How to Manage Stress at Work:

5 Steps to More Energy and Remarkable Results

Would you like strategies for how to manage stress at work? Would you like tips for how to handle pressure with grace? Would you like a Passport to Professional Paradise™?

Regardless of the reasons you are experiencing stress from your job or the workplace, it’s important to learn tactics for how to manage stress at work. No matter what your situation is you have the power to manage your response to the external events or circumstances of your job. I know that isn’t always easy, so I created a simple-to-remember process. Keep reading and I’ll walk you through the five steps necessary to SHIFT any POW (challenge) to a WOW (something that makes you feel satisfied, energized and productive). When you master these steps, you’ll be well on your way to less stress, more energy and remarkable results.

When you are trying to manage stress at work, try the SHIFT steps.

  1. Stop and breathe.
  2. Harness harmful knee-jerk reactions.
  3. Identify and manage negative emotions.
  4. Find new options.
  5. Take one positive action.

Let’s look at each SHIFT step individually. Imagine that you’ve just experienced a POW, something internal or external that feels like a heavy blow. Take a minute to vividly remember a recent challenge.

How to manage stress at work using the SHIFT process:
Step 1: Stop and breathe.

This first step is straightforward. Notice that you’re feeling stress or anger. Then, actually say, “Stop!” If you’re alone in your office or car, you can speak the word. But POWs often hit us at inopportune moments in the midst of a crowd. No worries. Simply say, “Stop!” inside your head. When you think, or say “Stop,” the messages that are firing throughout the brain are literally interrupted, allowing you to replace them with calmer, more rational thoughts.

Next, take a deep cleansing breath. You don’t have to get in a yoga pose or take a giant breath that draws the attention of everyone around you. But you do want to capture the benefits of deep breathing. I know from my nursing training that deep breathing increases the concentration of oxygen in the blood and releases endorphins which promote relaxation. It also causes your brain to begin making alpha waves, the kind of brain waves that gently calm you down. This is exactly what you need when you’ve been hit with a POW. Remember, we’re talking about how to manage stress at work, and this is your first step. It’s easy to do – you just need to practice and notice when you are hit with a POW.

Some challenges take you by surprise while others are more predictable. Taking a deep breath is a conscious process, which slows down your reactions and buys you time. This time is helpful to collect yourself and decide if you want to continue down the path you are on or change directions. Keep in mind, when you are learning how to manage stress at work, you have everything you need to execute this first step wherever you are – in the cubicle, in the boardroom, on a patient care unit, in your office or in the car.

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How to manage stress at work using the SHIFT process:
Step 2: Harness harmful knee-jerk reactions.

When you go to the doctor for your annual physical, he or she checks your reflexes by tapping a little hammer just below your kneecap. Your leg should jerk forward automatically. (If it doesn’t, something’s up!) You don’t decide to kick your leg up; it’s an involuntary reaction by your nervous system. That’s where the term “knee-jerk reaction” came from, and now, it commonly means something you do automatically without thinking. If you really want to master how to handle stress at work, this step is incredibly important, because you do not want to let knee-jerk reactions take charge.

Knee-jerk reactions are our automatic, unthinking responses to POWs. The classic knee-jerk reaction that many people think of is the “fight or flight” response. Physiologically, humans are wired to either “put up their dukes” or “run for the hills” when challenged. In the days of the cavemen, this automatic reflex was very helpful when one was confronted by a hungry saber tooth tiger or a charging woolly mammoth. This knee-jerk reaction literally saved lives!

However, in today’s work environment – particularly if you’re looking for strategies around how to manage stress at work – the fight or flight reflex can get you into trouble. More objective thinking and different actions are usually far more effective. Fight or flight in response to a POW can range from storming out of the room to becoming a “shrinking violet.” Other common knee-jerk reactions include taking things personally, sarcasm, raising your voice, complaining, sulking, talking fast, name calling, blaming others and talking about people behind their back.

If you are not consciously evaluating your thoughts and actions in response to a challenging situation, then you are letting knee-jerk reactions take charge. Negative knee-jerk reactions perpetuate, amplify and exaggerate the effects of a stressful situation. Harnessing them keeps you from making a fool of yourself and gives you the chance to make conscious decisions and choices. This directly leads to an increased ability to manage stress at work.

Learn to identify your knee-jerk reactions and determine if they are harmful or helpful as you learn how to manage stress at work. One of my big pet peeves is waiting in lines. When I see a line, I take a deep breath, unclench my hands (my knee-jerk reaction) and then look around to see how I can entertain myself while I wait. Knowing that I’m likely to get impatient in lines helps me keep my knee-jerk reactions in check.

In the heat of the moment, you may not feel like you can harness your knee-jerk reactions. But I’m here to tell you that, with practice, you will be able to. Remember, we’re talking about how to manage stress at work, so this is a worthwhile process to learn.

So how do I harness my knee-jerk reactions? It’s simple. At the first sign of a negative knee-jerk reaction, (after I’ve taken my deep breath), I ask myself, “Is (my reaction) going to improve the situation? Who will be most negatively affected by my reaction?” Usually the answer is “me.” I’m the one whose blood pressure is escalating, whose pulse is racing and who’s starting to sweat. My knee-jerk reactions might be bothersome to others, but they are always more detrimental to me, and that’s reason enough to stop! Clearly, this directly impacts my stress level.

