Driving home last week, I realized I was living with about as much work-related stress as I could imagine. What’s worse, I was starting to bring these stresses past the threshold of my home, leaving a negative impact on my family. But how could this be? I’ve literally taught stress management; I exercise, eat well, meditate. I get a healthy amount of sleep. Looking back, unfortunately, I began to realize that the exception in the last six months were times when I wasn’t experiencing high stress; it was habitual. How do I break the habit of stress?
Retrospection suggests I have always found ways to maintain high stress levels; my recent issues are just the problems de jure. While certainly some of us may have a bonafide anxiety disorder, I think there may be another level or issue. I believe some of us have normalized stress. And worse, I think we begin to believe that we are our most efficacious when we are in this environment. We begin to associate high stress as a badge of courage and ownership with our work; if we care so much we’re taking it home with us, we must be really good employees, right?
This is a jagged pill to swallow: while stressors have always been there (and will continue to be), maybe I’m the common denominator. My internal stress is still my own creation and responsibility. And whatever ‘stress management strategies’ I have employed are clearly not addressing this situation. So where do I go from here? In lieu of Stress-aholics Anonymous, I’ve carved out a few helpful steps to break the habit of stress.
First, I need to abandon any belief that stress is helping me succeed. I am not a better employee or person as a result of it. Suffering is not a virtue; there is no reward for it. Worry is not an action to be taken in lieu of a plan; it has never brought me closer to a solution. No boss of mine has ever called me into his office to praise me for how stressed I was about a project.
Second, it’s clear I’ve made a habit out of stress. It’s become an assumption and a routine, a yoke to be donned anytime challenges crop up. If I truly accept the first point, that stress is not positively related to any previous success, then we’ve got to do some proactive work to de-link the two ideas and break the habit. As James Clear reminds us in Atomic Habits, bad habits usually were born from some kind of need. What we have to do, he asserts, is replace those harmful habits with something positive, something performed with intention.
Lastly, and only after addressing the previous points, I need to build better boundaries between work and home (increasingly hard to do in the post-COVID digital world). If we work to live (instead of the other way around), then carrying stress home every night shows we have our priorities backwards. We are all programmed that it’s a workplace sin to let stress from your personal life bleed into your workplace; why don’t we focus on the opposite, too? We are not robots; we must stop pretending that professionalism entails emotionless unattachment.
Strategies for separating work and home life, as stated, are increasingly hard to find, but I have found a few that are effective:
- Before I leave work for the day, I write down bullet points for every major issue I’m dealing with; I tell myself I’m depositing these stressors on the page and will pick them back up when I return.
- If I need help unpacking my emotional baggage from the day, I allow myself a vent session with my partner, but it should last less than ten minutes.
- I do not check my work email until my kids are in bed, and even then, only once.
- When I find myself mentally drifting back to work-related issues, I stop myself and mentally list five things I love about being home with my family. (Meditation is amazing for helping you catch yourself in negative thought cycles.)
Perhaps you, like me, are a stress-aholic. Maybe you too have inadvertently made the harsh wasteland of worry your comfort zone. It’s time we recognized that this only damages ourselves and our families. Stress is not a signifier of devotion to our duties and our employer; it is not a harbinger of success. Let’s recognize this as the bad habit it is and get intentional about improving our mental health and setting clear boundaries.