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Managing Stress in Projects

Projects are work. There are expectations and complex relationships. There is stress.

Stress in projects is inevitable. Manage it both personally and organizationally to make the best of it. Do not let yourself or your team be damaged by it. Unmanaged, excessive, and unnecessary stress degrades wellness and performance, well managed stress stimulates and strengthens.


What Stress Is

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, stress is “any physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” There are four major types of stress: psychological, cognitive, physical, and environmental.

The World Health Organization narrows the definition down to define stress “as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.”[1] Worry and mental tension are psychological stress.


Psychological Stress

Chronic worry and tension add unnecessary stress. Unnecessary because, with training and effort, it, unlike other kinds of stress, is avoidable. Though avoiding it takes skill and patient effort.

Worry and mental tension are self-imposed reactions to a difficult situation. They are self-imposed because they are produced by our internal mental process. And, that process can be managed. The more aware of our inner process, the more likely we are to avoid psychological stress.

Worry and tension lead to errors of judgement, outbursts, withdrawal, fatigue, and even disease. They waste energy. They get in the way of healthy relationships. They detract from optimal performance.


Stress is a Wakeup Call

Greeting worry and tension with self-awareness, right attitude, and skillful technique, lets psychological stress trigger the effort to accept and let go into responsive action.

The felt sense of stress is a wakeup call to address challenges and threats. With effort we can stop obsessing about the future and acting out past patterns that get in the way of healthy relationships. It takes time and patient persistence, accepting that we are imperfect, and working towards perfection without expecting to achieve it.

Transform worry into risk management and mental tension to analysis, concentration, and relaxation.


What Triggers Psychological Stress?

Psychological stress is linked to emotions and how and why we react to our current situation.

Psychological stress is triggered when we are faced with uncertainty, change, and perceived threats to our wellbeing. Worry is focused on a future outcome and how to make it happen, or not happen. It is a response to fear. Mental tension is emotional strain – anxiety, sadness, anger, grief. It is caused by worry, past conditioning, and wanting things to be different than they can be.


External stressors like tight deadlines and hyper-critical clients and sponsors cause project managers and performers to worry that deliverables will be late, they will fail to meet acceptance standards, there will be changes in staff, conflicts, weather events, delays that are out of the control of the PM, and more. Some may worry about getting fired or the next promotion, whether they said the right thing or made the right decision, how others perceive them, whether they will get what they want.


Cognitive Stress

We differentiate psychological stress from cognitive stress. Cognitive stress relates to the use of the intellect to perform analytical tasks, use information, plan, make decisions, and concentrate. In excess, over taxing the intellect is a cause of psychological stress. Psychological, physical, and environmental stress multiply cognitive stress.

At some point tiredness sets in, you hit a wall, logical thinking slows and stops, minor distractions become major obstacles. It is time to stop and take a break from the mental effort. Make the break long enough for you to rest and recover. It can be an hour, an evening, or a day or two.

Interestingly, it is often during these breaks that cognitive barriers disappear and there are breakthroughs.


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Physical and Environmental Stress

Physical stress is the pressure of doing. Muscles are exercised to accomplish work. Even sitting at a desk and working on a computer are stressful physical activities.

Environmental stress is caused by factors like noise, odors, crowding, and vibrations. It results in physical and psychological stress. When the work environment does not support the kind of work being done, performers and performance suffer.

When we moderate effort to avoid overwork, physical stress is healthy and invigorating. When we overdo it, we pull muscles and burn out. Psychological stress increases as we become physically less comfortable and capable.

For example, faced with a tight deadline, when the back starts to ache, and you can’t work without strain you might fail to take a needed stretch-and-move break. Your aches become a distraction and you become more prone to anxiety, aggression, error, and injury. Performance suffers.


As with cognitive stress, watch for signs like strain and discomfort. Take a break to rest and recover.


The Stress Response

Stress can be harmful or helpful.

Stress has a felt-sense, a bodily experience, a knowing. Symptoms are tension, rapid heartbeat, a need for help, faster breathing. Take these as wakeup signals, and you can accept and let go into optimal performance. Take them as dangerous and harmful and they become so.

Transform worry into a search for all the threats to meeting your objectives, likelihood of their occurrence and what you might do about them. Worry allowed to obsessively continue without addressing it strains the body and mind. It makes getting things done well more difficult. It is unpleasant, and when it is expressed in conversation it affects others.


A study cited in a TED talk by Dr Kelly McGonigal[2] found that people who did not view stress as harmful were healthier than those who viewed it as harmful. It seems logical to infer that they were better able to make the best of stressful situations and were less affected physically. Working comfortably promotes optimal performance.


Manage Stress

Stress is necessary and unavoidable. Manage it well and it is useful, manage it poorly or not at all and it is harmful. Becoming aware of their symptoms and impacts on performance and wellness, overstress and self-imposed stress are avoidable by matching expectations to capacity, eliminating environmental stressors, and managing the internal conditions that create worry and mental tension. Each of us can learn and use self-awareness, and breath and concentration techniques to manage our stress.



There are many techniques for managing stress. You can visit for some ideas. Also check out the following PM Times articles for more on this subject:

[2] TED Talk How to Make Stress Your Friend, McGonigal, Kelly,

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.