Stress is absolutely an unavoidable and necessary part of our lives. We can do a lot of things to help manage stress and work through it, but without stress we would not have the necessary motivation and urge to do anything whether that is to show up to school or a job interview or to make sure that our bills are paid on time or even to make sure that we eat to sustain ourselves. Stress is an absolute necessity in motivating our behaviors. Again, too much stress can absolutely be detrimental as it prevents us from doing things that are needed to survive or even live a better life as we may experience too much stress to ask for a raise, reach out to social groups for assistance, or even go outside of our house for fear of what might happen.

With all that’s going on in our country, in our economy, in the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. We know that chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. For many of us, our work, our livelihood, is a particular cause of stress. Of course, a bit of stress is just fine, but what are stress management strategies that leaders use to become “Stress-Proof” at work? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help to reduce or even eliminate stress from work? As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing (Doug Puchko).

Doug worked as a financial advisor for 7 years, where he helped clients gain better insight on how to best help themselves before he returned to the field of Psychology where he received his Master of Science in Counseling Psychology (MSCP). Since then, he has worked as a Mental Health Therapist where he specializes in helping clients experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, and symptoms related to past trauma, ADHD, ASD, chronic illness, and grief. He is an active member in the mental health community as he has attended different presentations and programs related to the psychoeducation on stress reduction and mindfulness and he has been a guest speaker discussing the topics of anxiety and stress management on the podcast Stuff My Therapist Says.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!

When I started college, I was unsure which direction I wanted to head in life. I decided to follow the courses that piqued my interest the most, which is what really led me to the field of Psychology and Communication Rhetoric. After I graduated, I worked as a financial advisor which I thought would be a good career path that would allow me to assist people who needed it. I did financial advising for about six years and started to realize that I liked the areas of my job that involved talking with people and helping them discuss topics that they were uncertain about and enable them to feel more secure. At the time this was solely based on the topic of finance, and the emotional weight that was attached to it. I felt that I could be doing so much more for my clients if I could help them in the other areas of their life that they were also facing difficulties. I went back to school to receive my masters in counseling Psychology and since then I have never looked back or regretted my decision. As a result, I’ve been able to find a greater sense of job satisfaction and fulfillment for my work instead of dreading the start of my workday.

What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?

If I could speak to my younger self, I would focus more on teaching him to self-advocate more for himself and discuss the importance of working toward conflict resolution instead of avoiding the idea of conflict in many areas of my life. I think that I could have benefited from hearing this as a young student in middle school or high school or even as a young adult exiting college and creating a more independent life for myself in the workforce.

None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?

I know that I would not be where I am today without the support and encouragement I received from my wife over the years as she pushed me to not settle and really work toward a path that promotes my growth and strengths that I possessed that were being underutilized. Without her support I might not have gone back to school to get my masters in my late 20s, I may have never found this current career path of being a mental health counselor, or I may never have gained this sense of pride and fulfillment from my work that I have today. Having someone that I depend on and rely on to support me at times of stress and poor physical health in the past years was a major factor in assisting me to get where I am today.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?

Yes, I have been working on the podcast Stuff My Therapist Says, where mental health counselors and others in the field discuss concepts and/or psychoeducation on topics to help people better understand the field of mental health as well as provide assistance with theories and concepts to potentially aid in supporting them in being their best self or seeking the mental health support that they may need. Later this year I will also be giving a presentation to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) focused on the topic of managing chronic illnesses and associated anxiety and stress in the workplace. Ideally these projects will be able to provide assistance to listeners looking to better understand ways to manage their stress, therapists who may want some extra information on how to better assist their clients, and businesses who want to support their employees who need assistance due to chronic illnesses or mental health stress in the workplace.

Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?

Great question. The word stress literally means exerting a high pressure or strain on something. Applying this concept to the field of mental health, the same can be said on how we can feel stress puts an emotional and cognitive pressure on ourselves, where experiencing so much pressure adds to negative impacts either in our psyche, emotional regulation or even our physiological experience with somatic symptoms like heart palpitations, sweating, muscle tension, or any other myriad symptoms that people may be familiar with from their own personal stress experience.

In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So, what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?

