4 steps to find a solution in a stressful situation

When we start to feel stressed, most of us turn to external fixes, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Ama Marston, a strategy and leadership expert, and Stephanie Marston, a psychotherapist and corporate consultant.

These external changes could be small, like a new to-do list app, or much larger, like a new job. But no matter how big of a change we make, all external solutions to stress are ultimately "temporary and ineffective," the authors argue.

Instead, they recommend working on your internal response to stress. Cultivating a healthier attitude in stressful situations can help you build resilience and adapt to change, Marston and Marston write. Based on their research, here are four questions that can help you work through stressful situations.

1: How can this stress help me? Studies have found that people who think of stress as helpful tend to be more confident in difficult situations.

Marston and Marston recommend looking for ways your stress could be useful, such as generating energy to overcome a challenge or teaching you something about your work process. The authors also recommend keeping an eye out for more severe signs that can indicate burnout, such as frequent headaches or irritability.

Read more: How to make stress useful

2: What can I control in this situation? Distinguishing between what you can and can't control is "essential" to resilience, the authors write. People often think in extremes about their sense of control, either feeling that they can't change anything or feeling like it's their responsibility to prepare for every possible outcome.

When you feel stressed, take out a pen and paper and make a physical list of the things you can and can't control, Marston and Marston recommend. Reflect on the resources, networks, and skills you do have that might help you influence the outcome. If nothing else, you can always control how you interpret and respond to a situation, the authors argue.

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3: Why did this happen? Reflect on the root causes of the challenge you're facing, including your personal context as well as the broader organization. For example, if the challenge was caused by an economic, political, or environmental trend, consider ways your organization can adapt or even turn the challenge into an opportunity.

4: What can I do next? Brainstorm three actions you can take, based on what you've learned about the situation, Marston and Marston recommend. Look for solutions that address the root causes of the challenge—or you may find that your fixes are only temporary, the authors warn (Marston/Marston, Harvard Business Review, 2/26).

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