The road to recovery

Jul 03, 2017
Sometimes you are presented challenges where you find you cannot cope. While we might not be able to change the amount of work that has to be done in a day, we can change how we react to it.

I describe stress as being the scenario where the challenge you are facing seems to exceed your capacity to cope. We can feel threatened, overwhelmed and like we’ve lost control of the situation. While it seems odd to be sitting here writing about stress when it’s a warm, sunny summer’s day outside, stress doesn’t take the summer off. Learning how to deal with stress is a year-round task.

The day from hell

To illustrate an overwhelming challenge and our difficulty in coping, I thought we’d start with a really difficult day in work – the day from hell. While a small amount of stress can be a good thing – it provides a sense of urgency and it gets us moving – this is bigger than that. It took off like an out-of-control rocket, we are being pulled beyond ‘useful stress’ into a more manic orbit, and we end up in the ‘too much to cope with’ zone for too long. 

When this happens, we lose three things: energy, short-term memory and the ability to problem solve or think creatively. We become quite primitive and it feels like we are in survival mode. We just want to survive the meeting, the phone call, or the afternoon. In summary, ‘stress eats energy’.

60-second recovery

In reality, there’s very little we can do about the pace of a really hectic work day but we can do something about our response to it. For this, discipline is our most useful strategy. For those days from hell, we need to build ‘recovery breaks’ into the day. It only needs to be about 60 seconds, but – and here’s comes the discipline – the break should be once per hour throughout the day.

Discipline eats stress

Here’s your challenge: take a deliberate recovery break for one minute out of every 60. This will require a certain amount of discipline and mental toughness. In fact, you should be doing this even on good days. Remember, you’re doing this to ensure that you stay mentally fresh for as long as possible throughout the day. You are also doing this to ensure that you leave work with energy for what’s after work – life! When you create this discipline, and you stick with it for a week, it means you have energy to burn at the weekend. Otherwise, you spend that downtime in survival mode, dreading the return to work the following week.

Recovery actions

What do you actually do for the 60-second recovery? That depends on what you need. Sometimes it will be something simple that gives you a sense of control back, other times it will be something that slows down your mental traffic, and other times it will be something that energises you. Here are some examples: tidying, filing, reading, chatting, stretching, walking, improving your posture, and, the best one of all… breathing.

Increase capacity

If you’ve been following my well-being series, you will have come across  references to mental fitness. I am in the fitness business and fitness is about increasing capacity. Stress management is not about reducing stress in work and life, it is about increasing our capacity to cope with whatever is coming next. And when it comes to increasing capacity, discipline is your best friend.  

Physical is the new psychological

As you can see from the above, almost all of the strategies for stress management and mental health are physical and not always mental. It’s always beneficial to go out do something. Your body has the answer: calm the body and the mind will follow.

Stopping is not recovering

Leaving work and going home does not count as recovering. If you just crash into bed, you will still feel exhausted in the morning. Doing something that absorbs you – that energises you – is recovering. Finding the discipline to go for a short walk rather than watch television is recovering. Going to your yoga class is mental toughness and recovering. Remember: discipline eats stress. The key to resilience is working really hard, stopping, recovering properly and then working really hard again.

Work success

So far in this series I have been focusing on an operational level – how to have high self-worth, how to operate on the edge of comfort, how to have great habits and how to manage stress better. In the remaining two articles, I will be taking a more strategic approach. 

See you then.