My eye twitched uncontrollably.
I initially felt ecstatic as I transitioned into my first product management role at a startup. Yet soon afterward, the pressure I put on myself felt like the inside of a steam engine firing on all cylinders. The tension in my shoulders and my hunger to learn the craft competed for my attention.
The product broke regularly. I felt like I constantly fought fires without resources, resulting in long days in and out of the office.
What would’ve been a healthy approach to my situation? Stay calm and level-headed. Strategically assess my opportunities going forward. Respect my boundaries. In a nutshell, navigate my career like a Jedi.
Instead, I got caught in the grooves of my self-critical thoughts. They spun round-and-round like a broken 90’s record.
It wasn’t until my eye twitch persisted for two months that a switch flipped in my mind. I started paying closer attention to my body’s needs. I dove into the research, starting with mindfulness tools for strengthening my mental resilience.
While I don’t have a silver bullet for stress (and don’t believe it exists except at Hogwarts), I’ve discovered a collection of tools for handling stress that served me well to-date.
Burn-out is rapidly rising. For the first time this year, the World Health Organization released new evidence-based guidelines on preventing chronic stress in the workplace. In a recent Gallup study, 28 percent of millennials claimed to feel frequent or constant burnout at work, compared with 21 percent of workers in older generations.
More workers are leaving their jobs due to their chronic stress. In a survey of hundreds of HR executives, 46 percent say employee burnout is responsible for 20 to 50 percent of their annual workforce turnover.
These trends look grim, but we don’t need to become statistics. The battle for mental well-being starts with changing our day-to-day practices.
In this article, my goal is to empower you with practical science-based tools and strategies to fundamentally change your relationship with stress for good.
Save For Later: This article contains several tools that you can use throughout your work and life. Feel free to bookmark this article so you can refer back to a specific tool later.
Arc of Stress: A Brief Primer on the Science Behind Strain
Believe it or not, there already existed a coherent model of stress a hundred years ago.
In 1908, researchers Robert Yerkes and John Dodson developed the Yerkes-Dodson Law (or the Arc of Stress, as I like to call it), which describes an empirical relationship between arousal (stress) and performance (illustrated below):
What this arc-shaped chart shows is that performance increases physiological or mental arousal up to a certain point. Beyond this level, stress becomes too high and performance decreases.
Fork in the Road Alert: The rest of this section is a deep-dive into Yerkes and Dodson’s findings. Read onward if you’re a nerd like me and like to learn about how things work. Otherwise, feel free to jump to the next section for more actionable material.
Breaking Down the Arc of Stress
How did Yerkes and Dodson arrive at this model? By doing what scientists have done for generations — testing on Pinky and the Brain.
They designed an experiment where they applied pressure to mice in a maze, measuring how long it took them to reach the center depending on the pressure. If the mice turned in the wrong direction, they gave the mice low voltage electric shocks (simulating a moderate level of pressure).
Without any shocks, the mice meandered towards the center at their own pace. With a low voltage, the mice completed the maze faster, taking more correct turns. However, when the scientists turned up the juice (voltage), the mice moved erratically and took longer to reach the center.
One lesson I learned from their research was that I’m extraordinarily lucky to be human and not a lab mouse.
Another lesson was that their model can be divided up into three different states:
- Disengagement: Low levels of stimulation (stress) and lagging performance. If you’re disengaged, you’re feeling boredom and lack of motivation. Think back to that college lecture you barely processed while you surfed Reddit the entire time.
- Flow: More cognitive load and improved performance. For example, when you listen to your pump-up Spotify playlist right before you work out or play sports.
- Frazzle: High levels of stimulation and deteriorating performance. If you’re frazzled, you’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed. Think about that time when you were faced with crushing pressure to hit a deadline at work.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the term ‘flow’ — defined often as being “in the zone” or a maximal channeling of emotions in the service of performance or learning. This concept is gaining a resurgence of popularity. The Arc of Stress helps explain how it relates to stress.
