One of the most stressful situations that a person can be in is when they feel they have no control. Feeling a lack of control increases stress. Lists of the most stressful jobs are often topped by jobs in which the employee feels little control over their time and workload. A CEO who is responsible for the operations of a company and the jobs of all of its employees will most often report a lower amount of stress than a middle manager who feels like he or she is stuck in between the rules of upper management and the complaints of the ground level workers. The biggest difference between those two jobs (aside from the paycheck) is the amount of control that each person feels they have within their job.
So what does this have to do with pain tolerance and completing difficult tasks? I’m glad you asked. Psychological stress or tension is painful. In many ways we react to it similarly to the way we react to physical pain. In a previous post I talked about how we are more motivated to avoid pain than to pursue pleasure. The more painful an event is, the more motivated we are to avoid it or find a way to reduce that pain. Obviously, avoiding all pain is not a good idea; we’d get nothing done in life that way. The key is to harness your resources so that you can withstand the pain that is involved in achieving those things that are important to you. The more you believe that you can survive a challenge, and the more that you have actual experience in life persevering through hardship, the stronger and more resilient you become. In fact, the only way that we get stronger at anything is to persevere through a struggle.
In a work situation, the amount of work, the timeline in which the work is due, and the amount of effort it takes to successfully complete the work can all be significant sources of pain or stress. Not to mention that the more you feel that you have no control over the amount of work, the deadlines, and effort required for the work, the less pain tolerance you will have and the more likely you will be to experience the negative impact of that stress (feeling depressed, anxious, burnt out, lose sleep, etc.). The more you feel like the work is out of your control, the more likely you are to procrastinate. So the key to increasing your pain tolerance and getting difficult tasks completed is to increase your sense of control in the situation. Here are some practical tips to increase your sense of control.
- Take breaks: By scheduling yourself to work for 25 minutes and then take a five minute break, you accomplish multiple things with one technique. First, you give yourself a sense of when the pain is going to end. Doing this increases your pain tolerance. Second, you give yourself the opportunity to stop working on whatever it was that you were doing and “change gears” mentally. By forcing yourself to do something else, you start using different areas of your brain and this can help in problem solving (if you were stuck on a problem). And third, taking a break is a great way to recharge. Get up, walk around, get some water, or just relax.
- Practice saying “No”: If we feel like we have to say “yes” to everything (because otherwise people won’t like us, our boss will fire us, our client’s will stop being pleased with us, etc.) then we are telling ourselves that everyone else is in control of our schedules (and our lives). This is not a good feeling. So look for ways to say “no” in appropriate ways. Start small and work your way up from there. You’ll find that when you start saying “no”, you will survive, other people will survive, and you will have a greater sense of control over your life.
- Create healthy boundaries: By creating healthy boundaries (saying “no”, telling clients that you are only available at certain times, not answering/returning phones calls at all hours of the night, prioritizing time with loved ones and doing non-work activities) you help others to develop healthy expectations of you, your work, and your availability. In addition to helping others’ with their expectations, setting boundaries will also help you to have realistic expectations as well (of yourself, your work, and of others).
Finding small ways to exercise control in your day is a very effective way to increase your pain tolerance, increase your resilience, and decreased your stress. There will always be things in our lives that we cannot control, but if we focus on the things that we do have control over (our actions, our thoughts, how we respond to others) the better off we will be at weathering the storms that come our way each day.
Shawn Healy, PhD