4 Therapeutic Steps to Relieve Work Stress

Principles of cognitive behavioral therapy can help reduce work stress. You can break down cognitive behavioral approaches to work stress into these 4 core concepts:

  1. We don’t react directly to the environment. Instead, we react to how our mind interprets the environment.

Ever notice how a situation that drives you crazy doesn’t bother someone else very much? Or vice versa, your co-worker gets really frustrated by a person or required activity but you don’t find that it’s such as big deal?

Stepping back and looking at how you react to a situation can help relieve some of the stress of that situation. This isn’t to say the situation isn’t cringe-worthy. It’s more about perspective taking. If you have to go to a meeting, give a talk or spend a few hours with a co-worker you don’t like, how can you manage your own perspective? Recognize the initial reaction and observe it.

Negative thoughts about activities we’re resistant to, create the same stress reactions in the body as the stressful event itself!

The Activity + The Negative Thought Reaction = Twice the Stress

  1. There is a causal relationship between thoughts, feelings and actions

This takes step 1 a bit further. You start with a thought, for example “Gosh, I really hate working on the project with person X.” This thought comes to mind as you’re driving to work when you remember you have to spend 2 hours with person X this afternoon.

As soon as this thought comes to mind your chest gets tighter and your shoulders inch upward and get tight. Maybe a slight headache begins. Before you have even stepped into work, your stress level is already going up.

shutterstock_214580848Because of the thought that led to the negative feelings, you become impatient. You honk at another driver, or cut someone off for a parking space. You snap at a co-worker, or speak impatiently to someone on the phone. These behaviors started with the thought, then flowed from the feeling. The behaviors probably add more stress to the entire working environment, and more people start feeling on edge. Everyone’s having a lousy day, and there are more and more triggers to think, feel and act negatively!

But remember, the meeting isn’t until the afternoon!

By observing the thought right when it arises you can acknowledge that yes, you don’t like person X and yes, this afternoon you have to spend 2 hours together. But then there’s also the choice to say

“For the next 6 hours I’m not going to worry about the meeting. I’ll deal with it when I get there. Right now, I’m going to focus on my job and enjoy the things I like doing here.”

Spend a few minutes reflecting on what fulfills you at work.

  1. Know yourself. Know what your triggers are and be ready for them, so they don’t run you down

It’s important to be honest with yourself. When you step back and look at what bothers and stresses you at work, you can also be prepared for the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that flow from those events.

When you are prepared, as soon as the thought pops up or you feel that tightness in your stomach you can step back, take a deep breath, and engage in a few behaviors that help you relieve stress.shutterstock_151572134

Everyone has something they like. It could be as simple as slowly counting to ten while observing the breath. A short walk around the building taking time to look at the sky and listen to the birds can ease negative thoughts and feelings. Reminding yourself:

“I acknowledge that this situation is frustrating to me. I recognize that I don’t like spending time on this project or with person X. I also recognize that this situation does not define me. I am able to do my job, manage this task, and let it go. I can observe my thoughts and feelings, and they do not control me.”

  1. Developing awareness takes time, but it is also an investment in learning how to respond to thoughts, physical reactions and behaviors to stress that are not helpful

There is the type of stress we draw on when we want to perform and get things done. A little bit of stress can be invigorating and increase productivity and enjoyment.

Then there’s the type of stress that feels overwhelming and frustrating. Recognizing the triggers, developing a stress coping strategy, preventing reactive behaviors, and taking control of one’s emotions and reactions helps relieve stress.

Know When You’ve Had Enough

It’s also o.k. to say no. If a task, person, or situation is intolerable, or if you feel the environment is abusive then find a way to move on. Most importantly, you absolutely deserve to work in a respectful environment, free from harassment and discrimination.

The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed medical professional. It is essential that you discuss with your primary care provider any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.


Kendall, P.C. and Bemis, K.M. (1983). Thoughts and action in psychotherapy: the cognitive-behavioral approaches. In M. Hersen, A.E. Hersen, A.E. Kazdin and   A.S.   Bellack   (eds), The   Clinical   Psychology Handbook, New York: Pergamon Press

Quick, J. C., & Quick, J. D. (1979). REDUCING STRESS THROUGH PREVENTIVE MANAGEMENT. Human Resource Management, 18(3), 15-22.

Treven, S. (2010). Individual Methods for Reducing Stress in Work Settings. Interbeing, 4(2), 1-6.


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