Monday 23 June 2014

There's always something you can do about stress (2) If-then Planning

In an earlier post I talked about the best thing you can do with stress and that's prevent it. Most of us are pretty awful at dealing with stress. Prevention is definitely the way to go!

If you get stressed it's already too late. That unconscious, automatic response has already kicked in; stress hormones are flooding your body and the emotional brain has been aroused. You're in full, reactive mode. It's very difficult if not impossible to make good (calm, rational) decisions in such circumstances. More stress usually follows. ( why you should never send an email whey you're annoyed!)
In this post, I'll talk about a strategy that isn't completely based around prevention but does still look ahead.

It's called if-then planning and it's highly effective. The posh psychology term for this is forming what's called an 'implementation intention'.

If-then plans always have the same (written-down) format...

IF [Scenario/Situation] THEN [Plan]!

What you need to think about and identify first is a scenario or situation that causes you stress. This could be a work-based or personal situation that crops up now and again that you're concerned about. It may well be the kind of situation you dread. Looking ahead, it could also be that nightmare situation or worst-case scenario that's keeping you awake at night.

Whatever it is, you need to write it down. Be as clear as possible what the situation is. What's happening? Who is involved? How is it affecting you? If you can easily picture it in your mind, all the better as that will help as you'll see later,

Secondly, you need to come up with and write down a plan. This is what you'll do to prevent or reduce stress if and when that situation occurs. This could include practical steps like who you'll contact to get support and making sure you have access to the resources you need. It could also include psychological steps like what you (and your team) will do to remain calm or avoid panic in the situation.

Once you've done these two things you can put them into your written if-then plan. The scenario goes after the IF, the plan goes after the THEN (apologies for stating the obvious). You finish it off with an exclamation mark (!), which seems to make the whole approach more powerful. An exclamation is definite, an indication of commitment - "yes, I'll do this!"

That's not the end of the story though. If you really want to make it effective, you need to mentally rehearse the plan. Think it through, play it through in your mind. See yourself in the situation, dealing with things, calmly and rationally, without getting panicky. If you use this at work in a team situation, make sure you also talk it through with them.

Why does if-then planning help with stress? A couple of big reasons. Firstly it reduces anxiety. The fact you've come up with a plan stops you worrying or ruminating about the situation as much. "Yes, it might happen, but I know what I'm going to do when it does". Call it mental de-cluttering if you like.

Secondly, thinking through and planning what you're going to do boosts your sense of control. You may not be happy about the situation and it may still cause some stress. But simply knowing there's something you can (and will) do helps massively.

There's always something you do. OK maybe not about the situation, but certainly about how you respond.