I have a friend who is into high-adrenalin sports - he's just started practising extreme tightrope walking and told me that he's finding it difficult to master his balance and asked for some guidance.
Here's how our conversation went:
Me: "What are you thinking when you're about to walk out on that tightrope?"
Pete: "Well, I never thought about my thinking before, I suppose that I'm thinking I am going to fall!"
Me: "How do you feel emotionally and what happens to you physically when you think that?"
Pete: "I get anxious; I start trembling and wobbling".
Me: "Well, despite that thought being understandable and certainly true, it sounds like it isn't at all helpful to keep thinking it, especially if you what to make it across that tightrope!
[After a pause.]
Me: "Hey Pete, next time you catch yourself thinking " I am going to fall", why don't you repeat that thought while adding the prefix: "I am having the thought that...." beforehand? Instead, you will think: "I am having the thought that I am going to fall".
Next time I saw Pete, he was grinning from ear to ear. Yes: he had made it across his first 100m tightrope at 100ft high!
The fact here is that how we think has a profound effect on how we feel. In turn, this has a profound effect on our emotional experience, which affects our behaviour and our level of functioning and performance in every context of life, including work.
I'm not here to insult your intelligence. In this economic climate the thought, "I am going to lose my job" may be both understandable and true. However, you need to ask yourself whether this is constructive. Is it really helpful to keep thinking it?
The more we allow our minds to run on autopilot - worrying about 'catastrophic' eventualities like losing our jobs - the more our stress levels increase and the more negative changes in our behaviour and functioning occur. This makes it more likely that others will notice a drop in our performance and that job loss will follow. Worrying about job loss becomes self-fulfilling.
To create space between you and your thoughts, try adding the prefix: "I am having the thought that....." before a thought like: "I am going to lose my job." It will make a difference.
Redundancy breeds a fear that only the strong will survive. Many of my clients work in the financial sector and some of them are key players at the top of their game. Because of this fear, they are working even harder and longer hours to ensure that they keep their jobs. This approach is just going to lead to more stress and burnout, negatively affecting their performance in the longer term.
Furthermore, working excessive hours can escalate our stress into more severe psychological problems. Becoming unwell and not being able to work at all in the end is not going to look good on your CV when applying for other jobs - it's a small world out there and stigma around stress and mental health problems is unfortunately still rife in the corporate world.
Its true - the economy is suffering and redundancies are widespread, the climate in the City is unsettling and distressing, but remember that things occur is cycles and the current climate will change and with change comes new opportunities. We have a choice about how we relate to the current difficult times and the stressful situations around us. Stress and especially the stress from the threat of redundancy can lead us to think and act in unhelpful ways that can cause us even more problems if we are not careful. We can live in fear or we can choose not to:
Try and not panic: try not to get caught up in the doom and gloom hype in the media and what others are worrying about around you. This leads to high levels of anxiety and poor decision making. Try not to overreact and instead try to remain calm and focussed.
Recognise how you deal with stress: Most of us try to relieve stress by turning to unhelpful habits, like drinking more alcohol, gambling, and comfort eating or working even harder! These 'quick-fix' behaviours only lead us to more stress in the longer term. If you notice any of these behaviours getting worse seek out some professional psychological support. Try to arrange more pleasant events and relaxing activities into your working week.
Accept how you feel: Most of our stress is worsened by us getting stressed about being stressed! The stigma around stress in the corporate world doesn't help at all here, as we understandably try to hide the way we feel. This stigma may be felt even more right now as we fear only the strong will survive. This only increases our stress which affects our work performance even more. Despite feeling stressed, remember that unpleasant feelings will soon pass. You are human with limitations and that is ok.
Pay attention to what you are thinking: if you are feeling stressed, low or anxious it is a sign that your thinking is not in line with being helpful to you. You may be worrying about the future, ruminating about the past or being overly self-critical or self-doubting. All these thinking styles will lead to lowering your self-confidence and more distress, making it harder to keep you current job or ensuring that you secure a new one.
Make decisions and move forward: procrastination is one of the most significant and maintaining factors of our stress at times like these. Try to make a decision and take action, send you CV around or talk to recruiters, albeit subtly - remind yourself whatever will happen you will deal with the outcome.
Try to regard these challenging times as an opportunity for growth, development and change: take the opportunity to spend more time with friends or the family, re-evaluate old habits and to learn new skills or go on a course that might further your career prospects. They key is to use this time creatively to think outside of the box.
Dr. Michael Sinclair is a consultant psychologist and clinical director at the City Psychology Group. Consultant to a number of occupational health departments in the City ofLondon, he is the author of Fear and Self-Loathing in the City: a guide to keeping sane in the square mile and The Little CBT Workbook: a step by step guide to gaining control of your life.