Ivy League stress expert: This “underrated” skill can help you beat burnout and be happier at work.

Stress at work is inevitable, but accepting it can help you become stronger, smarter and happier, according to an Ivy League expert.

In her new book, “Burnout Immunity,” Kandi Wiens, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s master’s program in medical education, breaks down the science of chronic stress and resilience.

According to Wiens, the “most underrated” skill that successful people use to avoid burnout is to change their stress response from “fight or flight” to “challenge.”

You’re probably familiar with the fight-or-flight response to stress that can occur when you’re faced with a perceived threat. In fight or flight, your body is on high alert, releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Your blood vessels constrict and inflammation increases to prepare for potential injury.

It’s a useful response when your life is at risk, but much less so when the “threat” is a tight deadline or a micromanaging boss, Wiens tells CNBC Make It.

Our bodies, he explains, often have difficulty differentiating between real and perceived threats, which can lead to a perpetual state of anxiety or overreaction.

What sets high performers apart from everyone else, Wiens says, is that they treat stressful situations as challenges that can be overcome rather than defaulting to fight-or-flight mode. Wiens discovered this correlation by studying people who thrive in high-stress environments, including business executives and police chiefs.

Practicing this alternative response can increase your resilience to stress and, in turn, lead to better health, emotional well-being and productivity at work even during periods of high stress, Wiens found.

Respond to work stress as a challenge rather than a threat

Creating self-awareness is the first step out of fight or flight.

“When we’re faced with a stressor outside of our control, we create stories in our heads to address the unknown, which can lead to a lot of self-criticism and catastrophic thinking,” explains Wiens. “But resilient and successful people challenge their assumptions, are able to interrupt the cycle of negative thinking and ask themselves, ‘What is true here and what assumptions am I making about the situation?’

For example: If your boss announces a restructuring, you might worry about losing your job—a valid concern, but dwelling on it won’t make you feel better, says Wiens.

Shifting to a challenge response to the situation may prompt you to ask your manager if your job is at risk and, depending on their response, what opportunities might exist for you elsewhere in the organization, or to advise you to proactively look for a new job elsewhere.

“Viewing stressful situations as a challenge, not a threat, can help you think about a stressful situation with a clear mind and better problem solve, rather than worrying about bad outcomes that haven’t happened yet,” adds Wiens. .

To cultivate a response to the challenge, Wiens recommends asking yourself the following questions the next time you’re stressed at work:

  • What are my strengths in this situation?
  • What resources do I have?
  • How have I handled similar stressors in the past?

By thinking of a stressor as a challenge, you’re retraining your brain to focus on the positive, Wiens adds: the sense of accomplishment or reward you’ll get when you succeed.

In “Burnout Immunity,” Wiens cites healthcare workers who not only avoided burnout but thrived in the high-stress environments of hospitals even during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic because they considered the stress as a challenge, not a threat.

Similar to fight or flight, the challenge response affects your cardiovascular system, but instead of constricting your blood vessels, your blood vessels dilate, sending more oxygen to your brain and muscles.

Both of these responses can get your heart racing and your blood pumping faster before you give a presentation or start a tough conversation with your boss, but remember that your body is trying to give you more energy to succeed and get out ‘n the maximum profit.

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