Create a job-related stress log, which consists of journal-like entries, tracking the precise moments of when your body or mind reacts negatively to pressure at work.
Instead of saying, "It's the whole job that's causing me extraordinary stress," it's important to pinpoint the origin (time, place, people, circumstance and triggers) of job stressors.
For example, is it an insane workload that's bothering you because layoffs have meant that fewer people are now responsible for more work? Have you been repeatedly promised a raise or promotion, only to be routinely overlooked? Do you have a rude, belligerent boss or absolutely intolerable colleagues who undermine you at every turn? Is there an overall climate of fear that has everyone biting their nails as you all await the possibility of pink slips?
You want to determine what exactly it is that's causing you -- your mind and body -- to react so negatively at work.
Every day for two weeks, keep a small pad in your purse or pocket. (Don't do this on your work computer, nor should you wait until you're back home at the end of the day.) In the moment when you feel like you're tensing up or getting that headache or feeling sick -- whatever your specific symptoms, which can vary in each person -- write down what specifically is causing it.
For example, did someone say something specific to you? Who was it, what was said, and why? Where were you? What were you doing in that moment? How did you react outwardly and how did you react inwardly -- verbally, physically, mentally or emotionally?
Over the course of two weeks, create this type of entry every time you aren't feeling like your normal, healthy self.
Then try rating the specific stressors. For example, there are typically some things that make us more upset than others. Different things cause a different reaction. Maybe you get a stomach ache when you're told to work with a specific person, but you're perfectly fine doing the same assignment with someone else. Or maybe you feel fine until you have to call a particular contact.
There are different degrees of how those things make us feel. (For example, when my husband broke his foot recently, the doctor asked, on a scale of 1 to 10 -- with 10 being the most excruciating pain you've ever experienced -- how would you rate the pain? That answer enabled the doctor to understand the severity of the injury.) Do the same when you're stressed at work. Rate the intensity of how you're feeling each time you create an entry.
This will help you to identify patterns. Are there one or two things that really rile you up? Are you more apt to be stressed at different times of day? Are there specific people who are causing the majority of your pains -- some worse than others?
Now look for solutions. If you were advising a good friend or family member who created and shared with you the same stress journal, what kind of advice would you offer short of quitting the job, which, without another paycheck lined up, may not be realistic for most people? How would you help your friend cope?
While potential solutions will be different for everyone, some options to consider: Can you talk to your boss about moving your desk, switching assignments, altering your hours or tweaking a process?
In my office, for example, we had a valuable client who made one employee so tense and uncomfortable that she'd tremble at the thought of dealing with him. When she shared this with her colleagues, they suggested that someone else deal with the client, since the dynamic would be easier to manage. Everyone was satisfied.
Another possible solution may be to find a distraction or a way to deliberately pass the time while at work. For example, take a two-minute break every hour to walk outside, to the restroom, to grab a cup of water, or to walk to another floor. The key is to step away from your normal work space and get that frequent change of scenery.
Remember, too, that you don't work for a particular boss or company. In reality, you work for yourself and your loved ones. It's the work you do and the paycheck you receive that likely pays your bills. Don't give the boss or company any more power over you than they really need. When you shift the thinking to recognize that you're working for yourself and the people who mean the most to you, it may help you cope better at work.
(We received an email from one woman who works 10-hour days at a job she says she hates, but quitting without another position lined up isn't an option for her. So every hour, she happily crosses an hour out on a chart as she counts down to the end of the day -- and she says that somehow it makes the pass faster, thereby diminishing her levels of stress.)
Take your lunch break -- don't eat at your desk. Use the time, even if it's only 20 minutes, to leave the building. Applying lavender lotion is thought to have a calming and soothing effect, so keep a small bottle in your desk drawer and apply it to your hands every time you feel yourself tensing up. Listen to an iPod with your favorite music to tune out stressful distractions in the office.
Find a pleasant diversion outside the office. Having even one friend outside of work to share your frustrations with can allow you to vent instead of keeping it pent up. Plan a vacation -- if you can't afford one long break, how about several long weekends? Take up a hobby that you can really sink your teeth into as you engage in something new. Volunteer your time and talent to a worthy cause that takes your mind off of work and allows you to help someone or something that could benefit from your efforts while making you feel good about yourself.
Check the mental health and wellness benefits offered by your employer -- and make use of them. Share your journal entries with a professional, whether it's your doctor, a mental health specialist, or even a qualified job or life coach. Ask for coping mechanisms on how to deal with the triggers that distract you from feeling your best.
Finally, if you've done everything you can do and you're not finding relief, then it may be time to leave. It's a very personal choice of when and how to decide that you can afford to be without the paycheck. Will lack of income take a greater toll on your health -- or will you be much-improved without the job? That's a discussion to have with your family and key advisors.