The Silicon Valley Voice

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Really, You Have to Relax

I know you’re under a lot of pressure at work and, no question, your personal life is a disaster zone, but no matter how tense and nervous and crazed and cranked up you feel, you simply have to relax.

Did that help?

Didn’t think so.

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“When someone is getting stressed out, one of the least effective (and perhaps most annoying) things to say is ‘Relax.'”

Or so Sue Shellenbarger suggested in a recent Work & Family column for The Wall Street Journal.

Of course, you don’t need expert advice on how to be annoying. You could win a Noble Prize on the subject. But when it comes to reacting to extreme stress, you definitely could use few tips.

Take the case of Anna Runyan. While working hard as a consultant “her boss approached her desk and told her to relax, adding, ‘you don’t have to be perfect.'”

Clearly, this is a situation that will never happen to you. Anyone reviewing your work product will know immediately that you are making zero effort to be perfect. Still, it is instructive to understand why Ms. Runyan “felt her face flush with anger.” Though her boss was trying to be understanding, Runyon took his comment to mean that he didn’t appreciate her hard work and tight deadlines. Telling her that he expected her to make mistakes, only made her furious.

There’s psychology here, and biology, as well. According to Wendy Mendes, a professor of emotion at the University of California, San Francisco, “relaxing on command is physiologically impossible if the body is already too acutely stressed to turn it around. While the body responds rapidly to stress, returning to a relaxed state can take 20 to 60 minutes.”

Or two to five years if you consider your own state of severe stress when you learned that Milk Duds had been removed from the company’s snack machine.

As you may suspect, not everyone who tells you to relax has your best interests at heart. “Advising someone to relax can mask a variety of motives,” Shellenbarger writes, before citing the wisdom of clinical psychologist Joseph Burgo, who suggests the underlying motivation may be, “I can’t stand the way you’re making me feel, so stop it.”

In other words, the person commanding you to relax may be the one who needs to relax. As we’ve learned, your natural response, “I am relaxed. You’re the one who needs to relax, you uptight jerk-face,” may not have the desired result. But you can point out to the uptight jerk-face that if your presence is making them nervous, you’d be happy to leave the premises and then they could see how relaxed they feel.

(Warning: Be careful how you use this strategy. It is only recommended to a worker whose father owns the company, or who has a lottery ticket that they are positive will win a multimillion dollar Powerball jackpot.)

If the person telling you to relax is your manager, a bit of workplace jiujitsu could make your job a whole lot easier. In this strategy, you cop to being a nervous Norbert (or a tense Tina) and confess to your highly agitated state.

“It would be great if we could sit down at the beginning of next week, and figure out how to make this process less stressful for me and everyone else,” is the suggested response of author and speaker Debra Burdick.

Acknowledging the strain you are feeling could indeed make your job easier, but considering your tenuous grip on employment, I would not advise waiting until the following week. Instead, start the next morning, and every morning thereafter, by the standing on top of your desk and shouting out across the cube farm, “I’m stressed as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore. Have a good day.”

The desired result from this “cry for help” strategy is to open up a conversation with your stress-inducing managers, who, according to career coach Nancy Ancowitz, are looking for a way “to give a person a chance to talk about his or her feelings.”

Really, it’s kind of sweet to think that your managers are too shy to come right out and ask you to share your feelings, but instead load you up with as much work as possible and then add impossible deadlines to make you crack from the pressure, all so they can let the healing process begin.

I’ll bet you feel more relaxed already.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He now works out of Bellingham, Washington. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com.

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