All stressed up and nowhere to go
You don't have to be a slave to stress.
What you find stressful, I may not. The experience of stress varies from person to person, depending on our personalities and histories and some people are more prone to it than others. The American psychologist, Richard Lazarus, astutely observed that ‘the interpretation of stressful events is more important than the events themselves’ – ie. if we feel something’s stressful then it is. And generally that feeling will be when you perceive, in Lazarus’s words, that ‘demands exceed the personal and social resources you can mobilize’. Stress is what we experience when we fear we’ve lost control of things.
Signs and symptoms
We all know that some stress may get the best out of us. But too much of it can reduce performance and creativity and hamper our ability to think and concentrate. We may lose proportion, feel helpless and drowning in stuff and become critical and impatient with ourselves and others. The person at the door is a damn nuisance. We may also rush and make mistakes, get anxious and depressed and feel like crying. We may be prone to panic attacks, phobias, addictions, hypochondria and even breakdown. And that’s not to mention the myriad threatening, newly corroborated physical effects of stress that add to our blood pressure as we read about them in the media almost weekly.
So what do we do?
First of all, we need to be aware of what’s happening to us. Do several of the above symptoms ring bells? Are we failing to achieve tasks, covering up mistakes, not pulling our weight, backbiting and gossiping through pressure, feeling less communicative and cooperative or becoming prone to absenteeism, unpunctuality or illness? Once we’ve been honest with ourselves, we can perhaps step back and look at remedies for stress. None of them is a magic bullet, effective in every case, but here are some of the most widely agreed:
Take back control
If stress is being out of control, then getting back in control is essential. The very act of doing it may reduce stress and give a sense of power. Many of the other remedies are built on this one. Taking control includes setting boundaries which, in turn, includes knowing when to/learning how to say ‘no’ when you’ve reached your limit. In the workplace saying ‘no’ often needs to be accompanied by giving alternative practical solutions to the person asking you to do more.
Talking about your stress with managers, other colleagues or friends may sometimes make you feel lighter, open the way for fresh practical solutions and help you feel supported. Having people around is generally a good antidote to stress. Laughter, for example, sets off a whole chain reaction of positive, stress-reducing physical effects in our brains and our bodies.
Taking time to plan gives structure and purpose to the day. It can be helpful to focus on really important tasks and to deal with them first, leaving the less important ones till later. In some situations, getting the trickiest tasks also out of the way first can reduce tension. And it’s valuable to sharpen our judgement about when to postpone things for a while in order to get perspective and de-stress and when stress is better eliminated by tackling them immediately. If time management or organization are weak spots, getting help with them can make a difference.
If conflict is a source of stress, then face it appropriately. The main rule for dealing with conflict is to deal with it. Often what holds people back from doing so is the fear that a relationship will be damaged. Of course, that’s possible but quite frequently it doesn’t happen. Saying assertively what needs to be said while not losing control of your temper can clear the air, stop you walking on eggshells and even improve a relationship.
Develop yourself in new areas
Learning new skills – perhaps things you’ve always wanted to do – can be refreshing and relaxing and can keep your self-image and confidence intact.
Have time off
We probably know we should be having recreation time but we may need to write it into our diaries to make sure it happens.
That works too. Just taking thirty seconds between tasks to stop and step back can restore inner peace and balance. Some people find that longer periods of meditation are very effective at reducing stress and that’s backed up by scientific research such as that conducted by Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazar, indicating measurable beneficial effects in the brain.
Know what you can change and what you can’t
Sometimes significant changes can be made to reduce stress – even, in the case of work, to the point of changing one’s job. But at other times it can be difficult or impossible to make fundamental changes. We need to know which situations are which. For those that can’t be changed, ‘palliative’ strategies aimed at lessening emotional discomfort can be useful. They would include some of the suggestions listed above – for example, developing new parts of yourself, exercising, hobbies etc.
Stress versus burnout
Finally, a word about the difference between stress and burnout. Prolonged, unrelenting stress may cause burnout which is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion. Although there are similarities, the main difference is that stress is characterized by ‘too much’ whereas burnout is characterized by ‘not enough’. In table form, it looks like this:
TOO MUCH (eg pressure)
NOT ENOUGH (feeling empty, beyond caring, devoid of motivation)
Emotions are blunted
Urgency and hyper-activity
Helplessness and hopelessness
Depression, detachment, loss of ideals
Risk of premature death
Life seems not worth living
Primary damage is physical
Primary damage is emotional
You may be aware of what’s happening
You may not be aware of what’s happening