Well-Being//

3 Ways to Stop Stressing Out About Things You Can’t Control at Work

Simple strategies to keep yourself from spiraling out.

Rido / Shutterstock
Rido / Shutterstock

It’s a simple fact: A lot of the things we fret about at work are completely out of our hands. 

Whether we’re still ruminating over a less-than-stellar presentation we gave yesterday, or spending all our mental energy conjuring up — and worrying about — future challenges, we’re focusing on things we have no power to influence. Worrying is a natural human response, Kate Sweeny, Ph.D., professor of psychology at U.C. Riverside, tells Thrive. But if what’s vexing us is beyond our control, we’re setting ourselves up for unnecessary stress.

To keep this tendency in check, you’ll first need to tune into your own need for control. This starts with acknowledging when there’s truly nothing you can do to affect the outcome of something. Beyond that, here are a few tips experts recommend to ground yourself in the present moment and stop stressing.

Say “awe”

If you’re holding your breath waiting for your boss’ feedback on a project, here’s a strategy that can help prevent you from worrying about whether she’ll love it or hate it. Sweeny’s 2018 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that awe — an especially powerful feeling of wonder — can distract you from the strong pull of worrisome thoughts. Sweeny suggests finding small triggers to inspire your sense of awe throughout the workday. For instance, you could watch a quick clip of Planet Earth during your lunch break, or seek out stories online about random accomplishments or acts of kindness. Or head outside for a quick walk through a park or a tree-lined block after a stressful call. Being outdoors in a natural setting engages a state of awe that psychologists call “soft fascination,” which can help you collect your thoughts, bounce back from any setbacks, and recharge your energy reserves.

Book “worry time” on your calendar

One unexpected Microstep to stop stressing all day long? “Time blocking,” or the practice of dedicating windows of time for — yes — worrying. Treating this as a workday activity with a set time and place, just as you would a conference call, “not only gives you license to worry freely — and hopefully solve problems — but after a bit of practice, it also minimizes the time you spend worrying unproductively the rest of the day,” Graham Davey, Ph.D., emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Sussex in the U.K., tells Thrive. Not only do you contain your stress, but in the event that there is truly something you can do, you’re more likely to look for a solution when you have a limited amount of time to worry about it. 

Meditate

A lot of what we can’t control happened in the past or has to do with the future. That’s why meditation — bringing yourself back to the present moment — is such a powerful antidote to fretting about the things that are out of our hands. Research consistently shows that meditation is a reliable method for reducing work stress, and the beauty is there’s no right or wrong way to practice it. This 30-second object meditation — from Silicon Valley marital and family therapist Phil Boissiere, M.F.T. — is simple, but has the potential to keep that obnoxious roommate in your head on his or her best behavior. 

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