Escaping The Vicious Cycle of Stress

Lately, I feel like everywhere I look, I see busy and stressed people – especially in the work environment.

I don’t know if it’s always been this way and I’m just starting to realise it more, or if it’s getting worse. It’s probably a bit of both. I think having gone from being part of this rat-race to escaping it two years ago, then temporarily re-entering it earlier this year, to then re-escaping it, has given me a new perspective and a new level of awareness for just how stressed everyone is – and what a vicious cycle stress is.  

These days, my clients often tell me how much they appreciate my productivity and how quickly I can get high-quality work done. I think one of the main reasons I can do that is that I'm not stressed. When I do work, I don't think about the million other things on my to-do-list because my to-do-list is usually pretty manageable. I don't feel like I need to rush things. I know I can spend as long on one task as it takes to do it and do it well. That enables me to focus and deliver high-quality output.

The funny thing is, I find I work much faster than I would if I were rushing things. But then again, maybe it’s not that surprising.  

Recently, I've come to realise that stress is the biggest source of stress!

Here is a great example. I often find people don’t really read emails anymore. The number of times I get responses to emails that don’t answer (all) my questions, or in other ways clearly show that the recipient hasn’t fully read and considered it, is astounding. People are super busy, so they don't take the time to thoroughly read a message, consider it and then reply to it in a meaningful way. It simply takes too much time to do so – especially given many people these days have dozens (sometimes hundreds) or unread emails in their inboxes. 

But here is the problem. While it might be quicker in the moment to skim over an email and respond with the first thing that comes to mind, it usually creates more work and more stress down the track. First of all, the recipient will feel frustrated and stressed because they are not getting the response they need. They then have to go back and seek further clarification which adds to their workload. The other person then needs to deal with another email, further increasing their stress levels. If everyone involved had taken the time to read, consider and appropriately reply to the first email, it probably would have been quicker and less stressful.  

And by the way, the same thing applies to putting together an email or communication in the first place. The more time you spend considering your words, instructions and questions, the less stress they are likely to cause you and others in the hours and days to come.

Another thing I’ve noticed is how stress impacts culture and communication style within a team. I often find that the more stressed people within a team are, the more abrupt and impatient their communication style gets. This, in turn, often makes others in the organisation feel undervalued, uncomfortable and, eventually, stressed. This then changes their working and communication style and creates more stress for everyone. Add to that the fact that stressed people are often bottlenecks who hold up work and cause frustrations and stress for others who can't get their work done in time, and you can see how one stressed person can, over time, bring down an entire team.

It’s like stress is contagious. 

The more stressed someone is, the more likely they are to pass that stress on to the people around them – who then get stressed and pass it back around creating more stress for everyone. It’s a vicious cycle! 

Here is something else about stress that I have often been guilty of in the past. I would feel stressed and overwhelmed, but when I would sit down and calmly think about what I really had to do and made a bit of a plan, I often found it was nothing I couldn’t handle. Once I had calmed down, made a list and went to work, I realised it all took less time then I thought it would, and there was no reason to feel so stressed.  

Stressed was just a mindset I was in – without even really having a reason to be.

I think part of the problem is that we are expected to be busy and stressed. When I meet people, especially work-related ones, they often ask if I’m busy. I love seeing the surprise on their face when I say “No, life is pretty calm and relaxed.” They were clearly expecting me to tell them how busy and stressed I am – because that’s just what you are supposed to be these days. 

Not being busy is frequently associated with being lazy.

Whether people openly say it or not, there often is this underlying idea that if you're not busy, you're not working hard enough, not achieving enough, not contributing enough, not successful enough,…  

But I tell you what, I’d much rather be happy, healthy and productive than busy and stressed – no matter what that makes me in the eyes of others. 

So if being stressed is the main source of stress, it's contagious, often more about the mindset we're in than a reflection of our actual workload and we're under pressure from society to be stressed, then how do we get out of it? 

How do you escape the vicious cycle of stress? 

You move into a campervan and escape the rat-race! Well, that's my solution anyway. But I don't think you have to go that far. I think for a lot of people simply being more aware of how stress creates more stress – for themselves and others – is the first step to change.

Coming to terms with the idea that the less stressed you feel, the more productive you will likely be can be a game-changer.

In other words, you have to find a way to calm down and focus. 

Here are a few things that have worked for me or that I’ve heard other people had success with in reducing their stress levels. 

  • At times, it’s as easy as taking five minutes to breathe and then focus on one thing at a time.

  • Sometimes simply making a list and planning your time can help.

  • Forcing yourself to slow down and spend more time on tasks to make sure you do them well the first time – while it takes more time in the moment, it will likely mean less time and stress in the long-run.

  • Do one thing at a time instead of trying to multi-task.

  • Watch your behaviour and communication style around your team. If your stress shows, it will likely rub off on them, which will then create a stressful culture and ultimately lead to more stress for you.

  • Say no! Sometimes, the only way to reduce stress is to reduce your workload. You might feel like that's not an option, but in the long-run, no one is winning if you keep running on empty – the quality of your work will suffer, so will your well-being and your stress will rub off on the people around you. 

There are many more strategies and tactics to reduce stress in your life. If you think stress is having a negative impact on you and/or the people around you, I highly recommend reading some books or articles on the topic to find some strategies that work for you.

Speaking from my own experience, reducing the stress in my life is by far the best thing I’ve ever done for my well-being, productivity levels and overall happiness and life satisfaction.