Sometimes, stress hits us like a sucker punch to the gut.
It might be a panic-inducing, sudden onslaught of feelings.
Or maybe a rub-your-temples and remember to breathe type moment.

Maybe it’s just a hide-in-bed-under-the-covers and disappear from the world, kind-of-day. (“Just”… As if it’s some small thing to feel like hiding from reality.)

Some stressors affect us every single day. Most likely roll off our shoulders without slowing our stride, but some days, life hits us more than others.

Whatever the cause, when stress hits hard it can leave you feeling like you’re suffering from an emotional hangover.

And for all of us bad-ass, boss babe, rockstars, we can’t afford to have stress from our personal lives interfering with work. Yet, even bad-ass, boss babe, rockstars — are human, too.

So, how do we tackle the day when we feel like we’re drowning in a haze of negative feelings?

What if you experience a life event so major that it rocks your world?
A family member dies.
You become seriously ill.
You lose your house to a fire.
You go through a devastating breakup or separation.

No matter what your personal stressors might be, it can be extremely difficult to leave them at the door when you walk into work. So let’s face it head-on, together.

man with anxiety at work

First, what’s stressing us out so much?

The Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), more commonly known as the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, allows us to measure how much stress we are carrying by rating it with a number — the greater the number, the more significant the event and the more stress it causes.

Among the events with the highest ratings:

  • Death
  • Divorce
  • Illness and/or injury
  • Financial pressures
  • Legal issues
  • Moving
  • And, yes… issues at work.

For more than a decade, the American Psychological Association (APA) has conducted its annual survey to investigate Americans’ relationship with stress — how stressed we feel, what keeps us up at night, and how we deal with the stress in our lives.

There has always been a pretty consistent theme in the survey results: money and work are cited as the top two life stressors. In 2017, however, a new stressor was added to the survey’s list of questions, and it revealed some significant changes in the things that weigh so heavily on our daily lives.

Among the respondents, 63 percent of Americans say the future of the nation is a significant source of stress. That’s higher than the percentage who are stressed about money (62 percent), work (61 percent), or violence and crime (51 percent). With the extreme changes in the political climate, more people find themselves struggling with these kinds of stressors more than ever before.

Whether it’s personal, political, or professional, it is easy for stress to feel overwhelming. So, what happens when you have to go to work and try to pack it all away so you can focus on the day? What happens if you can’t focus?

When stress hitches a ride to work

Dealing with major stressors makes it extremely hard to keep your personal and professional lives separate. This can be risky for your career if you don’t learn proper ways to cope and create healthy boundaries.

The American Psychological Association and the American Institute of Stress found that 48 percent of Americans say stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional lives.

Sometimes, it’s the physical effects of stress that can affect our work performance. Three out of four Americans report experiencing at least one stress symptom in the last month:

On top of your overall performance, stress impacts workplace relationships, future opportunities, and career advancement.

Woman stressed at work

Dealing with stress while staying on track

The best way to handle stress and get the job done? Learn how to deal with it in a healthy way, and learn what tools are available to help.

  1. Find someone to talk with, and set boundaries.
    Know what to talk about and with whom. You have to gauge your relationships at work to know when it’s appropriate to share. If you have stressors that you can’t seem to shake, talking with a coworker you trust may provide you with a healthy outlet for good advice. Just be careful about knowing where to draw the line about oversharing, or making your personal struggles public at work. Set boundaries with what you share—explain the situation clearly without going overboard on the details. If you are dealing with a major crisis that will impact your job performance, it’s likely a good idea to talk with your boss or supervisor. In my own company, I remind my team that life, as I call it, happens to all of us. Your team can step in and offer support, whether that means providing back-up on your projects or a listening ear.
  2. Track your stressors and identify your triggers.
    Often, the best way to cope with stress is to find a way to change the circumstances that are causing it. For me personally, I find that I need an action plan. Even when the situation is out of my control, identifying the things I can control — like my mindset — helps me better process the stress. Part of coping is learning to identify your triggers. What makes you feel anxious? Are there certain people or stressors that set you off faster than others? When you are triggered, you may be more likely to lose your temper, react in an unreasonable way, or say things that could make your situation worse. Learning to identify the triggers will help you to take action before your emotions take a plunge. Take a quick walk to shake things off if you feel your stress creeping up on you.
  3. Develop to-do lists and a timeline to stay on track and prioritize.
    It’s easy to get distracted when your mind is worrying about other things. Make lists and timelines to make sure you don’t fall behind on your work. I find that these project lists also help me to stay focused — which can be a welcome distraction from outside stress. I’m also a big believer in mental health days. If you need to take time off to handle personal issues, don’t hesitate to take a day. Even a few hours can help you return to work refreshed and refocused. If you’re dealing with an issue that could lead to an extended absence, sit down with your boss or manager to adjust your workload. Most likely, your boss and coworkers will work with you to accommodate your needs during a really tough time.
  4. Develop healthy responses to cope outside of work.
    Find a support system you trust and can lean on, and live an overall healthy lifestyle. If you don’t feel supported and your body isn’t well cared for, you are more likely to feel the effects of extreme stress, which will only make things worse. Eat well, stay hydrated, burn off stress and worry with exercise, relax by meditating or doing yoga, make time for your hobbies, and even take a self-care day.
  5. Utilize your resources.
    Some companies offer support groups, paid leave, and other benefits for employees facing tough times or a personal crisis. Take advantage of these tools to reduce your anxiety at work so you can focus on yourself. For those whose employers don’t offer specific assistance for coping with personal tragedies, it’s important to find another outlet for your frustration and worry—whether you see a counselor, exercise, or relax with friends to get things off your chest. I am a huge advocate of seeking out help for mental health. We each need our own care team or support network that we can reach out to for help. For some issues in life, simply having our friends on speed dial is enough. For others, learning healthy coping techniques from a professional therapist or counselor is needed. For a major event, we may need all of the above to hold us up until we’re through the worst of it.

Remember: you are not alone. Stress is inevitable, and major crises happen. Things get tough, and it’s hard work to keep a balance between your personal and professional life. But you can get through it! Focus on using your support system, mental strength, and other resources to help you cope and function. Identify your stressors and conquer them so you can thrive in your role without letting your stress seep into your work environment. And, most importantly, remember to be gentle on yourself.