How stress works

Stress exists in every workplace, and all of us have probably tried a few trendy stress-management approaches. But rather than trying the latest fad, it may be more effective to understand how stress works and where it comes from, so that you can create your own methods for dealing with it.

Stress is an emotional response; like all emotional responses, it emerges from the functioning of the motivational system. Your motivational system engages goals and gives them energy so that you can pursue them. Simply put, when you succeed at your goals you feel good, and when you don’t succeed you feel bad.

Stress is a negative emotion, so the first thing we can see about stress is that it reflects a goal you are not currently achieving.

Your motivational system also has two distinct subcomponents. One (called the approach system) is focused on achieving desirable outcomes, while the second (called the avoidance system) is focused on avoiding undesirable outcomes. These two systems lead to distinct sets of emotions.

When the approach system is active (say you’re seeking a promotion), you are happy or satisfied if you succeed and sad or disappointed if you fail. When the avoidance system is active (perhaps a client is threatening to fire you), you are fearful and stressed if you are failing, and relieved if you succeed.

So we can also see stress as a reflection that there is something in your environment that you’re trying to avoid, but that you have not yet avoided successfully.

Once you understand how stress works, you can begin to take steps to deal with it so it doesn’t become a long-term problem:

– Figure out what you’re avoiding. If you are stressed, then something is engaging your avoidance motivational system. Sometimes, it is obvious. Big deadlines, angry clients and frustrated bosses are obvious parts of your environment. When you are experiencing long-term stress, though, it might be difficult to disentangle the factors that you want to avoid. In this case, it might be helpful to talk to a friend, partner, coach, or therapist about what is going on.

– Reframe the situation. Every workplace has both avoidance and approach elements. If your daily work life is stressful, you may be focusing too much on what can go wrong. Instead, start thinking about the desirable aspects of work. What do you really want to achieve? By focusing yourself on the potential positives, you engage your approach motivational system rather than the avoidance system and open yourself up to more experiences of joy and satisfaction.

– Learn to calm yourself. When you find your stress levels climbing too high, and you can’t reframe the situation, then you need to remove the energy driving the feelings of stress. Taking a few minutes to disengage yourself from the workplace and to focus on your breathing can help you to calm down. It can also be helpful to burn off some of that energy. Schedule some exercise for the middle of the day. Go for a walk, hit the gym, or attend a yoga class. The motivational energy generated by the avoidance system prepares you to act in the world. If you spend your day sitting at a desk, then that energy has nowhere to go. Channeling it into physical activity is a healthy way to release that energy and let you get back to work.

(Art Markman a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate