Ivy League stress expert: This ‘underrated’ skill can help you beat burnout and be happier at work–here’s how

 Stress at work is inevitable—but embracing it can help you become stronger, smarter, and happier, according to Kandi Wiens, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Master’s in Medical Education program. In her new book, “Burnout Immunity,” Wiens breaks down the science of chronic stress and resilience.

According to Wiens, the “most underrated” skill successful people use to stave off burnout is shifting their stress response from “fight-or-flight” to “challenge.” You’re probably familiar with fight-or-flight, the stress response that can happen when you encounter a perceived threat. In fight-or-flight, your body goes on high alert, releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Your blood vessels constrict, and inflammation increases to prepare for potential injuries.

It’s a helpful response when your life is at risk, but far less so when the “threat” is a tight deadline or micromanaging boss, Wiens tells CNBC Make It. Our bodies, she explains, often have difficulty differentiating between actual and perceived threats, which can result in a perpetual state of anxiety or overreaction.

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

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

Responding to work stress as a challenge instead of a threat

Building self-awareness is the first step in dialing back from full-on fight-or-flight. “When we’re faced with a stressor out of our control, we create stories in our head to address the unknown, which can lead to a lot of self-criticism and catastrophic thinking,” Wiens explains. “But resilient, successful people challenge their assumptions, they’re able to interrupt the negative thinking loop 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 fixating on it won’t make you feel better, Wiens says. Switching to a challenging response to the situation might motivate you to ask your manager if your job is at risk and, depending on their response, what opportunities might exist for you in other parts of the organization, or for advice on proactively looking for a new job elsewhere. “Seeing stressful situations as a challenge, not a threat, can help you think through a stressful situation with a clear mind and problem-solve better, as opposed to fretting about bad outcomes that haven’t happened yet,” Wiens adds.

To cultivate a challenge-response, Wiens recommends asking yourself the following questions 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 reap when you succeed.

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

Both responses can make your heart race and blood pump faster before you give a presentation or initiate a hard conversation with your boss, but remember that your body is trying to give you more energy to succeed—and make the most of it.

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