these strategies a part of your daily life, you will undoubtedly begin to feel a noticeable shift in your ability to handle the stressors the come your way. As a bonus, these principles can also help you manage your non-work stress!
Kim Stamp is a PPS Certified Administrator and the Regional Business Manager for IRG – South Sound Physical & Hand Therapy in Washington State. She can be reached at Kim.Stamp@irgpt.com.