When we start to feel stressed, most of us turn to external fixes, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Ama Marston, a strategy and leadership expert, and Stephanie Marston, a psychotherapist and corporate consultant.
These external changes could be small, like a new to-do list app, or much larger, like a new job. But no matter how big of a change we make, all external solutions to stress are ultimately “temporary and ineffective,” argue the authors.
Instead, they recommend working on your internal response to stress. Cultivating a healthier attitude in stressful situations can help you build resilience and adapt to change, write Marston and Marston. Based on their research, here are four questions that can help you work through stressful situations.
1: How can this stress help me? Studies have found that people who think of stress as helpful tend to be more confident in difficult situations.
Marston and Marston recommend looking for ways your stress could be useful, such as generating energy to overcome a challenge or teaching you something about your work process. The authors also recommend keeping an eye out for more severe signs that can indicate burnout, such as frequent headaches or irritability.
2: What can I control in this situation? Distinguishing between what you can and can’t control is “essential” to resilience, write the authors. People often think in extremes about their sense of control, either feeling that they can’t change anything or feeling like it’s their responsibility to prepare for every possible outcome.
When you feel stressed, take out a pen and paper and make a physical list of the things you can and can’t control, recommend Marston and Marston. Reflect on the resources, networks, and skills you have that might help you influence the outcome. If nothing else, you can always control how you interpret and respond to a situation, note the authors.
3: Why did this happen? Reflect on the root causes of the challenge you’re facing, including your personal context as well as the broader institution. For example, if the challenge was caused by an economic, political, or environmental trend, consider ways your institution can adapt or even turn the challenge into an opportunity.
4: What can I do next? Brainstorm three actions you can take based on what you’ve learned about the situation, recommend Marston and Marston. Look for solutions that address the root causes of the challenge—or you may find that your fixes are only temporary, warn the authors (Marston/Marston, Harvard Business Review, 2/26/18).