THE BLOG
12/13/2013 08:32 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2014

3 Tricks to Prevent a Nervous Breakdown at Work This Month

Ah, the holidays. You've only just survived Thanksgiving with your family, listening to your Uncle Bob force his annoying political beliefs into every dinner table topic.

And just weeks later, you're simultaneously trying to wrap up one month of work in two weeks because your boss is "asking" you to use vacation days, furiously finishing performance reviews and other year-end rituals, and unsuccessfully trying to make a dent in your holiday shopping.

December is a heck of a stressful month. According to a 2006 study, even though Americans report increases in happiness in December, they're also likely to see stress levels spike. For many, this stress seems to be amplified at work. In the study above, whereas only 29 percent of people blamed their home life for increased stress levels, 56 percent were quick to blame work!

There are myriad sources of holiday work stress -- anxiety that work obligations will creep into holiday celebrations; not getting paid enough to afford the holidays; fear that you'll be laid off in an end-of-year cost control spree. In sum total, that's enough to drive anyone insane.

Are you on the verge of a work breakdown? Here are a few signs you're in the danger zone:
  • You're having trouble concentrating.
  • You feel anxious, emotional or upset.
  • You worry about how you'll get all your work done.
  • You're engaging in passive coping (drinking, food, drugs).
  • You're taking longer than usual to finish routine work tasks.

Three Ways to Keep Your Cool at Work This Month

1. Live the serenity prayer.
You've probably heard it: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." This oft-repeated refrain isn't just for alcoholics -- it can turn your world around in times of stress.

Find a piece of paper and put a line down the middle. On the left, write "Things I control." On the right, write "Things I can't control." Then classify everything that's stressing you out. For example, "My boss is an idiot" might go on the right, and "I can't manage my time" goes on the left.

For items on the left, it can be tempting to throw up your hands and say, "Not much I can do about this." Nonsense! Take charge of the situation. For example, for your time-management problem, get some advice from colleagues and just try something. Trial and error begets breakthroughs.

For items on the right, put a big "X" through them. Why? Around the holidays (or any time), trying to change the unchangeable is both an exercise in futility and a delusional waste of energy. You can't make your boss any less of an idiot, so stop worrying about it. Take that energy and put it towards your time management system.

2. Take charge of your mindset.
Researchers recently analyzed 36 empirical studies of workplace stress-management programs. Surprisingly, relaxation training was not the most effective approach -- the most powerful stress-reduction programs helped workers reshape their thinking patterns. It makes sense: Relaxation techniques manage stress after it's happened -- but if you learn not to be stressed out in the first place, you're a lot better off.

Dr. Viktor Frankl, legendary psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, noted that "the last of the human freedoms [is] to choose one's attitude in any given set up circumstances." Trust me -- if Viktor could do that, so can you!

Here are two straightforward techniques to try. The first is Tony Schwartz's "long lens" approach. If something's stressing you out, ask, "Will I be worried out about this tomorrow? Next month? Next year?" For example, the insane amount of office holiday party invitations will be a distant memory a month from now.

Second, take a page from the Thanksgiving playbook. Just like remembering what you were grateful for made Uncle Bob a little less annoying at Thanksgiving dinner, gratitude reduces holiday work stress. You can't be upset and grateful at the same time. Seriously -- it's impossible. So a few times a week, take five minutes and make a mental list of what you're thankful for at the office.

3. Give yourself a break.
Finally, take some time off this month. As counterintuitive as it feels when you're stressed beyond belief, it's one of the smartest things you can do.

As I discussed in a prior post, working too much without taking breaks makes us stupider, less healthy, more depressed and less successful. But a poll from Ipsos Public Affairs notes that 44 percent of Americans have not taken a vacation in more than two years!

At the end of December, many organizations encourage employees to take a week or two off so they can do a "soft close" of their office for the year. Even though this forced vacation might feel annoying, it's a gift you shouldn't squander.

In the study above, almost everyone reported feeling more happiness (96 percent), love (90 percent) and higher spirits (89 percent) around the holidays. The bottom line: Time off helps maximize the good stuff about this time of year. And in the battle to keep your cool this month, time with your loved ones may just be the best medicine of all.