Sure, if you look at Maslow‘s hierarchy of needs model, even if the Western world has their physiological needs met, like you mentioned, there are still many other things that people need to find and fully reach a balance in stability. People still need their higher needs to be met such as financial stability, social needs, personal confidence and fulfillment and ideally self-actualization. I think that our current society places too much emphasis on the importance of keeping up our appearances at least on the surface. Social media holds a great deal of interaction that feels like connection because we are up-to-date on people’s lives around us, but there is no real depth to it outside of superficial filtered posts. This creates a culture that promotes the idea that we should only be discussing the pleasant and good in our lives, which as a result can force people to feel like they should not express their negative emotions, or that they should blame themselves for having stress or negative emotions in the first place. Along with this societal emphasis, you have everybody coming out of the pandemic where isolation became the required norm which people are now having to readjust again to being more social once more. We as humans have a natural tendency to stay with what is familiar as it feels safer, so every time we are forced to change and adapt it creates a sense stress because it is once again pulling us away from a sense of routine and familiarity. The pandemic also has led to this massive increase in inflation which causes a higher financial strain again making people feel like they’re not doing enough, or not able to earn enough or even able to afford the same cost of living that they may have been used to in the past. The increase in the cost of utilities, groceries, and interest rates can also make people feel like there is a lot more outside of their control than within it. Looking more at work stress, the pandemic also introduced the topic of more place becoming remote work places, which blurs the lines of when your work day begins and ends, which can cause work stress to ripple interpersonal stress with family or friends in finding what a healthy work life balance looks like.

What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?

Wherever we feel stressed we experience an increased level of the stress hormone cortisol which causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Ideally this is helpful in a situation where we need to engage in our fight, flight, or freeze responses. If we are under physical attack or danger this would helps allow an increase in the rate of oxygen through our blood to our muscles to engage in us running away from the danger or fighting to protect ourselves. Different physiological symptoms can be experienced depending on how intense this reaction is. Some people might experience this as an increase in heart rate or overall muscle tension, others might feel it as dry mouth or butterflies in their stomach, or even more intense symotoms like tunnel vision, sighing, nausea, tingling sensation in the extremities, hair raising, lightheadedness, or migraines. Constant exposure to stressful situations can cause an increase in the symptoms as well as a decrease in our tolerance toward them as well.

Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?

Stress by itself is not a bad thing. It is impossible to live a fully anxiety free life or stress-free life as they are an essential part of being human. Stress is an amazing motivator, it helps us complete tasks, show up on time, eat food, go to bed so we can feel well rested, train for events, want to better ourselves and assist those around us. A world with no stress or anxiety is essentially pure apathy. There is no difference between being excited for something and being anxious about something on a physiological arousal standpoint. On the other hand, if we feel stressed about arriving somewhere on time to the point that we then refuse to go for fear being late, or too stressed about what others will think of us or how we will act once we get there, then our stress has run well past its utilitarian purpose and has become a force that prevents us from achieving our goals instead of pushing us towards them.

Is there a difference between being in a short term stressful situation versus an ongoing stress? Are there long-term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?

Long-term exposure to constant stress has been shown to activate heighten stress responses with less intense stimuli overtime. People who experience long term chronic stress and anxiety can start to experience the feelings of high anxiety or even panic attacks when doing beneficial things that they typically enjoy such as working out, or being excited about an upcoming event because our bodies have had its stress response activated so often it can be difficult for it to distinguish if something is a threat or a normal healthy behavior that we are simply excited about doing. Our stress response system could mislabel our workout at the gym as a panic attack because it notices the physiological cues of racing heart rate, increase in pupil dilation, muscle tension and deem that a threat must be nearby. The more stress we continue to put on ourselves through in general, the less healing our body is able to engage in as it can feel like there is no time to go into a safe rest and recharge period. Without this resting our immune system could be unable to repair any damages that may have occurred during heightened states.

Is it even possible to eliminate stress?

The quick answer is no. Stress is absolutely an unavoidable and necessary part of our lives. We can do a lot of things to help manage stress and work through it, but without stress we would not have the necessary motivation and urge to do anything whether that is to show up to school or a job interview or to make sure that our bills are paid on time or even to make sure that we eat to sustain ourselves. Stress is an absolute necessity in motivating our behaviors. Again, too much stress can absolutely be detrimental as it prevents us from doing things that are needed to survive or even live a better life as we may experience too much stress to ask for a raise, reach out to social groups for assistance, or even go outside of our house for fear of what might happen.

In your opinion, is this something that we should be raising more awareness about, or is it a relatively small issue? Please explain what you mean.

Absolutely. There are so many advertisements and articles and blog posts about how to eliminate stress or how to live a stress-free life, and although the intention of these may be to help people feel less anxious, it can also paint the picture that something is wrong with me if I am feeling any form of stress in my life. I have also run into people on the opposite side of the spectrum who believe that they have never experience stress, because stating that you are experiencing any form of stress or anxiety is seen as weakness, which they have learned to refuse to admit that what they are doing is difficult or stressing. This can undercut the value they take in their own experiences or accomplishments or make them view themselves less favorably and that there must be something wrong with them if they are experiencing stress or anxiety in their lives. I believe that it is more important to learn how we experience stress and how we can cope with it and manage it when it arises than it is to chase an impossible goal of living a fully stress-free life.