Yerkes and Dodson’s research reveals a Goldilocks Effect between stress and performance. Too little stress leads to lagging performance. Too much stress means deterioration and anxiety. Just the right amount of stress unlocks a state of flow, which helps you achieve top performance.
Perceived Stress Scale: Test How Stressed You Are (In Under 5 Minutes)
The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) was created in 1983 by Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon. It’s a simple 10-question scale that has become one of the most widely used tools for measuring perceived stress.
Disclaimer: This test is not a diagnostic tool, and I am not a licensed psychiatrist. Don’t make medical decisions based on your test results without first consulting a professional.
Each of the questions is structured like the following sample:
Sample Question: In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?
- Almost Never
- Fairly Often
- Very Often
If the above sample is any indication, the PSS is a straightforward test.
Take the Self-Assessment
Fortunately for us, there are several websites that offer free PSS tests. Be Mindful, an online mindfulness website, provides one here. Try it out.
Game Plan: Strategies for Rebalancing Stress
If your score approaches or exceeds 20 on PSS, then you are safely within the “feeling stressed” zone.
But don’t fear! The following sections will explain strategies from Stanford PhDs, neuroscientists, and mindfulness experts that you can use to rebalance stress in your work and life.
Three “Stress-Busting” Principles
These ideas will help you handle stress regardless of the strategy you choose to employ:
Pay Closer Attention
We get so sucked into our busyness sometimes we forget about how stress emboldens our inner critic and hurts our bodies. Listen to your thoughts and body. They’ll tell you when you need to take action.
Focus on Just the Next Step
Don’t try to do everything at once. Just focus on taking one step at a time. You’ll feel incrementally better with each step.
Everyone has different needs depending on their body, history, and personality. Not every strategy is going to turn out to be effective. Try different approaches to see what works uniquely well for you. (Or if you prefer not to ride solo, find a coach to partner with.)
Strategy #1: Cool the Fires
Tackling stress starts with recognizing how it feels in your body.
I regularly use two breathing techniques, Drain the Tension and Diaphragm Breathing, to immediately lower my heart-rate and anxiety levels.
Drain the Tension
Whenever I’ve felt scattered and had a hard time focusing, this quick breathing exercise has helped.
Try these steps in a quiet place:
- Sit comfortably, relax, and close your eyes.
- Take a couple of deep breaths. As you inhale, imagine drawing clean air toward the top of your head. As you exhale, feel the air whoosh through body, draining the tension so that it sinks into the earth.
- Now that you are free of your tension, you can relax and enjoy your peaceful mind.
This exercise takes only 60 seconds to take effect, and it usually leaves me feeling calmer.
We take over 17,000 breaths per day, yet many of us have pretty poor breathing technique.
Inspired by neuroscientist Rick Hanson, this exercise helps you focus on improving your breath by engaging the diaphragm, the muscle between your lungs and abdomen. When activated, it helps trigger your body’s relaxation response.
Take these steps during a short break:
- Place your hand on your stomach directly beneath your rib cage. Take a breath and watch your hand. You may notice it moves only a little bit, up and down.
- Now breath so that your hand moves outward, perpendicular to your chest, taking several deep breaths.
This exercise takes only a minute as well. I often do diaphragm breathing before important meetings, presentations, and interviews to relax my nerves.
Drain the Tension and Diaphragm Breathing are just two of countless body-oriented tools you can use. At the end of this article is a download link for the companion PDF guide, which contains 9 more breath and visualization exercises.
Strategy #2: Defeat the Inner Critic
A surprising source of stress is our critical inner voice.
David Burns, a psychotherapist at Stanford Medicine, coined the term ‘cognitive distortions‘ to describe inaccurate thoughts that reinforce our negative emotions. This type of thinking can sound rational and logical, but really only keeps us feeling bad about ourselves. Common cognitive distortions include:
All-or-nothing thinking: You restrict possibilities and options to only two choices: yes or no (all or nothing).
Overgeneralization: You view a single, negative event as a continuing and neverending pattern of defeat.
Negative Mental filter: You dwell mostly on the negatives and generally ignore the positives.
