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Stress is a rip current

Rip currents are scary. If you don’t understand their mechanism, they can be deadly. Growing up near the beach as a child, I learned early on that when you start to get dragged out to sea by a rip current, the worst thing you can do is struggle directly against it. You can’t outswim a rip and if you try, you will exhaust yourself.

The most important thing is not to panic. Recognise that the column of water pulling you out to sea is quite narrow. If you swim parallel to the shore in either direction, you will quickly escape the fast flowing water and then you can turn and swim back to safety.

Work stress is exactly the same. When you’re caught in it, you can feel yourself getting pulled further and further from the “shore”. We even talk about “drowning in work” or “being underwater”. It feels inescapable. The harder you work, the further behind you seem to get, the more you stress out. You work longer hours and the stress affects your sleep. The lack of sleep makes the task of stemming the tide feel even more insurmountable. While colleagues, friends and family might commiserate, they don’t necessarily have a rope to throw you.

We each need to find our own way to swim parallel to the shore. When you’re incredibly busy, the idea of taking an hour or two off to go to the gym or to see a film or to have a relaxing (non-work related) dinner seems ridiculous. How will the work get done if you’re taking time out from actually doing it? It’s completely counter-intuitive.

Unless you understand the mechanism.

Working harder against the unstoppable current results in exhaustion. You suffer and your work suffers.

Find your version of swimming parallel to the shore. Get out of the rip current, even for an hour. For some it may be exercise; for others, a break to read, or a stroll around the block. Perhaps drawing or even playing music helps clear your head. Whatever it takes: recognise when you’re caught in the rip and, however counter-intuitive it feels, start swimming parallel to the shore. You’re not slacking off, you’re keeping a level head, you’re being sensible and you, your work, your clients, your employer and your family all benefit in the long run.

With a bit of awareness and a little practice, you can save yourself a lot of energy and a lot of stress by learning to escape from the rip.

I’d love to hear how you manage stress. What are your techniques for “swimming parallel” to the shore?

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