Allison Graham leading session Feeling Burned Out? Don't Quit. Do This Instead.

When Stress-Quitting is Not an Option

  • September 06, 2022
  • Emily Sinkins

“What do you need to feel less stressed?” More hours in the day? Another member on your team? Clients who respond in a timely fashion? Or maybe it’s a matter of when … When this current case is over, or when the boss retires, or when the kids grow up. And what if your circumstances don’t change? Is there anything you can do to be more happy, more productive, more at peace? According to Allison Graham – author, executive consultant, pragmatic optimist and opening speaker at the OBA-hosted Ontario Legal Conference on August 18 – you absolutely can, and shedding that “If X, then Y” thinking (ever-waiting on “Y”) is the first step.

Don’t let your challenges define your actions

When Graham asked attendees at her session “Burned Out? Don’t Quit. Do This Instead” what would make them stress less, their answers aligned with the self-care advice we’re consistently given: get more rest, get more exercise, get a better work-life balance going. All worthwhile goals, none of which can be achieved until we build the capacity to fit these things into our lives – something that is very attainable, says Graham, if we develop the situational awareness and self-awareness to inform the right solutions. “If we don’t have coping skills,” she says, “our challenges define our actions.”

Graham knows whereof she speaks. A 2007 surgery that went wrong left her with what she characterizes as “unrelenting neuropathic pain”; she lost six people in her life within a period of just a few months; and she experienced eight major injuries. Her doctor told her she would need to reevaluate her expectations for her life and learn to be more resilient. And, like all of us, she has been on the receiving end of infuriating platitudes like “don’t stress,” “just let it go,” “don’t sweat the small stuff,” and everybody’s favourite – “calm down.” She decided to push back, a process that took some introspection, some reframing and some new approaches.

Avoid self-criticism

First, she advises, examine your own patterns, without judgement, but through “a lens of compassionate curiosity.” When you respond or act a certain way, avoid the self-criticism of “what is wrong with me, why can’t I stop doing this?” and focus it instead on “isn’t it interesting that I did this again - what informed it?”

Consider whether there is part of you that actually loves the stress a little bit. There is such a thing as good stress, Graham notes – a stress that inspires, focuses and challenges. Without some stress, many of us would be bored. And even though we’re taught to believe some things are universally the most stressful, the truth is everyone reacts differently. Moving homes, consistently cited as a top stressor, is no big deal for some people, while others will be preoccupied by it for months. Self-awareness means understanding what constitutes the right kind of stress, in the right dose and right frequency for you.

Harness the power of ‘good’ stress

Along with good stress, we all have to deal with the other two kinds: destructive stress, the kind that overwhelms us and causes us to underperform; and survival stress, from events that we can’t change and just have to go through, such as a death in the family, or bankruptcy, or a global pandemic. Survival stress is exacerbated by destructive stress. But the encouraging news, according to Graham, is “if we know how destructive stress is created, we can reverse engineer it.” What’s more, you can “harness the power of good stress to ensure day-to-day responsibilities are done in the midst of survival stress that we can’t avoid.”

It’s about identifying the elements you can address; in Graham’s analogy, not letting ice cubes become a snowman. Your ice cubes are the tasks and challenges immediately before you – the sooner you melt them, the sooner you can move on to the next project, to some family-time or self-care. The snow, Graham explains, represents “misplaced emotion,” “negative storylines,” and “barriers” like worry, judgement, procrastination and gossip. A big meeting that you’re worried about isn’t an hour, it’s an hour plus a week, or however long you’ve spent stressing about it.

Build less snow

The solution to not turning ice cubes into snowmen is, quite sensibly, “build less snow” – something Graham did herself with the help of a few Post-its.

On a piece of paper, she wrote one stressor she couldn’t change: pain. On separate Post-its, she wrote down all the byproducts of that pain, and then for each she thought about what she might do to deal with them. For instance, her pain meant she couldn’t manage the long drive from London to Toronto for speaking engagements — a byproduct — so she put her ego aside and asked her mom if she’d like to drive her and they could make an outing of it and spend some time together.

Don’t treat tasks like obstacles, or obstacles like adversities

In life, we have adversities over which we have very little control; we have obstacles that we have some power to conquer; and we have must-do tasks over which we have a high degree of agency. From adversity come new obstacles, but if you don’t get mired in the pain of the obstacles, if you can look at the byproducts and turn those byproducts into tasks that you can manage, you can overcome those obstacles before they snowball. As Graham says: “too many people treat tasks like they’re obstacles, and obstacles like they’re adversity.”

And how we treat obstacles is very important. Our reaction to them — the storylines we build around them — can create destructive stress. As Graham notes, flights will be delayed, luggage will be lost, obstacles will happen, but “we don’t need to have an emotional response.”

Adversities are different of course — in many cases they mean the path we were on no longer exists. We have to “grieve that, heal that, make space to process that,” says Graham, and then go on to create a new path to get where we need to go.

Form new patterns

Situational awareness, simply asking is it a task or is it an obstacle? – an ice cube or a snowman? — without judgement is incredibly helpful, Graham emphasizes. Pondering how your own patterns might be making whatever it is harder than it needs to be gets you closer to making a change, finding a solution, to stressing less, accomplishing more and being happier doing it. Even if nothing external in your life changes – your clients, colleagues and family still have the same expectations of you – “you have new information,” Graham emphasizes, "so you are different.”

About Allison Graham

photo of speaker and executive consultant Allison GrahamAllison Graham inspires and empowers better problem solving to increase productivity and happiness while minimizing destructive stress, burnout and team turnover. Driven by her belief that most negative stress is unnecessary, Allison shares her signature concepts with audiences of highly-accomplished, forward-thinking professionals.