Let’s talk about stress at work. Numerous studies show that job stress is the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. For you personally, if you are feeling that overall, work is going well, do you feel calm and peaceful, or is there always an underlying feeling of stress? Can you explain what you mean?

I would say that when I am fully engaged in research on psychology or mental health related topics, I do not experience any notable amounts of stress as I am fully immersing myself in concepts and activities that I find to be highly interesting and enjoyable; however, when it comes to being in session with a client or paperwork or other admin related duties there is always that presence of stress. I view it as that healthy motivating kind of stress that makes me want to ensure I am giving the client the best care and understanding of their circumstances so that I can assist them with their goals. Without having stress as a motivator, I believe that many clinicians in my field would have high difficulty in finding the motivation to fill out clinical notes or respond to emails or reach out to others in the field to go over concepts or case studies. I believe it is this stress that helps us focus on the importance of filling out the paperwork properly to ensure good client care. I find this delicate balance to be the best realistic interaction I can have with stress in the workplace. My job can absolutely be stressful at times and as long as that stress exists because the tasks that I have to perform are important, and do not cause burnout or a blurring of work/life balance, then I like to thin that I am engaging in a healthy relationship with stress.

Okay, fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that busy leaders can use to become “Stress-Proof” at Work?”

1. Box breathing

The concept sounds simplistic at first glance, but from phsyiolgical perspective, engaging in box breathing is one of the best steps someone can take to help their body disengage from their sympathetic nervous system. When we start to experience stress or anxiety our sympathetic nervous system believes that there is an immediate threat around us and initiate our fight/flight responses. This could be helpful if there is an immediate threat to our safety, but can cause disruption at work if the threat is only a potential stressing thought we have about a possible future outcome. Regulating our breathing pattern allows us to decrease overall muscle tension, which can help us activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which restores the body to a state of calm. Box breathing is named for its four separate parts, that are repeated to help create this effect in the body.

To start, you should picture a square and trace up one side for 4 seconds while inhaling for the entire 4 seconds. Then trace across the top while holding your breath in for 4 seconds. Trace the left side going down while exhaling for the entirety of the 4 seconds trying to evacuate all of the air inside your lungs. Lastly, trace across the bottom without inhaling for 4 seconds. Then repeat the first step of the cycle again tracing up the side while inhaling for the entirety of the 4 seconds. This can be repeated again and again until a feeling of calm comes over you. This concept not only creates a good reset for the oxygen and blood pressure in the body, but also forces us to focus on counting and mentally picturing shapes, which can further assist in pulling attention away from the stressing situation that generated the stress response in the first place. The goal of using this is not to solve your problem that is creating the stress, but instead to assist you in being able to focus on the task at hand with less stress and mental pressure, ideally allowing a more logical engagement in the matter. I have found this method to be highly effective in my own life as well as with nearly every client I have worked with who has had difficulty with stress or anxiety.

2. The Eisenhower Matrix

This concept is named after President Dwight D Eisenhower, and focuses on how best to prioritize tasks in the workplace to help increase productivity. It ranks the tasks in two categories (urgent/not urgent & important/not important. To use this concept for yourself you just need to draw a quadrant on a piece of paper. The left column is labeled “Urgent”, and the right column is labeled “Not Urgent.” The upper row is labeled “Important” and the bottom row is labeled “Not important.”

Quadrant I: If a task is Important and Not Urgent, then it can be scheduled to be done at a different time. This can be something that has unclear or far away deadlines, or that is important for long-term success.

Quadrant II: If a task is Important and Urgent, then perform this task. Typically, this task has immediate deadlines with consequences if it not being performed right away.

Quadrant III: If a task is Urgent and Not Important, it can be delegated to someone else. This task must be done, but it does not need your specific skillset, so it can be given to someone else.

Quadrant IV: If a task is Not Urgent and Not Important, it can be deleted. This would typically be something on the to do list that is only a distraction from work or an unnecessary task.

It may be difficult at first to work out which tasks fit in which quadrants, but it can help add to a better work-stress balance as well as a work/life balance if you are finding it hard to get all of the tasks completed during standard work hours.

3. The DESC method

The DESC method is helpful for working through conflict resolution and a good means to help someone engage in more self-advocacy in the workplace. It is an acronym that can be broken down as follows:

Describe the event as objectively as possible (avoiding “you” or other blaming words.)

