No, you don’t always know when you’re under stress, and, yes, there is something you can do about it

You have a System, right? You know, that network or web of each part of your life that has this beautiful, crazy inter-play.

— more sleep = whiz in the board room —
— a healthy supper = a better night’s sleep —
— a planned out shopping trip = a health supper —
— and so on, and so on, and so on… —

That beautiful, crazy inter-play works magic to move your life in sync, in time and rhythm. But, how do you know when your System gets stressed? How do you behave when your System is stressed?

Something pulls on your connected life, and something is about to give…

— dun dun DUN —

For me, that came to light with a recent deadline. Now, I was rocking this project. I had my shit together. My part of the project was under control and I was prepared to roll with the flow of change that would inevitably arise. Because, seriously, any project could end up with a last minute stealth pop-up crisis.

And, I had my back-burner list up and running. That’s my one big task list I maintain when I am busy. I write everything down that’s not related to my current project so that I can forget about until the dust settles. think of task; assess criticality; write it down with or without an asterisk. 

hint: it’s my coping strategy and REALLY BIG CLUE for stress —

BUT. I started coming across tasks that weren’t mine alone – other people were involved and impacted. Other people that I could be holding up, letting down or leaving high and dry! I couldn’t possible back-burner them!

So I went and checked in as each new shared task arise. My coping strategy for these adjusted from write-and-forget to just-do-it. No matter how minor or non-critical, it was “easier” to get in front of people and remind them that I had everything under control and hadn’t forgotten about them…

And, those people were left wondering why I was sweating the small stuff when I had a deadline approaching. They saw my stress reaction before I did.



In their reaction to me, I saw worry and concern that led me to wonder: what I was doing to create this reaction? I had to explain myself. I had to step into – and become present to – my behaviours. My new, adjusted automated process of think of a task, filter for secondary participant; assume all task with a secondary participant are critical and run to assure participant and make plans had to be questioned.

I turned the spotlight on it and turned the heat up. Here’s what went down:

  • In my haste and effort to save energy, I translated my simple, personal 3 step plan into a faulty 3 step plan when others became involved.
  • I recognized why I had put my 3 step processes in place – the deadline flipped the stress switch that turned on the task list protocol.
  • I acknowledged that others acknowledged my deadlines and priorities. Everyone knew I had stuff going on and no one expected me to be concerned or involved in anything else until it was over. This key piece of information let that faulty process settle and fall away. Those shared tasks were not critical. I could simply add them to my personal task list.

And here’s what I learned:

  • What looked like a perfectly reasonable “alternate organizational strategy” was my clue of stress on my System. The 3 step task list is not how I normally operate. I can. But that doesn’t make it ideal or safe.
  • In that space, I lose perspective of myself. This stress time is the best time to up the mindful moments and step into reflective behaviours. Get my headspace back on.
  • Others are your allies. Even if you don’t see what’s going on, others do. Let them know how best to bring you back. I told my colleague to simply tell me: hey, you’re getting stressed. Over-concern, cliches and arbitrarily taking things off my plate just stress me out even more. Hitting upside the head with a verbal 2×4, though, does quite nicely.

So, how do you identify your stress before something disconnects in your life? One of the best tips I can offer is to set up a daily mindful reflective practice. Yes, daily. It can be 15 minutes in the morning to reflect on the previous day or 15 minutes at noon or after work to check in on your body, your actions and your well-being. Ask why at each observation you make:

  • what do I notice in my body (tight shoulders? restlessness? ease?)
  • how did I respond in that meeting?
  • why did I work through lunch today?

I would not recommend a bed time practice for this type of work. A mindful meditation at bed time can be amazing, but this type of reflection may get the thoughts rolling!

Consider the truth of you answers, and make note. You don’t have to make sweeping changes to your life or behaviour after each answer, but you will start to notice trends and truths about yourself and your reactions. And when you are aware, you can decide if change is the right next step.

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