05/31/2016 06:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ADVICE 22: The Two-Pronged Approach to Handling Stress


Photo Credit: Brent Stoller

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(Questions have been modified for space and clarity.)

I am a 25-year-old female, and I'm noticing I'm getting more frequent headaches and stomachaches than usual. I'm not happy in my job. What connection do you think stress and illness have? What do you recommend?
-- Too Young to Ache; New Orleans, LA

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary...

STRESS: A physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.

There it is. There is a direct connection between stress and illness. It says so in the dictionary.

Which makes sense. Just think about what happens when you're stressed. Not only do you shift emotionally -- your demeanor, mood and mindset darken -- you shift physically as well. Your shoulders tense, and your chest tightens, and the butterflies swirl. Too Young to Ache of New Orleans gets headaches and stomachaches. Classic stress staples.

I'm no doctor, but I can't imagine that your body cares what's causing these physical maladies. It's still suffering. And if it suffers enough, it will eventually weaken and break down, just as it would if you repeatedly overindulged a bottle of tequila or a carton of Haagen-Dazs. The net negative is a tax on your system, which leads to illness and disease, just as the definition states.

And few things can impart a larger amount of stress on body and mind than work -- especially when you're dissatisfied with it. There are 120 hours in a five-day workweek. Subtract 40 for sleep (if you don't have kids), and that leaves 80 waking hours. If you work (by definition) full time, that's at least half your life you're doing something that's stressing your infrastructure. And that doesn't account for commutes, unpaid lunch breaks and Sundays spent dreading the week ahead.

Based on your question's wording, it's unclear why you're unhappy in your job. Do you hate it and want to do something else? Are you frustrated with your role and want something more? Or do you have everything you want but are battling to keep up?

I don't know. And I don't know if it matters. Because, details aside, everything boils down to two "M" verbs:


Stress is unavoidable. It's found in virtually every situation, no matter how perfect a situation seems. I've been stressed while vacationing at a beautiful oceanfront resort, because I dreaded my vacation coming to an end.

The key is figuring out how to manage stress, and that starts with the ability to diagnose it. As discussed above, physical ailments are a dead giveaway that there's something deeper going on.

Yes, sometimes a headache is just a headache. But when these ailments come out of nowhere and/or recur, it's worth it to assess the wide-angle perspective. Is there something on the outside that's weakening your insides? Is there a correlation between what you do each day and how you feel each night?

Should an imbalance be identified, it's time to lean on your coping skills. What are some healthy coping skills? Everyone has their favorites, but you know the usual ones -- exercise, journaling, meditation, The Bachelor, quality sleep, all of the above. How do you develop these coping skills? Like you would anything -- through commitment, discipline and repetition.

If possible, it helps to develop these skills before your world begins to crack. The military trains in peace time so they're ready when they're called to war. The same applies here. Create good habits now, and they'll be there when you need them.

Of course, if the stress persists, it's time to change.


Change is hard for a bunch of reasons, but the hardest part of making it is believing that you can. You evaluate where you are, and you look at where you want to go, and it's like the two are in different universes. "How can I possibly get there from here?"

This makes it easy to feel (preemptively) defeated, which makes it that much easier to stay in place. But when you're overwhelmed and stuck, it's imperative that you find a way to assess the distance to be covered not in its totality, but as a series of individual steps.

I know...there's not a more beaten-to-death cliche than "One step at a time." So instead I'll steal a different one from Al Pacino's pregame speech in Any Given Sunday: inch by inch.

"The inches we need are everywhere around us," says Coach D'Amato. "On this team, we fight for that inch ... because we know when we add up all those inches, that's gonna make the f$*%@!$ difference between winnin' and losin'! Between livin' and dyin'!"

You are unhappy in your job. And depending on what's causing that stress, there are varying actions you can take to change that. Inch by inch.

If you want to find something new, update your resume and research available opportunities. If you want a promotion, talk to your boss about taking on additional responsibilities. If you're unsure of what you want but know you're still miserable, shift your perspective by focusing on one work-related thing each day to be thankful for. (Actually, that last one is good to do regardless.)

Management and modification -- only you can determine what you need and what feels right. But no matter what course you choose, don't worry about the end result, and don't try to close the gap all at once. Just start.

COMING FRIDAY: A Lesson From A Few Good Men

Need more ADVICE? Check out the most recent installments:

ADVICE 21: The Pitfalls of Infatuation

ADVICE 20: Friends With Benefits -- With a Twist

ADVICE 19: On Regret

ADVICE 18: Adventures in Babysitting

ADVICE 17: Can My One-Night Stand Become Something More?

ADVICE 16: Sex Talk

To send in a question, please complete this short Google form. All submissions are anonymous, even to the author.