What I wish I knew when I started working full time after college
At some point in your career, you’ll probably work in a highly stressful environment, and you may end up having to stay longer than you’d like — especially if you’re just happy to have a job or need the experience before you can move on to something better. Whether you’re searching for a new position or trying to make do with the current one, consider exploring what makes the job difficult and using that knowledge to create positive change for yourself.
According to the World Health Organization, every position involves some level of stress; that’s the nature of life and interacting with other humans. But if you cry every Sunday because you have to return to work when you wake up the next morning — that was me at my last job — that’s a sign of a serious issue.
The last few years of my career involved a string of high-stress roles; I quit one barely six months after my first day because of a bully in upper management who was enabled by the CEO. The cry-every-Sunday job was unacceptable in every way. The last straw was when my family member was diagnosed with cancer and, instead of responding with compassion and kindness, my managers became unreasonably demanding and passive-aggressive.
Though I couldn’t quit right away because I had to find a new source of income first, the hardships at these companies afforded me unique opportunities that led to amazing personal and professional growth. And I’m not alone: research indicates that 70% of people experience positive psychological growth from adversity.
Here are the stress management skills I used to survive at the jobs I hated until I could find something better.
Differentiate internal and external stressors
The term “stressor” refers to both positive and negative situations that cause stress. Getting married or being promoted are positive stressors while being fired or arguing with a loved one are negative stressors.
Whether you’re competing in sports or presenting a new idea to the boss, certain kinds of stress may improve your performance, but chronic stress negatively affects your body and mind. Studies have linked chronic stress to physical ailments like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, as well as psychological conditions like anxiety and depression.
In an interview with BBC, Toronto-based human resources consultant David Creelman observed, “Highly stressed people are more likely to have mental and ethical lapses, and are harder to get along with as team members, than less stressed people.” (Let’s all try not to be that person.)
If you’re under chronic stress because of work (where you spend most of your waking hours), your body does not have time to recover from the effects.
“In other words,” said psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, “stress causes harm when it exceeds any level that a person can reasonably absorb or use to build psychological strength.”
HelpGuide, an international mental health and wellness nonprofit organization, does not differentiate between the physical and psychological symptoms caused by internal versus external stressors and confirms that the source of stress must be identified before appropriate treatment can be implemented.
Internal stressors originate from our own beliefs and feelings, like fears, insecurities, and expectations. They could take the form of making up stories or negative thoughts and unreasonable expectations.
My boss sent me an email requesting a meeting to discuss the future and restructuring of the company. Upon reading that message, I assumed I was getting laid off and started to panic.
Though this sounds like an external stressor because it’s triggered by action from someone else, it is an example of an internal stressor. I created a fictional story that caused anxiety based on the fear of losing my job.
“Stories help us make sense of ourselves in the world; we’ve always made sense of what’s happening to us through story,” said therapist Lori Gottlieb in an interview with Psychology Today. “But a lot of the stories people create are, in a lot of ways, faulty narratives.”
An internal stressor can also be entirely in your mind. Negative self-talk, pessimism, the inability to accept uncertainty, and unrealistic expectations are common internal stressors.
I was at the office as usual when a thought suddenly popped into my head for no apparent reason: I hate this job. I would often grab onto that thought and not let it go for hours or even days. Sometimes this thought would arise so frequently that it developed into a habit, and it’s what I ended up thinking most of the time.
While this thought was true, I noticed that continually saying that to myself or other people only dug myself deeper into the pessimism.
Recognizing this pattern was my first step towards adjusting the behavior.
How to identify
Pay attention to your thoughts as they arise and notice if they’re triggered by something specific. The American Psychological Association recommends keeping a journal throughout the day and writing down the cause of your stress along with your moods and thoughts.
Just as importantly, pay attention to your body, which responds to stress in a specific way: racing heart, tense muscles, fast breathing, sweaty skin.
Dr. Shelly Komondoros emphasizes the importance of body awareness.
“Developing self-awareness and recognizing when your body needs extra care is essential. Most likely, you intuitively know how you react to stressful situations,” she wrote in an article about stress management. “So when things aren’t going your way, or you feel like you are losing control or are overwhelmed, pay attention, and tune in to your body.”
My body used to tense up whenever my colleague from accounting walked into the room.
I got cold sweats whenever a response from our consultant was in my inbox.
Again, these may seem like external stressors at first glance because an outside element triggered them, but look at them objectively. What is stressful about them? Someone walked into a room, and I received an email; they’re innocent on their own.
Without realizing it, I was translating these situations into stressors in my mind.
When the accounting person came in, I was afraid that I made a mistake on revenue processing and would have to redo it.
When I saw that the consultant responded to my article, I felt insecure about its quality and secretly worried that I was a terrible writer.
Notice how all of these are related to an internal feeling rather than the other person’s behavior. According to therapist R. Scott Gornto, “most anxiety stems from self-fabricated stories based on speculation and assumption. We tell ourselves fictional stories about the people in our lives or the circumstances that befall us. We do it all the time. Seldom do we notice what we’re doing.”