Jumping to conclusions:
A. Mind-reading: You assume that people are reacting negatively to you without any objective evidence.
B. Fortune-Telling: You predict that things will turn out badly without any objective evidence.
Pay careful attention to your inner stream-of-consciousness and see if you can spot any of these negative thought patterns.
For example, you might notice your inner critic calling you a fraud or questioning your decision-making abilities. You might feel like you failed after making a mistake or two.
All of us experience negative thoughts once in a while, but for some of us, these thoughts can prevent us from reaching our full potential.
To combat cognitive distortions, try using these Dr. Burn’s Daily Mood Journal:
- Pull out the Daily Mood Journal whenever you get stuck on a negative thought.
- In the left-hand most column, enter your automatic thought (e.g. “My presentation didn’t ‘wow’ anyone in the room, so it was a total failure.”) and next to it, write what % you believe in this thought (“80%”).
- Then In the “Distortions” column, label your thought as one of the 10 cognitive distortions (“All-or-nothing thinking”).
- Next in the “Positive Thinking” column, write down a truthful piece of evidence that discredits your automatic thought (“Kenneth sent me an e-mail following the presentation telling me he liked our insights, so it couldn’t have been a total failure.”) and next to it, write down what % you believe in this thought (“90%”).
- Finally, in the “% belief after” column, write down how much you still believe in your automatic thought (“30%”).
Now that you’re equipped with tools to beat back your negative thoughts, you’ll be able to prevent them from becoming a stressor.
- Which cognitive distortions appear the most frequently in your thoughts?
- What strategy of discrediting your automatic thoughts have you found to be the most effective? Why?
Strategy #3: Clarify What You Control
One reason we often feel overwhelmed is we feel like we’ve lost control. This reflection tool helps you assess which concerns you can actually control or influence.
Having a sense of control can be more impactful than commonly thought. For example, people tend to believe that high-level positions bring a lot of stress, but research suggests just the opposite: Leaders with higher levels of responsibility experience lower stress levels than those with less on their shoulders. This is because leaders have more control over their activities.
Circle of Influence
This tool is inspired by Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
When your head is overflowing with concerns, start bucketing each thought into one of three circles:
- Circle of Concern: These are areas that concern you but in which you have little or no control, such as traffic or the economy.
- Circle of Control: These are areas in which we can do something to directly have an impact, such as choosing the company you work for.
- Circle of Influence: These are areas that you have indirect control over, such as your coworkers’ reactions to what you say and do.
Directions for how to use Circles of Influence:
- Write down all your concerns in the Circle of Concern.
- Move all your concerns that you can directly control into your Circle of Control.
- Move all your concerns that you don’t directly control but can influence into your Circle of Influence.
- Focus on the items in your Circle of Control and Influence. Don’t spend time on items in the Circle of Concern.
Example: Working as a New Startup PM
Here’s how I applied the Circle of Influence to my time as a new startup PM:
Doing this exercise helped me give myself permission to not worry about any items in the Circle of Concern — so I could shift more of my energy towards the items I control and influence.
- What surprises you about this chart? How do you feel about your situation as you look at your Circles?
- Where are you currently spending the most time and energy?
- What are your biggest concerns that are taking up your time and energy?
- How do you shift your time and energy away from these concerns towards factors you control and influence?
Strategy #4: Celebrate Yourself
Celebration is an underrated tool for reversing the negative feedback loop of putting pressure on yourself (which high-achievers are particularly susceptible to doing).
When you do work and put significant pressure on yourself, then you’re more prone to anxiety and failing, which leads to more stress and pressure, feeding a vicious cycle.
Use Your Brain’s Reward System
To reverse this cycle, take advantage of our neural patterns. Our brains are primed to repeat behaviors with rewards.
When you celebrate, you trigger the reward pathways in the brain (via dopamine) — decreasing your cortisol levels, soothing your fight or flight response, and reinforcing your positive behaviors for managing stress. You close the loop on the work you’re doing on a positive note.
As organizational psychologist Judith Glaser says, “Celebration and dopamine is a reward to our brains like treats are to animals.”
