I walk down the aisle to my desk and sit down in front of my computer. It’s 10:30 and I have just finished three back-to-back half-hour meetings. I have 30 minutes before I go into three more.  I’m resurfacing long enough to gasp a breath before submerging again. I’m agitated; I have so much I want to get done. I open the half-written document I was working on earlier. I’m annoyed by the 2 different fonts on the unformatted page and taunted by the cursor that blinks in the middle of an unfinished sentence. I must have been late for my first meeting to leave it in suspended animation.

But just as I start to type, I overhear a conversation behind me and swivel my chair to join in. When I turn back, I’m flustered; where was I? I know, I need to finish a proposal for a client. Only 25 minutes left now. I open my email to find the client’s request but three new messages with boldface subject lines ensnare me. Five minutes later, I curse the distraction and close my email—fend it off like a lion tamer with a chair and a whip.

Proud of myself for getting out alive, I go back to my open document: 20 minutes left. Only then do I remember that I needed that email from my client to write the proposal. How did I open my email, get distracted, then close it again without ever getting what I went in for? My pulse is quickening, the 30-minute window is fleeting. I look at my dual monitors and realize that I have 13 different windows open. I’m too frazzled to see anything more than overlapping stacks of pixels. My breathing is shallow, I’m losing it, starting to spin. That’s my stress modus operandi.

We’re a stressed out bunch. We are stressed because we have lost the ability or the discipline to differentiate important from unimportant. We are burnt out trying and failing to do everything. Some of us inflict stress on ourselves, some on others.  It’s costly either way. The only hope is to get so good at recognizing our stress demons so that we can see them even from within the self-centered and distorted haze of the stress itself.

If you had to write this post, what would your opening story be? What does stress look like for you? Is it a menacing three-headed beast bobbing and weaving to distract you? Or is it a dark, lonely place? Can you capture it, describe it, smell it and taste it so that it loses it’s power to sneak up on you?

Here are a few opening sentences. I have imagined them based on the people I have met when I work with teams. As I listen to them and watch them, I empathize and try to imagine what’s going on inside their heads.  Pick one that sounds familiar or create your own.  Take a moment to flesh out your story. The stronger and more visceral your description, the more effective it will be in catching your stress in the act.


I feel anger. I notice my heart racing and my cheeks flushing. My jaw is clenched, so tightly it’s sore. I am leaning into the table; I must look so aggressive to the person sitting across from me. I tune in to my own voice and it’s harsh, critical. I’m yelling and breathless and in the middle of a litany of blame before I even realize what I’m saying…

I feel defeated, deflated. I’m in my office, the door is closed. My head is hanging and my shoulders are stooped like I’m 100 years old—I look awful! I think I’m making myself smaller in hopes I will disappear. Why do I keep focusing on the negative? I am convinced that things aren’t going well and won’t let anyone tell me differently. I feel the weight of jeopardizing the whole project when my teammates are counting on me…

I am digging my heels in. I am standing my ground as if I’m the last soldier defending the hill. But someone has to stop things from spiraling out of control—why is everyone else giving in; running for cover? I’m frantically going through old emails looking for the proof of what we had agreed to. I have to find the paper trail to prove I’m right…

I’m underwater and I can’t see the surface anymore. I have a looming sense of dread. But I can’t seem to do anything to make it better. I lean back in my chair and five minutes later realize I’ve just been staring off into space—I don’t even know what I was daydreaming about. Maybe a coffee will help…

I’m in steamroller mode. I feel my back straighten and my resolve increase. You think I’m going to let her stand in the way of our success—you’ve got another think coming! I am calm, cool, and collected; my approach is calculated and I am ready to do battle. Watch out, honey, you chose the wrong person to mess with. Game on!…

I take my issues underground. I am hurt and frustrated but I’ve learned not to take them on directly. I will find refuge and solace with those who share my views. I will make sure they understand what those bullies have done and why they don’t deserve to be here. I will feel vindicated when they sympathize with me…

I spin. I am not getting anything done. I am crazed by the inability to move forward. I thrash from one task to the next desperately longing to feel a sense of accomplishment. I’m frenzied but the faster I try to go, the less I get done…

Which is you? On your worst day, in your worst moment, which is most like you? In those times when you stop being aware of your own behavior and just give in to the stress of the moment, where do you go?

You need to know before you can do anything about it.

Further Reading

Good and Bad Stress

Tsunami of Stress

How to Build your Resilience

4 Responses to What does your stress look like?

    • Thanks Louise, I’m glad I have company. I think the frenetic pace is making many of us spinners these days. Here’s to some deep breaths and deliberate actions!

  1. Chris

    I am the gerbil on the exercise wheel go round and round until I am going so fast that I fly off and admit defeat! Some days I feel that I am working at warp speed but no matter how much I accomplish, there is still so much to do. At this point, I realize that I have hit the wall and try and accept that I am only one person and there are only so many hours in a day. During the warmer months, I escape to the cottage on the lake where my tranquility cannot be sabotaged by anything else and at last, I can really distress with a good book.

    • Chris, I can sure relate! It’s great that you can come down from light speed at the cottage. How can you recreate that same feeling at the office? Are there times when going slower would be faster?

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