A major cause of work stress…and it’s not what you think

Mental stress is defined as how events in one’s external or internal environment are perceived, resulting in the psychological experience of distress and anxiety (source). The question of perception and of our personal capacity to adapt and to welcome uncomfortable events and feelings means that different people can react to the same external or internal environments very differently. What matters is not necessarily what you are experiencing but rather how you are reacting to it.

Side note: I’d like to share one of my favourite life quotes:

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”
Charles R. Swindoll

The pop-culture understanding of mental stress brings up images of frazzled people running around, hurried for time, barely breathing and trying to fit in even more items into an overloaded schedule.

Potentially with one eye popping out of its socket. See cartoon below:

The truth is, however, that most of us don’t actually have a problem with rushing around a bit. Hustle is not the issue here. Remember that hobby project you’re working on which absolutely absorbs you, and you forgot to eat dinner because you were so consumed by it? What about how you were feeling tired this evening until your best friend called you and now you’re super keen to go out with him? Because when we want to do it, when we’re passionate about it, we will happily go the extra mile and maybe even forego basic needs like food and sleep.

But why?

Why do we expend energy on a beloved hobby, and feel energized, and turn around and dedicate the same amount of energy to a task that feels like a chore and feel depleted?

The answer is simple: heart.

When the heart and the head are disconnected – and especially when this becomes a chronic state of being – we are quickly depleted. Our to-do lists become heavy burdens, and every effort to move things forward on a path which doesn’t feel right feels gargantuan.

And what, pray tell, can reconnect us with our hearts?

While we all have different passions and desires, I believe that human interaction, compassion and sense of belonging are a big part of the heart-nutrition we are hankering for these days.

You’ve had our fill of dog-eat-dog competition. You’re over the idea of “keeping up with the Jones’ “. Actually, by now you’re far more keen on being more than on having more.

Cheer up. There is good news. Whatever work that you are doing, whatever the industry, or the location, whether it is in an office or remotely based.. you are very probably interacting with humans.

…and interactions with humans are RIFE with opportunity.

This means you have constant opportunities to interact, to share a sincere smile, to show compassion for someone else’s struggle and to make authentic connections. And these interactions have the incredible power of changing your perception about the work that you are doing.

Yes, but what about my stress levels?

I’m arguing that it’s not about your task-list, or your boss (to whom you can also send loving-compassion, FYI, even if she makes your life a living hell most of the time, lol). It’s actually about how well you take advantage of your opportunities to share goodness with others. I’m arguing in favour of looking at your job – dare I say, at everything that you do in life – as one, long, never-ending, glorious excuse to love people.

Yes, I’m going to say it again.

–>Everything I do is really just a pretext to love on people.<–

Because, ultimately, it is not how busy or unbusy you are which will determine how stressed you feel, but the quantity and quality of heart-connections that you are experiencing. Your mind alone can never bring you full satisfaction and fulfillment at work or in life. Only your heart can do that.

Look at the following two states of being as a major energetic underpinning of discomfort and dissatisfaction at work (and in life). You’ll also find that they are very connected to each other. And it is this discomfort and heart-disconnection which makes the rush and frazzled state we experience as stress become so unbearable.

A) my work does nothing to nourish my heart and soul

Your work in and of itself may or may not have profound meaning (you can work for an NGO, build water wells in African villages etc.) OR you can give it meaning yourself in your approach to yourself and to people. Some people need that feeling of direct impact on a community in order to feel at peace with themselves and their work (and as someone who spent 6 years working in Haiti and Senegal I certainly had my dose of this too!), and I fully respect that approach. But let’s not negate all of the tasks and structure needed to make our world go round, from the baker baking the bread to the electrician fixing your power cable. That being said, the second approach, of giving heart-meaning to your own work, regardless of what that work may be, is also very valuable. Simply put, human beings and human trials and tribulations are present all the time. Who you are and what you do to spread compassion and peace around you is relevant always and everywhere.

The reason we feel so stressed? Not only are we running around trying to be as efficient as possible and checking off items from our to-do list, but to add salt to the wound, what we are doing in the first place doesn’t feel purposeful or in alignment with our heart. Sometimes we know what our heart is telling us, sometimes we are searching for it still. In the meantime we can bring serious meaning into any work that we are doing by asking ourselves how we can bring in more understanding, open-mindedness and tolerance into all of our interactions and projects.

B) I’m really focused on myself and on my own success

I write about self-care and relaxation and now I’m saying that we’re overly focused on ourselves? Ironic. Ultimately, what it all comes down to is balance.  Yes, care for yourself, yes, look after your own needs too, but when the scale tips away from service to others, don’t be surprised that your feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment diminish.

To quote this article from Psychology Today,  “science shows that we are actually wired for compassion, not self-interest.”

No need to get extreme here. I’m not suggesting that you abandon your career plans and dissolve all healthy boundaries between you and others. Stay you, and stay true to your path. However…

Try it. I dare you. Do something nice for someone at the office. Pay attention what people say and then get creative on how you can help them to reach their goals/dreams. It really is incredibly enjoyable to turn your thoughts away from your own issues to helping to solve other people’s puzzles. These don’t have to be big or expensive gestures to be effective in connecting you with your goodness and with other people. Even something as simple and quick as forwarding an email about flight discounts to your colleague who has mentioned planning a trip to Europe this summer shows that you care about them. When you’re feeling stuck or blue turn your self-pity around and get really curious about what is bothering or hurting other people around you. Ask yourself: “I wonder how I can make his/her day better today.” Feeling under the weather today? At least you can muster up a little bit of strength for a friendly smile. People expect you to take care of your friends and family. You expect you to do that too. But what if you also extended your caring to your colleagues? To the barista that gets you your morning coffee at Starbucks? Or to the cleaning lady AND the CFO at the office? Might you feel differently about your work and about work-related stress if your heart was overflowing with compassion for others?

Pay close attention to yourself and get curious as you explore this.