Do you manage your stress?
How to create calm in your work and life in general
By Angela Civitella
Previously published on December 13, 2017
Many of us experience stress in life, whether this is in the short term from one-off projects, or long-term stress from a high-pressure career. Not only can this be profoundly unpleasant, it can seriously affect our health and our work. However, it is possible to manage stress, if you use the right tools and techniques. In this article, we’ll look at what stress is, what increases your risk of experiencing it, and how you can manage it, so that it doesn’t affect your well-being and productivity.
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death.
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
What is stress?
A widely accepted definition of stress, attributed to psychologist and Professor Richard Lazarus, is, “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize”.
This means that we experience stress if we believe that we don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to handle a situation. In short, we experience stress when we feel “out of control”.
This also means that different people handle stress differently, in different situations: you’ll handle stress better if you’re confident in your abilities, if you can change the situation to take control, and if you feel that you have the help and support needed to do a good job.
… we experience stress if we believe that we don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to handle a situation.
Reactions to stress
We have two instinctive reactions that make up our stress response. These are the “fight or flight” response, and the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Both of these reactions can happen at the same time.
Fight or flight
Walter Cannon identified the “fight or flight” response as early as 1932. It’s a basic, short-term survival response, which is triggered when we experience a shock, or when we see something that we perceive as a threat. Our brains then release stress hormones that prepare the body to either ‘fly’ from the threat, or ‘fight’ it. This energizes us, but it also makes us excitable, anxious, and irritable.
The problem with the fight or flight response is that, although it helps us deal with life-threatening events, we can also experience it in everyday situations – for example, when we have to work to short deadlines, when we speak in public, or when we experience conflict with others. In these types of situations, a calm, rational, controlled, and socially sensitive approach is often more appropriate.
‘… the “fight or flight” response… a basic, short-term survival response… triggered when we experience a shock, or when we see something that we perceive as a threat.’
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
GAS, which Hans Selye identified in 1950, is a response to long-term exposure to stress. Selye found that we cope with stress in three distinct phases:
The alarm phase, where we react to the stressor.
The resistance phase, where we adapt to, and cope with, the stressor. The body can’t keep up resistance indefinitely, so our physical and emotional resources are gradually depleted.
The exhaustion phase, where, eventually, we’re “worn down” and we cannot function normally.
Fight or flight and GAS are actually linked – the exhaustion phase of GAS comes from an accumulation of very many fight or flight responses, over a long period of time.
Stress and the way we think
When we encounter a situation, we make two (often unconscious) judgments. First, we decide whether the situation is threatening – this could be a threat to our social standing, values, time, or reputation, as well as to our survival. This can then trigger the fight or flight response, and the alarm phase of GAS.
Next, we judge whether we have the resources to meet the perceived threat. These resources can include time, knowledge, emotional capabilities, energy, strength, and much more. How stressed we feel then depends on how far out of control we feel, and how well we can meet the threat with the resources we have available.
‘How stressed we feel… depends on how far out of control we feel… how well we can meet the threat with the resources we have available.’
Signs of stress
Everyone reacts to stress differently. However, some common signs and symptoms of the fight or flight response include:
• Frequent headaches.
• Cold or sweaty hands and feet
• Frequent heartburn, stomach pain, or nausea
• Panic attacks
• Excessive sleeping, or insomnia
• Persistent difficulty concentrating
• Obsessive or compulsive behaviours
• Social withdrawal or isolation
• Constant fatigue
• Irritability and anger episodes
• Significant weight gain or loss
• Consistent feelings of being overwhelmed or overloaded
Consequences of stress
Stress impacts our ability to do our jobs effectively, and it affects how we work with other people. This can have a serious impact on our careers, our general wellbeing, and our relationships. Long-term stress can also cause conditions such as burnout, cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. (Sure, if you’re stressed, the last thing you want to think about is how damaging it can be. However, you do need to know how important it is to take stress seriously.)
‘Long-term stress can also cause conditions such as burnout, cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system.’
How to manage stress
The first step in managing stress is to understand where these feeling are coming from. Keep a stress diary to identify the causes of short-term or frequent stress in your life. As you write down events, think about why this situation stresses you out. Next, list these stressors in order of their impact. Which affect your health and wellbeing most? And which affect your work and productivity?
Then, consider using some of the approaches below to manage your stress. You’ll likely be able to use a mix of strategies from each area.
1. Action-oriented approaches
With action-oriented approaches, you take action to change the stressful situations.
Managing your time
Your workload can cause stress, if you don’t manage your time well. This can be a key source of stress for very many people.
People can be a significant source of stress. Remember to learn how to manage boundaries, dealing with unreasonable requests, and most importantly learning and knowing how and when to say ‘no’.
Workspace stress can come from irritating, frustrating, uncomfortable, or unpleasant conditions in the workplace.
2. Emotion-oriented approaches
Emotion-oriented approaches are useful when the stress you’re experiencing comes from the way that you perceive a situation. (It can be annoying for people to say this, but a lot of stress comes from overly negative thinking.)
Some people experience stress because they’re maladaptive perfectionists, who struggle to let go of tasks unless they complete them perfectly. Others experience stress because they have a fear of failure or a fear of success.
3. Acceptance-oriented approaches
Acceptance-oriented approaches apply to situations where you have no power to change what happens, and where situations are genuinely bad.
To build your defences against stress:
• Use techniques like meditation and physical relaxation to calm yourself when you feel stressed.
• Take advantage of your support network – this could include your friends and family, as well as people at work and professional providers, such as counsellors or family doctors.
• Get enough exercise and sleep, and learn how to make the most of your down time, so that you can recover from stressful events.
• Learn how to cope with change and build resilience, so that you can overcome setbacks.
‘… create defences against stressful situations that you cannot control – use your network, be sure to get enough exercise and sleep, and learn how to relax.’
We experience stress when we feel threatened, and when we believe that we don’t have the resources to deal with a challenging situation. Over time, this can cause long-term health problems; and it can also affect the quality of our work and our productivity.
To control your stress, conduct a job analysis, so that you know your most important priorities at work. Learn good time management strategies, so that you can handle your priorities effectively. Try to let go of negative thinking habits, and become a positive thinker by using affirmations and visualization.
Also, create defences against stressful situations that you cannot control – use your network, be sure to get enough exercise and sleep, and learn how to relax.
Image: Edvard Munch (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons
Angela Civitella, a certified management business coach with more than 20 years of proven ability as a negotiator, strategist, and problem-solver creates sound and solid synergies with those in quest of improving their leadership and team building skills. You can reach Angela at 514 254-2400 • linkedin.com/in/angelacivitella/ • intinde.com • @intinde