Using the SHIFT process creates positive knee-jerk reactions rather than harmful ones. In the long run, negative responses create more stress, anxiety and trouble in your life. This approach directly helps you reduce and manage stress at work. Everyone benefits when you harness your negative knee-jerk reactions, but you benefit the most.

How to manage stress at work using the SHIFT process:
Step 3: Identify and manage negative emotions

According to, “emotion, in its most general definition, is a complex psychophysical process that arises spontaneously, rather than through conscious effort.” It goes on to say that emotion “evokes either a positive or negative psychological response and physical expressions, often involuntary, related to feelings, perceptions or beliefs … in reality or in the imagination.” Sounds kind of complex and scientific, doesn’t it? Put more simply, our emotional response to a POW causes our knee-jerk reaction – and can keep us from learning how to manage stress at work. But in terms of SHIFTing the pattern, we must first stop the knee-jerk reaction.

Once we’ve harnessed that, then we’re in a position to identify and manage the emotions behind it. The first part of “I” is to identify the negative emotions you’re experiencing. That means you have to make a conscious effort to notice where in your body you feel these emotions and then name them. I feel anxiety as a queasy stomach; someone else might feel it as a headache. Each of us experiences emotions differently, so the key is to know yourself.

The second part of this step is to manage the negative emotions. Once you know which emotions you’re dealing with, you can choose to break the pattern. Have you ever been in an argument with someone where voices were raised and emotions were running high – and then the phone rang? One of you stopped to answer the phone, and the caller was greeted with a sunny “hello.” It’s like a switch was flipped. The person who answered the phone was still angry but was able to temporarily put his or her emotions on hold.

That’s what I mean by short-term management of negative emotions. This step is about learning how to flip the switch (in a helpful way) on your emotions to put you on the road from POW to WOW. This step is also about learning how to manage stress at work.

I’m not recommending that you turn your emotions off or shove them under the rug. I’m suggesting that you manage them so that you can proceed – consciously – in a positive direction. Talk to yourself in a calm rational manner such as, “I’m not going to get worked up over this” or “I don’t know what’s going on, so I’m going to assume it will end positively.”

How to manage stress at work using the SHIFT process:
Step 4: Find new options.

Another great way to flip the switch is to gain some perspective. What difference, truly, does this POW make? And more importantly, what good will it do you to continue with the negative emotions? If you’re trying to figure out how to manage stress at work, finding new options can be a great tool in your stress-release toolkit.

Let’s say you receive a report from a colleague that contains a few errors. Instead of taking it personally or feeling frustrated and upset, put the situation in the proper perspective. “Okay, so there are a couple of mistakes. I know this person worked hard on this. It will take me ten minutes max to correct them. This is no big deal.” See how this helps to manage stress at work?

This step puts you in a proactive position instead of a reactive one. When you take a few minutes to consider new options, you move closer to WOW and closer to Professional Paradise. The void of the negative knee-jerk reaction can be filled with the excitement of fresh ideas. Having choices provides a feeling of being in control, which most people appreciate. Being creative and thinking of a variety of options opens up possibilities that may have gone unnoticed in the past.

When considering new options (by “new” I mean an approach that’s different than the one you might typically use), of course you want to think about specific action steps that will get you to WOW. I invoke the “Rule of Three” to find new options:

  1. What has worked in the past? Think about another time when you were hit with this particular POW and remember what worked. For example, when a customer complains, think back to a customer with a similar problem who you were able to make happy, and try that option.
  2. What would someone you admire do? Think of someone you know personally or respect from a distance and figure out what s/he would do in a similar situation. I have a small sign that says, “What would Gandhi do?” on my refrigerator. This is a helpful reminder when I’m hit with a POW at home. Ask yourself, “What would (my boss, my best friend, my brother, someone really patient, etc.) do?”
  3. What would someone objective do? This third tactic builds on the first two. What if you were observing this situation from an outsider’s perspective? All too often we take things personally when they aren’t personal at all. Put yourself in the shoes of an onlooker and see what options appear. From a distance, things often seem funny, light hearted or even ridiculous (if you engage your sense of humor).

Remember, there is always more than one way to complete a task or solve a problem. Try the Rule of Three to find new options, and you’ll be well on your way to Professional Paradise – and well on your way to learning how to manage stress at work.

How to manage stress at work using the SHIFT process:
Step 5: Take one positive action.

Once you’ve discovered new possibilities, the final step is to choose at least one that feels right for the situation and take action! This is the action part of SHIFT. It takes what was merely positive thinking and moves it toward reality. Remember, thoughts alone rarely achieve anything. You must act if you want a better outcome.

You can certainly choose to implement more than one option, but one is the minimum needed to create a true SHIFT. Which option will produce the best results? Which one will get you one step closer to less stress, more energy and remarkable results? Which one will create the biggest WOW? Once you decide, take action!

That’s it! Those are the five steps to SHIFT any POW to a WOW – and help you learn how to manage stress at work.

Using this technique, you can transform virtually any negative or unpleasant situation into one that’s not only tolerable, but also productive and beneficial. As a result, you’ll learn how to manage stress at work. (If you’re still looking for more help to manage stress at work, I recommend reading this article by the American Psychological Association: “Coping with Stress at Work.”)

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