Identifying these thoughts or made-up stories might take a while at first because they may be deeply ingrained and seem to have a will all of their own. But once you’re able to single out those thoughts and patterns, celebrate your win.
How to manage
Managing internal stressors can be a challenge, but it is possible with some effort. The methods may vary, so try a few ways to find the combination that works for you.
I found that noticing the internal stressor and not judging myself harshly or reacting to it extremely helpful. “It is the effort people use to fight the thought that makes it stick and fuels its return,” wrote Drs. Sally Winston and Martin Seif.
Sometimes noticing the thought was enough to let it go and not attach myself to it, but I also found that inquiry is a powerful tool in exploring and managing internal stressors. Check out On Befriending Your Anxiety if you want to read more about fellow Medium writer Scott Leonardi’s experience with the inquiry method.
Another powerful tool for managing stress and negativity is reframing, which is quite distinct from denial or finding the silver lining. Looking at the bright side and gratitude are essential, but reframing flips a negative thought on its head by changing the way you think or talk about it.
Though this technique may sound simplistic, the American Psychological Association emphasizes the importance of our perceptions.
In the previous example where I often found myself thinking “I hate my job,” consider each of these statements:
- “I hate my job.”
- “This job is not that bad.”
- “At least I have a job.”
- “I am motivated to find a new job soon.”
(1) The original negative thought recognizes the unhappiness, but that’s it; (2) denial and (3) looking at the bright side do not acknowledge reality; (4) reframing not only shifts away from negativity, but also focuses on positive action.
How this benefits you
I’ve found that techniques like reframing and abstaining from making up stories provide significant stress relief. My story about 7 Words That Transformed How I Manage Fear and Anxiety goes into a little more detail about how the reframing technique has improved my life.
The experts at the Mayo Clinic say that much of our stress is self-induced. Dr. Heidi Hanna, an integrative neuroscientist and executive director for the American Institute of Stress, states that internal stress tends to decrease our ability to handle external circumstances more effectively.
Ultimately, dealing with internal stress will help us deal with external stressors too.
External stressors are the ones that we can’t control, like the assignments that we’re expected to complete, urgent deadlines, or an incompatible personality at the office.
One company hired me to process donations for the fundraising department for 25 hours per week and help out the accounting department for 15 hours per week. What they didn’t tell me was that “help out” was code for “do everything that isn’t director-level work.”
How to identify
External stressors are the causes of stress that happen to you and are not within your control. Unpredictable events, significant life changes, relationships, and work or school are common external stressors.
As you can imagine, the workload I described above was too demanding for one person. Despite my petitions for extra help, I was still expected to do all those tasks on my own while earning less than a living wage and being mistreated. I had to learn how to manage my stress just to survive a day at the office.
How to manage
The ideal solution would be to eliminate or reduce the stress by asking for help or otherwise addressing the root cause, but that’s not always realistic. Since we can’t control these factors, we must manage the stress by taking care of ourselves and mitigating our responses.
Common advice from many experts for managing external stress includes exercise, sleep, a nutritious diet, self-care, hobbies, and time with friends or family.
Reaching out to your support network can help you talk about it, but be careful with this one. “As we become more stressed out, our attention tends to narrow and focus on what we perceive as threatening,” wrote Dr. Harry Mills in an article about stress reduction.
I fell into the trap of talking about hating my job all the time. Rather than having the intended effect of venting, this became a habit that produces stress called catastrophizing, which is when you focus on a negative, exaggerated perspective of your pain and suffering. One study, focusing on chronic headaches, showed that half the participants saw improvements when they learned how to stop this behavior.
Eventually, I discovered that purposefully not talking about hating my job and distracting myself for a short time instead was more helpful. Keep in mind that distraction is best used as a short-term technique to prevent focusing too much on the stressor. Dr. Mills also warns that it is not a good technique in cases of people who tend to deny or repress stressors.
Another tool for stress management at work is the lunch break. According to a survey of 1,600 North American workers, taking a midday break for a meal is especially important for engagement and productivity. For me, even quick 10-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon were refreshing when work was weighing me down.
I’ve also found that meditation and mindfulness practices, which could improve certain conditions, are useful for managing external stressors.
How this benefits you
Taking care of yourself intentionally during work is beneficial for your physical and mental health as well as your productivity at any job, regardless of the types of stressors. The results from one study suggest that mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques could improve stress reactivity and coping. The American Psychological Association asserts that “reducing your stress levels can make you feel better right now, and may also protect your health long-term.”
When I was struggling in a highly stressful work environment, I was able to use these techniques to stay grounded, and to this day, they help me maintain balance.
After learning how to delineate and reduce stress this way, I now have the best job I’ve ever had, and I know that I’m thriving (at least in part) thanks to this process. I can differentiate internal from external stressors to manage them appropriately, and I’m able to handle situations similar to those that have made me want to resign in the past.
Especially if your stress is at the crying-every-Sunday level, consider focusing efforts on an exit strategy as well. Stress management is vital for work (and life in general), but you can only do so much with a work situation that’s truly not right for you.