Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 5.09.31 pmFrom the desk of Nick Mills

At the pinnacle of her career, Narelle recently celebrated success upon securing a new role as the creative director of a start-up in regional NSW. It was an exciting opportunity, her chance to shine in a field she had always loved being a part of.

After an interstate move filled with the usual dramas and delays, there was no time for the break she badly needed. Already frazzled, she was thrown into her new role, unprepared. On the morning of her first day, she hunted frantically through the boxes that filled her new house, searching for her ‘lucky’ suit with no luck. She was forced to make due with an outfit that felt too corporate for the initial impression she hoped to make and, consequently, spent the day feeling uncomfortable, anxious, and out-of-sorts.

It wasn’t the best start. As the enormity of the tasks in front her became evident,   Narelle’s initial excitement was quickly replaced by an overwhelming sense of terror, fear, and dread each day before work. 

This inner chaos increased as she tried to learn the history, find information, manage peoples’ threats, as well as make sense of the huge workload placed in front of her that first week. She was shocked to learn it all needed finalisation by an important deadline the following week. Shock turned to panic. 

Nacelle found herself procrastinating, avoiding decisions, and feeling consumed by negativity. Reasonably simple tasks became increasingly difficult; complex decisions were impossible. She found she couldn’t remember the priorities that were decided on in the meeting only the day before. She repeatedly forgot the names of her new colleagues. She was so unsettled by these lapses she couldn’t sleep at night. She arrived at the office each morning tired and exhausted before she even began her workday.

We all know that stress shapes memory. Recent research on the subject has shown that stress powerfully affects the contribution of multiple memory systems to performance. In fact, according to Lars Schwabe, one of the study’s researchers, “under stress, rigid ‘habit’ memory gets favoured over more flexible ‘cognitive’ memory. Thus, stress has an impact on the way we learn and remember, that is the quality of memory”.

The problem for Narelle is that she is in a completely new environment. She’s in a new house, in a different part of the country, in an unfamiliar role in a new company. She hasn’t had the opportunity to develop a ‘habit’ memory in that new environment or to apply the good habits from her previous work environment. And because she is so overloaded, her ‘cognitive’ memory doesn’t have a chance. A good night’s sleep helps us to consolidate the memory tracks our brain has established during the day, preparing them for future retrieval. But, remember, Narelle isn’t sleeping well. The cortisol that is flooding her brain through the day is also preventing her at night from creating long-term memories for her to draw on in her new position.

Continuing in this way is not an option. Even the extremely stressful first weeks at a new job can have a detrimental impact, as Narelle’s case illustrates. It not only affects Narelle’s performance at work, but it also threatens her long-term health. The wear and tear on the body, which grows over time when the individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress, is not to be underestimated. This is known as “the allostatic load”, a term neuroscientists use to describe frequent activation of the body’s stress response.

So what should Narelle do?

Sharon Melnick, Ph.D., a business psychologist and the author of Success Under Stress, suggests the following:

Act rather than react

We experience stress when we feel that situations are out of our control. Stress hormones, if chronic, wear down confidence, concentration, and well-being. Identify the aspects of the situation you can control and those you can’t.

Take a deep breath

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or coming out of a tense meeting and need to clear your head, simply take a few minutes to inhale for five seconds, hold, and exhale in equal counts through the nose. This will help you get calm and focused, as well as lowering the cortisol flooding your brain.

Eliminate interruptions

While you may not have control over the interrupters, you can control your response. You can chose to accept the interruption, cut it off, or diagnosis its importance and make a plan. Many interruptions are recurring and can be anticipated. You want to have preset criteria for which response you want to make. You can also train those around you by answering email during certain windows, setting up office hours to talk in person, or closing the door when you need to focus.

Schedule your day for energy and focus

Most of us go through the day using a “push, push, push” approach, thinking if we work the full eight to 10 hours, we’ll get more done. Instead, productivity goes down, stress levels go up, and you have very little energy left over when you go home. Scheduling breaks throughout the day to walk, stretch at your desk, or do a breathing exercise. According to Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project, if we concentrate intensely for about 90 minutes, followed by a brief period of recovery, we can clear the buildup of stress and rejuvenate ourselves.

Eat right and sleep well

We all know that eating badly stresses our bodies. Opt for a low-sugar, high-protein diet. Sleep is critical for the body to recover from the stresses of the day as well as for memory consolidation. If racing thoughts keep you from falling asleep or you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep, try a breathing technique to calm your mind.

Change Your Story

Your perspective of stressful office events is typically a subjective interpretation of the facts, often seen through the filter of your own self-doubt. However, if you can step back and take a more objective view, you’ll be more effective and less likely to take things personally.

Cool down quickly

Instead of immediately reacting (and likely overreacting) to something that’s just happened, try a ‘cooling breath’ technique: Breathe in through your mouth as if you are sipping through a straw, and then breathe out normally through your nose. Done right, you’ll feel a cooling, drying sensation over the top of your tongue. It’s like hitting the pause button, giving you time to think about your response.

Identify self-imposed stress

If you’re too caught up in how others perceive you, something you can’t control, you either become stressed out by the minutia or participate in avoidance behaviours like procrastination. Ironically, once you shift your focus from others’ perception of your work to the work itself, you’re more likely to impress them.

Prioritise your priorities

With competing deadlines and fast-changing priorities, it’s critical to define what’s truly important and why. That requires clarity. It’s important to understand your role in the organisation, the company’s strategic priorities, and your personal goals and strengths. Cull your to-do list by focusing on those projects that will have the most impact and are best aligned with your goals.

Reset the panic button

For those who become panic-y and short of breath before a presentation, you can quickly reduce your anxiety with the right acupressure point. Positioning your thumb on the side of your middle finger and applying pressure instantly helps regulate your blood pressure.

Influence others

Even if you’re responsible for your behaviour and outlook, you’re still left dealing with other people’s stressful behaviour. It’s best to confront a problem coworker or employee by stating the bad behaviour in a respectful tone, describe the impact on the team and the individual, and request a well-thought out change.

Be Your Own Best Critic

Some 60,000 thoughts stream through your mind each day, and internal negativity is just as likely to stress you out as an external event. The fix? Instead of being harsh and critical of yourself, try pumping yourself up. Encouraging thoughts will help motivate you to achieve and ultimately train you to inspire others.

Once Narelle was able to slow down, step back, and take stock, she could apply these tips. In no time, she had some control back. She was able to draw on the stellar work habits she’d developed over her career. She built strong relationships with her new colleagues. Her decision-making improved. Best of all, she woke each morning refreshed and eager to get to work.