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Stress, we all know, can be a killer. It comes in endless forms, induced by family issues, home life, money worries and, of course, work pressures.
When job stress hits, we can feel trapped in a vortex of negative thinking. We can’t concentrate. We can’t be productive. But for many of us, we also can’t escape: we’re at work and we have to stay there, negative thoughts or not. But it’s no way to get a job done.
I spoke with Ora Nadrich, a Los-Angeles-based life coach, mindfulness meditation teacher, and the author of Says Who? How One Simple Question Can Change The Way You Think Forever. Nadrich works with many Type-A clients. After all, she works in the nerve center of pressure-cooker Hollywood, where stress and negative thinking are practically part of the job description. But as she says, they don’t have to be.
“No matter what our careers, too often we’re filled with negative thoughts about our jobs,” Nadrich said. “Those thoughts can take an enormous toll on our performance, which just makes things worse. But if we can separate ourselves from our thoughts, they can’t own us anymore. And the most powerful way to do that is to turn around and challenge each thought directly — with pointed questions.”
Here are four steps to separate yourself from work stress and negative thinking, so you can get back to work:
Work-related stress is at epidemic rates, according to the American Institute of Stress. Everyone feels it. First, recognize its existence, even if it’s upsetting. Don’t try to deny it or sweep it under the rug. Admit you’re stressed about your job. Accept that your head is filled with negative thoughts. By doing so, you allow yourself to focus on what’s happening in the now — to be mindful of what is actually happening, instead of focusing on the emotions surrounding the thoughts.
Now shift gears. You need to step out of reactive mode, where you have no distance at all from your own negative thoughts and are reacting to them over and over. Shift into observer mode, where you become your own witness, separate and independent of all that stress. You need to be in that position to be able to ask yourself questions that help you become calmer and grounded.
Think of this as disarming the intruder. By asking “Says Who?” you are demanding that your thinking reveal who is responsible for it. In other words, how did it get into your head? Once you find the source, you can decide what to do about it. Is it your original thought, or was it someone else’s that you took as your own? You may even discover it’s an old thought that has become part of your core beliefs. Now it’s time to challenge it and let it go.
Nadrich offered this common — and extremely negative thought — as an example: “I’m terrible at my job.” So many of us are plagued by that kind of self-doubt at one point or another. But ask it, “Says Who?” and you’re asking yourself, “Why am I saying that I’m terrible at this job?” Then you can go take it a step further. Ask yourself, “Is it me? If so, why would I think a thought that makes me feel bad about myself?”
Keep challenging those negative thoughts with more questions. “Each question plays a different role in defusing your negative thinking,” explained Nadrich. Asking, “Have I heard someone say this before?” helps you find out if the negative thought is your opinion, or someone else’s. Asking, “Do I like this thought?” gives you license to consider whether it’s a thought worth keeping. Questions like “Does this thought work for me?” can help you transform that negative thought into something positive and life-affirming. That’s the kind of thought that can help you get your work done again. Or, as Nadrich pointed out, “It may help you make the decision to find a job that’s better suited to you, and better for your well-being.”
The truth is, achievement takes work. But there’s a big difference between aiming high and judging ourselves so harshly we can’t get out of our own way. So the next time stress takes hold, take a minute. Sit down, and focus on those doubts and worries before they wreak havoc with your emotions. Sometimes all it takes to get back on track at work is asking the right questions.
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Thunderbird School of Global Management Alumna Dana Manciagli '84 is the author of "Cut the crap, Get a job". With her 'Career Mojo' column, Dana is the sole syndicated career columnist for the Business Journal nationwide. Her remarkable profile includes a career in global sales and marketing for Fortune 500 corporations like Microsoft, IBM, and Kodak. She has coached, interviewed and hired thousands of job seekers. This article was originally published on her website.