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."
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including questions about what's true and not true in the field of medicine. For our July/August 2012 issue, we interviewed a University of Utah researcher about the danger of using a phone behind the wheel.
Q: I've read that driving while talking on a cell phone is as bad as driving drunk. Is that true?
A: Many people can't imagine not chatting on the phone while driving. But...
"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.