(This post was originally written July 2017, and has been updated by the Included Health Editorial Team May, 16 2022.)
Work is a big part of our everyday lives, which means there are more opportunities for stress to arise. With deadlines waiting, meetings to attend, and a growing “to do” list, all of this is fertile ground for planting seeds of workplace stress. Stress in the workplace is very common. I’ll share some strategies for managing stress at work, but first, let’s review what stress is and the types of stress.
Psychologists often talk about the idea of an “internal locus of control” and an “external locus of control.” This is just a fancy way of saying: who do you feel is in charge in your life? If you have had a lot of experiences where you feel someone or something else is dictating your decision, this is an “external locus of control.” which can cause stress because you feel helpless.
How Stress Works
All kinds of stress are created equal in the way that it operates. As humans today, we still have a primitive part of our brain that helped us survive in the past. This primitive brain triggers and primes the body into fight or flight mode whenever we feel a threat, which was useful when we needed to know when to run away from a bear.
Now, in our modern world, our brain doesn’t know the difference between a predator or a presentation. One example at work is if you feel your boss is in charge of your deadlines and work. That feeling can make you feel like a victim, which then triggers that part of your brain to prime your body in the fight or flight mode.
Defining Chronic Stress
While stress was a good thing for survival in the past, chronic stress is when your body constantly goes into this state of fight or flight. Every time your body gives you a shot of adrenaline, your blood pressure reacts and that can cause wear and tear on the arteries. Over time, this can really take a toll on your health and mood.
After all, when your body is always getting ready for an emergency, you become depleted of energy and motivation. When you’re feeling depleted, this can mean you skip a trip to the gym, make poor choices when it comes to meal time, or even smoke and drink to take the edge off.
Ways to Combat Work Stress
Even though chronic stress can put a strain on your physical and mental wellbeing, there are ways to combat it.
One of the best things you can do is physical activity. Because your brain is telling your body to run away from a predator, movement is what your body wants. Even just a ten minute walk on your break will help. You also feel more in control because you’re doing something for yourself, and getting some activity in is always a good thing.
Another great way to combat work stress is to talk it through with someone to gain perspective. Remember, your brain under stress thinks it is in an actual life or death situation. By speaking to someone, they can help reframe your mindset and think about ways you can get control back, which helps calm your mind. That someone could be a co-worker, a family member, or a psychologist like myself.
Therapy can be a good resource to help you identify and address chronic stress to avoid the broader impact it can have on your health. This way, you become the “internal” locus of control.
About the author
Dr. Marc Kossmann
Dr. Marc Kossmann is a licensed psychologist who graduated from the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University in PA in 1993. He studied psychology as an undergraduate at New York University. Dr. Kossmann is in private practice in the Philadelphia area as well as working with Doctor On Demand. He works primarily with adults and has worked for many years in medical settings, particularly with patients undergoing treatment for cancer.