Three Rules of Celebration
According to BJ Fogg, behavioral designer at Stanford, the rules of celebration are simple:
- Celebrate immediately after performing your targeted action.
- Celebrate often, especially for small steps. Break down big goals into bite-sized milestones, and celebrate after hitting each one.
- Plan your celebration, even if it feels silly. Research shows when you plan an action, you’re more likely to perform it.
Your celebration can be as simple as doing a small dance or giving a high-five to a colleague. It can be more elaborate, like planning a party with your entire team befit with cocktails and refreshments. The act itself doesn’t matter as long as you get joy and satisfaction from your celebration.
EXAMPLE: Celebrating After Each Launch
At Dropbox, the business moved quickly, so it felt easy to launch a new feature and then move on without much fanfare. But soon I felt the tentacles of burn-out creeping in again, so what I did was celebrate for each launch by sending out an email recap, which solicited support and congratulations from the rest of the department.
Even though the email update took 30-60 minutes to write, it felt satisfying to announce my teams’ results and learnings to colleagues. Their affirmations helped me feel like the work I put in had been worthwhile.
For medium-sized launches, our team enjoyed treating ourselves with baked goods from Tartine, a popular French bakery in San Francisco.
Celebration, in some ways, is simply about being kind to yourself. Find out what celebration ritual works best for you.
- What are one or two small milestones (work or personal) that you want to start celebrating?
- How will you celebrate accomplishing these small milestones?
- How will you integrate more celebrations into your work schedule?
Strategy #5: Prioritize Your Time
One common source of stress is not spending your time how you want to be spending it.
This strategy relates to Strategy #3 Clarify What You Control because for many us, time instinctively feels out of our control. But if we are honest with ourselves, we actually have a surprising amount of control over how we spend our time.
Wheel of Life
This reflection tool addresses the delta between where you think you’re spending time and how you’re actually spending time. What this tool helps you do with is getting back into the driver’s seat of your life, instead of letting life happen to you.
- Take out a pen and sheet of paper and draw out a pie chart. This represents 100% of your time in your life over the last month.
- What are the categories that represent how you’re spending your time over the last month? (Sample categories: Career, Personal Growth, Health, Love, Social/Community, Play)
- Now allocate the percentage slices of your overall time (out of 100%) to each of these categories, based on how you’re actually spending your time.
- After you complete your Wheel of Life, answer the reflection questions below.
Example: Juggling School & Work
I recently worked with a client who felt overwhelmed while juggling a part-time product designer gig and college studies. Through the Wheel of Life exercise, we discovered that even though he desired to spend more time on his social life and relationships, he actually spent only 10% of his time in this category. By contrast, work and school took up 60% of his time.
Based on this insight, we identified a few effective tactics for shifting work time towards social time, which he took on as action items. He’s been feeling happier and less stressed about his work-life balance since then.
- What surprises you about this chart? How do you feel about your life as you look at your Wheel?
- How would you LIKE to spend time in each of the areas on your chart?
- What areas are causing you pain? What areas give you joy?
- How can you shift time from pain areas to joy areas?
To summarize, in this article you’ve learned about the Arc of Stress and five research-based strategies for changing your relationship to stress. We introduced a diverse set of tools — from breathwork to planning/reflection — that you can apply immediately to your work and life.
Remember that these strategies take committed practice and experimentation. Stress won’t instantly shift to the optimal point on the Arc of Stress after one or two half-hearted attempts.
However, if you consistently employ the right strategies — learning from and tweaking them as you do — then over time you’ll make leaps and bounds of progress. Stress will become your biggest ally in helping you unlock new levels of performance.
Thanks for reading this article! If you have a moment I’d love to hear from you:
- What score did you receive on the self-assessment?
- What was your favorite strategy/tool that we covered?
Please write your answer in the comments below — along with any thoughts and questions you have about the piece. I’ll do my best to respond promptly.
Also if you enjoyed this resource, download my FULL PDF guide (with 11 new actionable tools!) on improving your relationship with stress: