“Stress doesn’t happen to us, stress happens by us”.
Stress is so common in the workplace and yet we rarely talk about it.
Susan Choi is a leading Wellness Expert and former management consultant. She joins us to break down workplace stress and ways to address it.
Susan shares many nuggets:
- Her career journey and a pivot to completely changing her career towards a stress management and wellness expert
- How burnout is a real and serious issue to deal with
- What are specific symptoms of stress to watch out for
- What is the fact vs story that you are telling yourself?
- Cracking the code: developing the mindset to deal with stress
- Favorites: Susan’s favorite app, favorite quote and favorite book!
#career #careers #careeradvice #stress #stressmanagement #wellness #worklifebalance
Susan: Because most people believe that stress happens to us, but the truth is, is that stress happens by us. Until we can understand and manage that root issue, that root cause of what’s actually causing your stress, you’re only perpetuating your current circumstance.
Voiceover: Welcome to the Career Nation Show where you learn the strategies and tools to own and drive your career. Find out more at careertiger.com.
Abhijeet: Hello and welcome to the Career Nation Show. Today is going to be a very special episode because today we have a very special guest. She used to be a management consultant running projects for some of the largest companies in tech. Now, she’s a wellness coach, and she’s really helping people manage stress in the workplace. Please welcome, Susan Choi.
Susan: Thanks for having me, Abhijeet. I’m really excited to be here.
Abhijeet: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to have you and this is great. This is such an interesting space. Quite frankly, we know so little about that, so let’s just dive right in. Before we get into the whole topic, tell us a little bit more about your career journey. I mean, to go from management consultant in corporate America to being a wellness coach who’s helping with stress. Tell us how did that journey happen? How did it start?
Susan: Yeah, well, I’m happy to do that and I’m sure people can guess that the reason why I became a wellness and transformational coach is because I needed to be my own teacher. So straight out of college, I started to intern at one of the big four consulting firms, and that was my career for the next 10 plus years. Right? I went into management consultant. That was my life.
Susan: Throughout that journey, I realized that I had a very unstable relationship with stress. I thought that it was normal. The way that I used to manage stress in the past, looking back now with what I know actually works with stress management, I was doing everything in the most opposite way possible. I see it all the time with other people.
Susan: As I was doing that, I noticed that certain parts of my life were really becoming more problematic. So there’s things like weight gain, not being able to sleep well at night anymore. Noticing that certain personality traits that I was well-known for such as being carefree, positive thinking on my feet, those were all becoming so much harder.
Susan: Fast forward 10 years, I moved to a new city, started a new consulting gig, and was serving a client on a really strategic project. Everything just came to a head. There happened to also be mold in my apartment, which I found out three years later. So there was a lot of things that were happening.
Susan: During that moment, I realized that I was in burnout. I went to a naturopathic doctor, and she essentially diagnosed me with adrenal fatigue. So there goes my life and I spent thousands of dollars trying to see the best doctors, buying all of the supplements and vitamins and medications. I was doing all of the workout routines, measuring myself in every way possible in terms of doing testing on my blood, amino acids, everything in the health and wellness space.
Susan: While that helped a bit, I realized that there was one thing that I was not paying close attention to and it was my mind. It was my brain, and it was understanding that my brain had been in training mode on the wrong side of the train tracks. I was thinking in a way that was actually causing my stress, because most people believe that stress happens to us, but the truth is is that stress happens by us. Until we can understand and manage that root issue, that root cause of what’s actually causing your stress, you’re only perpetuating your current circumstance.
Susan: So that’s how I transitioned into wellness, because I had realized, I felt as if I had cracked the code, because I had studied so many modalities, so many methodologies and concepts and practices. I realized that there actually is a certain order in which you can apply to your life to manage your brain and then to manage your sematic emotional system. So that’s how I went into it. It was as if I cracked a code. Knowing this, there was something deep inside of me that said to myself I cannot not share this. So it started small. I started coaching a few people here and there and essentially then you know, started a practice around this.
Abhijeet: Wow, that’s such an incredible story and it’s also inspiring Susan because you crossed the Rubicon. You actually addressed stress that had built up over the years. I think you mentioned and dropped a lot of nuggets there, but one of the things that I really liked and really resonated with me was stress doesn’t happen to us. Stress happens by us. Tell us a little bit about how do we detect stress that’s building up, because a lot of times this is not a topic that comes up that often. Maybe we may share with our significant other or someone, a close friend and, “Hey, it’s really stressful, et cetera.”
Abhijeet: For the most part, given that we are all high performance people and want to do great work, stress is something that is usually not taught about as much. Are there certain markers, certain signals, symptoms for stress that we should look out for?
Susan: Yes, absolutely. I mentioned a few. So if you’re starting to gain weight, if you have a, or even perhaps the opposite, a decrease in your appetite and you’re losing weight, and if you are noticing that you’re short with other people, if you’re short with yourself, if things seem as if it’s a big effort to do, that’s a huge sign. Sleep is another one. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or this is a big one for a lot of people that I coach, if you’re waking up at 5:30 in the morning because you’re thinking about work and all of a sudden you have that adrenaline pumping and you can’t go back to bed, that’s a huge sign that there’s some sort of chronic stress in your life that’s actually disrupting your circadian rhythm and your sleep patterns.
Susan: The other thing that I want to mention too is are you looking for outside substances to help you manage your day to day stress? So what that could look like is the extra cup of coffee that you normally don’t drink at 2:00 PM right? It could mean-
Abhijeet: That never happens.
Susan: Right, never happens. It doesn’t even have to be a substance, it could be food. Are you overing in any way? Over eating, over drinking, over Netflixing? There’s so many ways that we distract ourselves from the thing that actually bothers us the most during the day. So I would always ask yourself, notice the habits that you’re starting to create for yourself because those habits eventually turn into much bigger problems.
Abhijeet: That’s interesting. As you were sharing some of those things, I could relate to some of that. I think at least I can speak for myself, I’ve been guilty of reaching out for that extra coffee in the afternoon. All of us “deal” with stress in different ways. We may not know it but we may actually be, instead of reducing stress, we may be actually increasing stress for ourselves.
Abhijeet: Quite frankly, and you know this Susan, our workloads and our work lives have increasingly become more demanding. Work-life balance has become work-life integration, so work has become part of our lives. As people go through these stress cycles, or go through these areas where they find more stress, are there … If we detect stress early it can be addressed better, or do you think that regardless of where we find stress or which part of the cycle we are in, we can still get help? What is your view on this? Are we doomed, or is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Susan: I always say that it’s never too late. Unfortunately, the people that ends up seeking my help or seeking some other person’s help, it’s almost too late because now you have too much to lose. You’re at the point where you’re starting to have panic attacks, or you have anxiety now, and that has all built up in your system. The thing about stress that most people don’t understand is that stress is an emotion. It is an emotion and emotions, you can’t just get rid of them, right?
Susan: We have to think of emotions in terms of physics, in terms of energy, and you can’t just get rid of energy. You actually have to transform energy in order for it to change into a different state. So for example, you can’t take a body of water and just make it disappear. If you want that body of water to change to a different state, it needs to evaporate, turn into condensation, it turns into a cloud. It turns into rain, hail, sleet, snow, that kind of thing.
Susan: That’s the same thing with our emotions. We just assume that by going for a run, or by talking to a friend, we feel a temporary ease and we think that on some level that our stress is gone, but really it’s not. What you’ve done is you’ve created a temporary pleasure, a temporary dopamine hits, and your body and your brain registers that as, “Oh, I’m safe now.” The next time that something triggers you to feel that stress again, that stress is going to come back and it’s going to resurface.
Susan: So until you learn how to manage and then and really transform that emotion so that it turns from, it changes to stress, to ease, to joy, and then ultimate peace, right? That’s the transformation it needs to go through, it’s going to keep coming back. To answer your question even further is it’s never too late, but the earlier, the more disciplined you are in understanding the importance of your health of your well-being, then obviously the shorter your track to becoming, you know, going back to high performance is much faster.
Susan: Because the thing with stress, what I mentioned before is that when you turn to outside substances or things that turn into habits, what that ultimately looks like is the one glass of wine in the evening to just relieve some of that edge may work for a week or two. Eventually what happens in your brain is that you reach a certain level of dopamine, and your brain gets used to that. It registers that as the new normal.
Susan: Over time, what happens is now it needs a higher level of dopamine for you to feel that same sense of peace. So in another month, you’re actually drinking a half a bottle of wine. Now you are addicted to the wine, like you need the wine to be your new normal. So what I would say to that is what we end up doing when we resist the stress and we deal with it in an unhealthy way, while it seems innocent, because we all do that right? When we do deal with it in that manner, suddenly our capacity and energy that we normally would have to just address a stress is now split into two energy states.
Susan: Now we’re dealing with a drinking problem and the stress. So we’re multiplying our problems when we don’t address the root issue of stress to begin with. So what I would say to that is, it’s never too late obviously, but the earlier you have the awareness around stress, then go seek your help. Do something about the stress so that it doesn’t turn into something much larger.
Abhijeet: Yeah, that is so interesting that stress could start to manifest itself in so many different forms and it exacerbates the situation. It sounds like it also has a compounded effect. The more stress we have, the more we start to lean on things. Maybe it’s the next bar of chocolate, the next cup of coffee, what have you, and it starts to build on itself. The monster starts to become even bigger.
Abhijeet: Now that we know that this is something that we need to address as early as possible, how can I or someone like me start to recognize that and then start to work towards that? Is this something that I need to put into my daily life in terms of new habits? Is it like meditation? Do diet and exercise play a role in this? How does this all come together, especially as you look at your practice Susan, and as you’re helping your clients?
Susan: Yeah, absolutely. Well, the way that I help my clients is the way that I helped myself, which was the INTJ in me needed a system, a step by step system so that I knew at any point I understood what wasn’t working for me right now and I can just plug and play. So for me it was 50% brain management. So it’s learning to think smarter in any situation.
Susan: I have a model called the personalization model, and it helps you break down and understand when you are in a problem-oriented thinking mindset versus a solution-oriented thinking mindset. So most people, the reason why they’re stressed is because they’re actually thinking and focused on the problem. The problem is always based on the past, right? Thinking about what could have gone right or what you should have could have done versus also the future. So catastrophizing about the future, freaking out about the future.
Susan: Solution thinking really helps you to focus on the present moment. What can you do right now? What energy resources? What states can you be in to actually help you overcome your current situation? So, there’s that half of it. Then there’s the emotional management system, which is actually learning how to sit with something that’s uncomfortable and transforming that, whether that’s stress, anxiety, overwhelm, confusion, all of the negative emotions that we feel. Most of us actually don’t know how to sit with it, how to deal with it.
Susan: I would say for the person who’s, they know that they have some sort of stress in their life and they’re trying to deal with it, I think that understanding what works for you. So that may be meditation, that may be yoga, that may be going for a walk, and really understanding and questioning your hidden assumptions around why you are stressed. Because why you’re stressed is never really about the job. It’s never about your boss, it’s never about your coworker, the partner, the kids. It’s always something much deeper and actually has something to do with you.
Susan: So anybody that I work with, I actually help them to dig into what is actually the root of your stress so that we’re not putting it out on the job, so that you’re not quitting, or so that you’re not hating your boss and you’re actually forming and strengthening these really strong relationships with the people in your life. If we have time, I would love to share a quick, simple model with you.
Abhijeet: Yeah, please.
Susan: All right. So this is very, very simple and it’s something that anybody can apply at any point in their day. It’s very simple, I call it F versus S. F stands for fact, and S stands for story. So let’s say that you receive a high priority email, and you get 20 of these from the same person. I’m just exaggerating, but maybe that happens for people. So they get this high priority email, and you’ve just gotten out of a three hour meeting and you have 50 emails plus 20 high priority from the same person and you’re starting to freak out.
Susan: You’re starting to wonder, “Oh gosh, again? This is happening again. This person always does this.” I want you to understand that you have to first identify what is the fact of what just happens. The fact of what just happened is you have 20 high priority emails. Notice how there’s no emotion around that. There’s no judgment around that. It’s just the fact. It just happened maybe 15 minutes ago.
Susan: Now, the story that you can tell yourself is where all the magic happens or not. So when you’re not in the magic, the story that you might be telling yourself are things like, “Why does this always happen to me? When is this ever going to end? Why does this person always have to send it high priority?” Notice how when you’re saying that to yourself, right? That’s problem-oriented thinking. You’re thinking about all the reasons of why it could be better, why it happens, why is this person in my life? It really gets you into that stressful state, that anxious state.
Susan: You’re not actually solving anything. You’re actually just meddling in the problem. For most people they don’t understand that they can actually choose to tell themselves a different story.
Susan: It could be anything from, “I’m the type of person that can handle this. This is no big deal. This is a reflection on them, it has nothing to do with me. I’m going to take a break and I’m going to come back to this.” There’s so many other ways that we can think about it. Most people when they are unconscious of what they’re thinking remain on the track of problem-oriented thinking. When we stay there we’re not actually solving anything, we’re just perpetuating our current circumstance of stress.
Susan: So that’s just a quick, simple model that you can apply to any situation to help you understand and start training your brain to create that self-awareness of, “What should I actually be focusing on here? Where am I focusing on? Where is my attention?”
Abhijeet: Yeah, that is such a powerful concept Susan, to go from a problem-oriented thinking to a solution-oriented thinking. I really liked that F versus S, the fact versus story. It really helps us to conceptualize it in our heads and really think about next time we see similar situations, this could be a really nice model to apply.
Abhijeet: One more thing that came to my mind as we were talking about this is the acceptance and the realization of stress. A lot of times when we are in a workplace setting or a social setting and we just basically bump at each other and say, “Hey, how are things? How is it going?” People are generally, they would say, “Busy or a lot going on, et cetera,” but I’ve not heard a lot about people saying, “Oh, I’m stressed.”
Abhijeet: Do you see as you work with a lot of executives, high performers, people who work in the corporate workplace, do you see there is beginning to be more acceptance around this? Is this a topic that has started to come up more often? What has been your observations on this?
Susan: I would say unfortunately it’s not as common to divulge this information as it should be, because it’s a form of vulnerability. Still to this day for some people in certain work environments, they don’t want to lose their authority, or their leadership, or their perception of leadership because it’s still seen as somewhat of a weakness, even though it’s not. Getting help is actually more strength than it is a weakness. So a lot of the people that I see, while I have no idea if they share this to other people in terms of I’m stressed and I’m doing something about it, one of the phrases or words that they [inaudible] is, “I try and keep it all together.”
Susan: What the often implies to me is that they don’t want to show that they’re frazzled or stressed at work. So they’re seeking help so that they can manage that, so that they can continue to be the high performer that they are. The thing with that is that it presupposes that us as high performers, or as a human being naturally should not go through hard things, that we should not be stressed, but that actually goes against the natural order of the world of life, meaning we go through seasons and cycles.
Susan: So I’d say that while it’s not that common for people to just outright admit that they are stressed and that they’re seeking help, that people are seeking the help because they know on some deep level that in two to three years this is going to impact their health, in some way or their job. I’ve seen people come to me on the verge of quitting, because they were so stressed out and they saved their job by managing that stress. They understood, “Wow, I actually have it really well, like really good.” So, yeah.
Abhijeet: I can totally see where people would see a lot of value in getting help to overcome their stress and quite frankly overcome some of the mental barriers they might also have in terms of how these things sort of manifest themselves. Are there also some types of stress that may not be as harmful? Let me just elaborate on that a little bit, which is like we all have some stress, right, and some stress is almost necessary to get work done. There is some healthy tension that’s required in organizations to move the business forward, or move the community forward, or our customers forward, et cetera.
Abhijeet: That’s some healthy stress, but then over a period of time that could devolve into a lot of stress that starts to create challenges for different people within the workplace, within working in professional relationships, et cetera. What has been some of your findings around this? Yes, there is some stress that’s, I don’t know if good stress is a good word, but is there like a healthy tension that’s required versus there’s a ton of stress which builds up and has creates all these problems?
Susan: Yeah, so I would say absolutely stress is necessary in our life. We need stress. That kind of stress when you think about in the paleolithic age, we needed stress to survive. We needed stress to evolve and grow. When you think about everything that is a luxury in our life right now, it started because there was a necessary need and desire to continue to evolve past where we are today, and we’re continuing to do that. So I would say stress is absolutely important and necessary in our life.
Susan: Where it becomes unnecessary is all of our negative thinking and baggage around what’s happening in our life. So again, stress happens by us unnecessarily when we start thinking negatively about our current situation. So when we are stuck in that problem-oriented thinking, that’s where all of the unnecessary stress starts to build upon itself. Then when we are in that loop, when we’re in that negative thought pattern that we can’t seem to break out of because we’re in some kind of trends, when we’re in that states, we perpetuate our current circumstance.
Susan: So if you have a low chronic level of stress on a daily basis, and it’s getting worse because you just can’t seem to get yourself out of that negative thought pattern, then you’re perpetuating that circumstance and you’re just continuously feeling stressed over a period of weeks and months until it turns into something much larger.
Abhijeet: A lot of sense. I think [inaudible] would do some introspection every once in a while and figure out, “Hey, yes, the stress I’m feeling right now isn’t heavily stress. Yes, I can manage it.” Versus, “I’m really seeing some of the signs that you had mentioned earlier, lack of sleep, eating disorders, maybe even having very difficult conversations at the workplace, or at home, and all of these things would build up over a period of time.”
Abhijeet: I think that’s really interesting.
Susan: Right, yeah and I’m just going to add there too, is you can quickly understand if this is good stress or bad stress by how you feel. Your emotions are a guidance system. So at any point during the day or week, if you want to understand where am I at right now? Am I happy about my life? Obviously if you are happy about your life, you have some good stress there, you have some good stress going, you have a good mindset around your stress.
Susan: However, if you’re feeling down, if you’re feeling, moody, if you’re feeling anxious, or stressed about your stress, that’s not good stress. You’re causing more unnecessary stress, because there is a hidden thought or assumption somewhere in your subconscious or conscious mind that you’re continually telling yourself that is actually causing the stress to grow.
