Stressed? It’s not how much you do, it’s how you do it

Stop staring at that clock.
Stop staring at that clock.
Image: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
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Yes, there are just too many things that have to be done today. But ask yourself, do they all have to be done right now?

The answer is probably “no.” So just take a deep breath, or turn your stress into excitement—those will help restore a better sense of time, according to a new study to be published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

The team of researchers from Duke, Stanford, and Erasmus University Rotterdam examined “goal conflict,” which is the idea that in many cases a person’s goals step on each other—missing dinner with the family to stay in the office, for example, can make a person feel as if they’re failing at being a good parent in favor of finishing work. The researchers figured that this has a circular effect—the more conflicted a person feels, the more stressed she becomes, and the less time she thinks she has.

“Perceiving more goal conflict—both related and unrelated to demands on time—leads to heightened stress and anxiety, which subsequently makes people feel more time constrained,” the authors wrote.

So the researchers tested two stress management techniques—”slow breathing” and “anxiety reappraisal”—to restore a better sense of time.

In one experiment, subjects stated two goals that they felt were in conflict with one another, and then completed a series of slow, deep breaths. After those deep breaths, their stress and anxiety were significantly reduced and they had a better sense of time, according to the study.

This is how it works—stress causes the body’s ”fight or flight” response, which includes rapid breathing. Taking slow, deep breaths disrupts that response and reverses it, calming a person’s body and allowing a person to rationally weigh how much time they really have.

The next method, anxiety reappraisal, does something different—instead of diffusing the stress, it asks subjects to actively turn it into excitement. The subjects in the study listed two goals that had been in conflict with each other, then repeated, “I AM EXCITED!” three times. They were directed to “Try to believe what you are saying.” It worked—the participants who felt a high level of goal conflict had an increased sense of time after they tried to get excited.

Harvard Business School professor Alison Brooks explained the reason for this to Harvard Magazine: Anxiety is similar to excitement in a lot of ways. “Both emotions are high-arousal, signaled by a racing heart, sweaty palms, and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” she said.

Fighting the anxiety, especially in high-pressure situations, can be a drain on the body’s resources. Embracing it with a slightly different outlook can be effective, though—instead of negative stress, it becomes positive excitement.