It's 9 p.m., and you're still at work. You can't relax at home with unfinished work on your desk. And if you don't get this done, your boss will be upset. At least, that's what you think.
It isn't the work that leaves you unable to relax. It's that you see the work as a threat. Stress is not a reaction to an event but rather to how you interpret the event, says psychologist Allan R. Cohen, PsyD. You think, "If I don't work late every night, I will get fired," or "My boss won't like me," or "My co-workers won't respect me."
When Debra Yergen switched jobs, she got the cold shoulder from people she considered close friends.
Yergen had spent three years working at a community hospital in Washington state, but when she started her new position as director of communications for a regional medical center that competed with the hospital, her old work buddies disappeared -- presumably because she left for the competition.
"At first, I thought my friends were just busy," Yergen, now 40, says. "But when the holidays rolled...
"We want to be liked. And if you say 'no,' you think people are going to be upset with you, so you say 'yes.' Then you go home and think, 'What have I done?'"Cohen says. The first step to reducing stress is to change the way you think so you can set limits at work.
If you say to yourself, "If I say no, they won't like me," counter that thought with, "If they didn't like me, they wouldn't have asked me to do it." When you think, "If I don't keep working into the night, I'll be reprimanded or fired," counter that with, "If I don't take time for myself, I'll make myself sick and I won't be able to work."
Living in constant stress mode will make you sick indeed. "It's like facing a tiger. All your senses become heightened and your adrenaline increases. Once in a while it's not a big deal, but when this happens on a long-term basis, it causes your body to break down. That ends up in stomach pain, bowel problems, and heart problems," Cohen says.
When your senses are heightened, things are physically more irritating. That's why we take work stress out on family. If you're in stress-response mode, your preschooler will be even more likely to get under your skin. It's key to recognize this as it is happening and take a few deep breaths before you react. Deep breathing increases the oxygen in your blood, which relaxes your muscles. It's impossible to be relaxed and tense at the same time, Cohen says.
How to Relieve Job Stress
Try these tips for when you've got a lot on your plate.
Change your mind. Write your fears on note cards, such as, "If I don't work late, my boss won't take me seriously." On the back of each card, counter that threat. "If I keep working so late, I'll never see my family." Look at these cards when you have trouble shutting down.
Say "no." No doesn't have to end in "absolutely not." Try, "I can't reasonably do this now, but I am willing to sit down with you and help problem-solve how we can get this done." Or, "I'm willing to add this to my plate, but could we discuss taking something else off?"
Breathe deeply. It should take at least four to five seconds to inhale and the same amount of time to exhale. You'll feel a little tension leave with each exhale.