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How to Stop Work From Working Your Last Nerve

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Whether you hunker down at a laptop, or show up physically at your job, work can be a big contributor to life stress. Here's help.

So here’s how the cycle works:

A hard day at work. You hit traffic on the way in. The boss is in a bad mood. A co-worker is out sick and you have to pick up the slack. Customers are acting like customers and being especially difficult. Under pressure, you crank out a rush job. And you make an error.

The result? You guessed it! Stress.

And what didn’t happen that day?

You didn’t quite get around to taking a lunch break. So you hit the vending machine later in the afternoon. You thought a few extra cups of coffee would help you to focus, so had one cup after another. Whoops, you forgot to take your medication.

When you got home that night, you were too keyed up to have a real meal for dinner, so you grabbed some fast food on the way home. It’s too late to cook anyway. Or you picked your way through dinner. The last thing you needed was to deal with more people, and you were a little snappy with your partner or kids. Forget that walk or the trip to the gym you had planned. You ended up watching TV for what was left of the evening. That is, if you didn’t have email to answer or something else to finish.

Tomorrow is another day. Maybe even more of the same. And if it is, chances are your self-care routine will be left on the shelf yet another day to gather dust. And maybe another.

A pattern emerges: Stress at work… stress at home… and ignoring your self-care routine. Does this cycle sound familiar?

It seems that we humans have a way of putting ourselves on a treadmill as we try to react to all the demands around us, often starting with the job. As a result, our own needs can end up in last place. We forget that only by managing our self-care can we be truly effective in our jobs and in our home life. And so the negative cycle begins.

It also seems to me that once you let your physical and emotional self-care sit up on the shelf while you scramble around trying to respond to all those competing demands, it’s all too easy to leave it sitting there. Operating in stress mode can start to feel normal. But whether you’re aware of it or not, operating in stress mode, and neglecting self-care, can lead to feeling more and more depleted, which can lead to burnout. If you are feeling burned out, you may be even more likely to neglect your self-care. Your emotional and physical health is at risk!

Another consequence: When your self-care routine is off the rails, it may seem that much harder to start up again. The cycle continues…

Here’s the bottom line. If you let work stress get in the way of taking good care of yourself, you run the risk of being less able to cope effectively. As a result, stress leads to more stress.

So what can you do to avoid the work stress, home stress, life stress cycle? Here are some ideas to think about:

Be aware of your basic self-care needs. Take an inventory of what you need to function at your best every day.  What do your meals need to look like? How many hours of sleep? Exercise? Breaks? Timing of your medication regimen? Sure, on some days, you may have to settle for meeting the baseline requirements — diet, medication, and as much rest as reasonably possible. But don’t allow yourself to let the self-care regimen slide day after day.

Take a look at what triggers the stress cycle at work. While you doing that inventory, you might also think about the last time you fell into the stress cycle that brought your self-care crashing to a halt. What happened at your job that kicked it off? Was it a crunch? A rough spot with a difficult boss? A change in routine? Scary rumors about the future? A not-so-great performance review? Or yes, a global pandemic?

Create a strategy for coping with triggers. Once you’re aware of what can kick of the stress cycle, then you can also build in ways to cope. Is there someone you can vent to when the pressure builds up? Get support! Talking can help release those pent up-emotions. Is there a way to prepare for the crunch times? Is it time to look at updating your skills? Can you reach out for some help in how to manage that difficult boss? Are there times when you could be delegating some of the work, or asking for help? That need to be perfect — or to the hero — can lead to additional stress that doesn’t need to be there.   

Be proactive: Set daily goals. You probably have a list of what you need to accomplish every day at your job. So consider adding your self-care to that list. Include the key tasks from that inventory you did. Healthy food? Check. A break? Check. Medication? Check. You might enlist a friend of family member to help you be accountable for maintaining your daily self-care.

Schedule, schedule, schedule. You put your hours of work on your schedule. You put family obligations on your schedule. You put your other commitments on your schedule. So how about putting your self-care on your schedule? Schedule a few minutes to clear your mind, even if means taking a walk away from your work area for a quick change of scenery. Give yourself a bedtime every night. And don’t forget meal times, and with enough time to get real food and not raid the vending machine. If you treat doing what you need to do to take care yourself as an afterthought, and fit it in when and if you can, chances are it won’t get done.

Create a buffer zone between work and home. One big contributor to the stress cycle is bringing your work and the stress that goes along with it home with you. So think about how you can leave as much of that stress behind as possible. One way to do this is by building in a mental break — a buffer zone — that allows you to regroup before you go home at the end of the workday. You might stop at a bookstore for a few minutes, or for a quick cup of coffee. Or, put on some relaxing or upbeat music instead of the news as you drive home. Maybe take the scenic route instead of the highway. If you are working at home, you still need a buffer at the end of the day before you transition back into your non-work life! Anything that might help you to feel like yourself before you arrive at home.   

Recognize where you have control and where you don’t have control. The pressures of work are not going away. You may not have control over the demands of your job. But you do have control over how you handle those demands, starting with making sure you stay on top of what you need to do to take care of yourself.

Your job is your job, and the stress is not going away. But stress doesn’t have to derail your self-care routine. Put yourself at the top of your daily list of priorities. If you’re taking care of yourself, you’ll be that much better able to cope with the demands of the work day. And to be there for yourself and your other priorities in life. So take good care of yourself. Every day!

Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains a website,

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