Abhijeet: Yup, absolutely. Susan, as you work with clients, et cetera, I would love to shift gears a little bit and talk about some of your favorite things and some of the things that you really enjoy, because as you work with clients, I’m sure there are things that you use on a daily basis or there are things that are your favorites. So let me ask you a couple of things.
Abhijeet: One is what is your favorite app and why?
Susan: Okay, so this is a recent favorite app and it’s not a productivity app, you guys. My favorite app is the Peloton app.
Susan: Yes. I’ve just recently started drinking the Kool Aid. So that’s my way of cultivating some quality me time, and I make sure that I get in one session a day, no matter how small it is. It could be 10 minutes up to 30, but I always make sure that I do something.
Abhijeet: That’s fantastic. Career Nation, I hope you’re listening. The top experts on wellness and managing stress use exercise and me time. She’s currently using Peloton, which is awesome and I’m a fan as well.
Abhijeet: It is amazing. Let’s shift to another favorite, your favorite book. Do you have a favorite book? It could be fiction, it could be nonfiction.
Susan: I do. This is a book that changed my life, and this is the most recommended book that I give to everybody that either I suggest or I physically give to people. It’s called, The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.
Abhijeet: Oh, interesting. I have not read that one. I’ll add it to my list. Tell us more. What’s it about?
Susan: This is an amazing book, because it follows someone’s journey towards mindfulness. He says this in a way, and he shares personal stories in terms of understanding how he got to become the observer of his experience, of his thoughts, while most people are stuck in some version of a story about their life.
Susan: So when you think about a movie, let’s say you’re sitting at a movie theater and you see a movie on the screen, most people start to become the main character of that movie, and they’re stuck in the movie. It could be an action scene. Maybe you’re at work and you’re stressed, and you’re fighting clients or whatever. That’s an action movie. It could be a drama, it could be a rom-com, but most people are really stuck in the story of their lives.
Susan: So this book, I love it because it helps you to understand this concept of becoming the observer of your experience in a way that I think is just beautifully written.
Abhijeet: Oh, that’s pretty cool because I can see a direct application there in the workplace as well. Maybe we can start to look at our sales more objectively and emotionally.
Abhijeet: So that we get a full 360 degree view of ourselves rather than our own tunnel vision.
Susan: Yes, absolutely. What it boils down to is becoming curious about why you’re thinking some some way, or why you’re even feeling something. It’s inquiring within instead of judging and reacting to it.
Abhijeet: Oh, fascinating. I’ll check that out for sure. I’ll drop that in the show notes as well. Okay, one more favorite. Do you have a favorite quote that you live by? Or if you were to put a quote on the billboard off 101 or my favorite 680, what would it be?
Susan: Yes, I do. It’s by Einstein. I love Einstein, and I may butcher the exact quote, but it goes something like, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.”
Abhijeet: Wow, it’s so true.
Susan: It directly applies to everything in our life and especially stress. So if you’ve been doing something over and over again and it’s not working, it’s not to say that the method, or the vehicle in which you’re trying to relieve your stress is bad or it doesn’t work, but perhaps you need a different understanding of how to apply it.
Susan: Maybe you need a different teacher to help you see how it should apply to your life. Maybe it’s not the right vehicle for you, but understand by looking at the results in your life, what is not working for you and what is working for you, and focus on the things that do work for you, and focus on finding the solutions to the things that don’t work for you so that you do get the results in your life. So that’s my favorite quote.
Abhijeet: That is awesome. You are so right, that could be applied to so many places and scenarios in our lives. Susan, this has been great. Any message that you would like to leave with the listener today?
Susan: I would just say to understand that your current situation, no matter how bleak or how stressful it is, is not permanent. There is absolutely a way towards peace when you find the right solution. So I would just say do not give up. Always understand that there is a way out, and that you are absolutely fine where you are right now, and not to rush the process.
Abhijeet: Oh, on that great top, Susan, thank you so much. How can people get in touch with you? How can they, if they have a question they want to have a strategy session with you, how can they get in touch?
Susan: Yeah, absolutely. The best way to get in touch with me is through my website, it’s www.stressproofpodcast.com. If anybody is curious about really understanding problem-oriented thinking or solution-oriented thinking or want to see a visual of how personalization actually works, which we talked about a little bit in terms of stories, and identifying with the right story versus the not so good story. You can go to stressproofpodcast.com/p.
Abhijeet: Wonderful. Susan, thank you so much. This has been a great conversation on a topic that usually doesn’t get as much attention as it should. Thank you again for all that you’re doing and we look forward to connecting with you again soon.
Susan: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.