Express the emotions you experienced preceding, during, and after the conflict.

Specify the response that you would like if this conflict were to occur again.

Consequences of not receiving the desired response as well as the positive outcome that could occur if the response is changed for the better in the in the future.

A simplified version of this concept is addressing the following questions of a conflict:

1. What happened?
2. How was each party affected by it?

3. What would each person like to be changed going forward?
4. Why is this change important to me, the other person, and ideally the company or workplace relationship as a whole?

A large portion of workplace conflict can arise due to misunderstandings or misinterpretations of another person’s actions or statements. This method allows both sides of the conflict to be able to better discuss their own experiences of the event as well as their rationale behind their actions, which can greatly decrease the chance of misunderstandings in the future. This is not a guarantee to erase conflict and stress, but it can greatly cut back on the anxiety that some people experience when it comes to advocating for themselves at their job as it can help create an environment more welcoming to discussion instead of potential passive aggressive actions or a decrease in overall workplace morale.

4. Recharging through mindfulness

The best definition I have heard describing mindfulness is intentionally focusing on the present moment without judgement. This can be done trough guided mediations, breathing exercises, or even going for a walk away from your desk or stepping outside for a few minutes. The goal of this break is not to be able to focus on something else like emails, calls, games, videos or social media, but instead to allow our brain a moment of focusing on where we are in the present moment. There have been numerous studies about the importance of mindfulness and grounding ourselves to the reality of the current room or outdoor space that we are presently inhabiting. Disengaging from our thoughts and concerns about potential future outcomes and instead taking a moment to breathe and take in our surroundings can be helpful in lowering our heart rate and with it our feelings of stress and anxiety in the process. Allotting ourselves time for these breaks can help recharge our stamina and energy level to further assist us in engaging with our work more logically without getting as caught up in the stress or pressure that we can feel when experiencing too many work tasks at once. It is also important to give yourself this break without putting blame on yourself for being “lazy” or “weak” or any other negative labels, as the break is an important part to recharge ourselves not to just shrug work responsibilities.

5. Work-Life Balance

This might seem like it is cheating by putting this on the list of ways to be “stress proof at work,” but I believe that this is more important now that it has ever been in our society. There are no longer clear and distinct cutoff points between work and home. It has never been easier for workers to be contacted at all hours of the day or night by their employer. Many companies have allowed their employees to commute virtually instead of in person, which means that many workers no longer have defined physical work and personal areas. This can create difficulties during typical work hours, especially if you live with other family members or roommates who are also at home with you during the day. The blurring of employee role, and family member role can also increase the transferring of stress from our external lives to our workplace and vice-versa. A hard day at the office no longer has the end-of- day discussions with coworkers followed by a commute to switch into your personal life role. Instead, workers might only have the 30 seconds it takes to close their laptop and walk out of the room, which also means that it only takes 30 seconds to switch back into the employee role, which can make the people in their lives feel like work is more important than them. I believe that there are pros and cons on both sides of our societal switch to more places becoming virtual offices instead of brick and mortars, but it is imperative to ensure you set and communicate good boundaries for yourself both at work and within your personal life. These healthy boundaries can help greatly decrease feelings of stress where you may feel like you are being pulled in too many directions, as well as ensure that you are receiving your needed recharge time outside of your work role.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?

The books that really stand out for me would be Deep and Breathe, which are both by James Nestor as well as Mindsight by Daniel J. Siegel. All of these book focus on the science behind stress as well as the ways that we can better understand our own experiences with it and what steps we can take to better manage it through the combination of cognitive reframing, breathing and grounding techniques.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would probably be to help people better understand the psychoeducation behind stress and anxiety that they experience as well as ensure people know the tools and coping strategies that they could use to help them better manage their physiological stress responses as well as assist them in being able to better self-advocate for themselves when working through conflict resolution with others instead of feeling like conflict should be avoided at all costs. I feel like both of these concepts are highly related to stress and anxiety and are nearly universal struggles that many people have difficulty in dealing with at times.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

You will be able to continue to find me on the podcast Stuff My Therapist Says as a guest, discussing various mental health topics, and I am sure I will continue to be involved in finding more projects and organizations focused on helping people improve their lives for the better.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.


  • Savio P. Clemente

    TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor

    Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: "7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger." Through his best-selling book and impactful work as a media journalist — covering inspirational stories of resilience and exploring wellness trends — Savio has collaborated with notable celebrities and TV personalities, bringing his insights to diverse audiences and touching countless lives. His philosophy, "to know thyself is to heal thyself," resonates in every piece.