How To Keep Working Productively When You’re Under Extreme Stress

Say you’re a high performer who’s risen through the ranks. Now you have even bigger responsibilities. Or you’re working your way toward a promotion and need to show your skills and professionalism in the best light. Then the phone call comes. The results of your medical tests weren’t good. Or you suddenly have to take care of a loved one in an emergency. Or there’s an unexpected financial hit that could spell catastrophe.

Whatever the situation, your life just got much more complicated. While intuitively you know that these things can happen to anyone, the anxiety of dealing with such troubling events, coupled with the pressure to continue to perform in your job, amps up the stress to DEFCON 1.

“A curveball like that requires sharpening your coping skills and expanding them so that you can deal with what’s being demanded of you,” says clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, adjunct professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. And there is a strategic approach you can take to help you cope and perform better, even when you’re operating under extreme stress.

Part of the anxiety that occurs during such urgent situations comes from feeling a loss of control, says Matthew Digeronimo, a retired nuclear submarine lieutenant commander and coauthor of Extreme Operational Excellence: Applying the U.S. Submarine Culture to Your Organization. He recommends identifying the things you can adapt or adjust to regain some of that feeling of order. “If a family member is ill, you might not be able to control the illness. But you can control the manner in which you rally around that person. You can control your working hours, or the way you react to it,” he says.

If you can schedule meetings or calls during your high-energy times, or work from home one day a week, take advantage of those options. Use the power you do have to adapt your life to deal with your new situation for the time being, he says.

We all have tasks that need to get done to fulfill our responsibilities. However, high-performing individuals often go beyond the basics and take on other to-dos—that’s often what makes them high performers, Clark says. Now is the time to scale back to the most necessary and immediate task. Ask yourself these key questions:

  • Where can I cut back?
  • Where can I save time?
  • What can I put off without much consequence?

For example, do you need to take that trip to China now? Or can you cut back to visiting two states instead of three on your next trip? Can support staff handle some of the legwork on that upcoming report? Once you have a sense of where your time needs to be spent, you can create a list of priorities to ensure you’re getting the essentials done. Then you can decide whether you have time or energy to take on more.

This is also a good time to let go of perfectionism and accept “good enough,” Clark says. When you’re good at and take pride in what you do, it can be tough to do the minimum acceptable job. Sometimes, that’s what’s necessary to free up time and energy you need for other things to prevent burnout, she says.

Extreme stress can affect decision making as well. Recent research from the University of Pittsburgh found that anxiety affects the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which regulates problem solving, impulse control, and emotion regulation.

Unlike typical periodic stress, where you may feel the pressure of events that happen from time to time, unrelenting stress doesn’t give you time for recovery, says Richard Citrin, PhD, founder of Citrin Consulting, a talent and leadership development consultancy, and author of The Resilience Advantage: Stop Managing Stress and Find Your Resilience. So your decision-making ability may be taking a beating.

As a result, you need to be more intentional about what you’re doing. Gather your facts methodically, and if necessary, take more time to make decisions or take action to be sure you get it right, he says.

Another decision you’ll need to make is what—and how much—to tell those around you. Should you tell your boss that your parent is ill? Should you tell your boss or coworkers that you’re going through a divorce? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution here, Digeronimo says.

If the situation will require you to change some of your work habits or be out of the office, then it’s probably a good idea to tell your boss the basics and share your plan for managing the situation. He thinks it’s not a good idea to share too much with coworkers, as it can breed gossip and office politics. “For most of us, our coworkers are not our source of support,” he says. “I think it can only add to your stress level if you share these types of details with them.”

When Citrin’s daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, he and his wife both had full-time careers. He says that one of the most important lessons he learned throughout the experience was to accept help from other people so that he could free up time to help his daughter. He says it can be hard for people who are used to handling everything themselves to ask for or accept help from others, but even allowing a neighbor to bring over a meal can relieve one of your many demands. Clark adds that it’s important to practice good self-care, including getting enough sleep, exercising, and trying to manage your stress.

Chances are that you’re going to have to juggle a personal emergency with your work at some point. Understanding how to keep your work life intact while managing extreme stress requires a combination of cutting back, being mindful, and taking care of your own needs, so you can address both work and personal demands.

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