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, or loss of job, or a loved one.
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 blog 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.
As mentioned in our last blog article, 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.
What Is Stress?
We also shared a widely accepted definition of stress, defined by psychologist and professor Richard Lazarus, as, “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives the demands exceeding the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”For a more detailed explanation, please refer to the blog article What is Stress on our site.
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
Attributed to Walter Cannon back in 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, an example is when we have to find a job in a short space of time, or do a presentation to a room full of people.In these types of situations, a calm, rational, controlled, and socially-sensitive approach is often more appropriate.
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
GAS, which Hans Selye also identified in 1950, is a response to long-term exposure to stress and he 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.
Both, Fight or flight and GAS, are actually linked and 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 to our social standing, values, time, physical selves, 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 then judge whether we have the resources to meet the perceived threat. These resources can include time, knowledge, emotional capabilities, finances, 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.
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 behaviors.
- Social withdrawal or isolation.
- Constant fatigue.
- Irritability and angry 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 well-being, and our relationships.
Long-term stress can also cause conditions such as burnout , cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, panic attacks and a weakened immune system.
How to Manage Stress
The first step in managing stress is to understand where these feelings are coming from. Keeping a stress diary can help you 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; is it your relationship and thinking, or is it the circumstance itself that is causing the stress. List your stressors in order of their impact. Which affects your health and well-being the most? And which affects 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.
With action-oriented approaches, you take action to change stressful situations around you.
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. Start to utilize time management tools such as To-Do Lists , Detailed Action Programs, Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle, or any other prioritization framework to manage your priorities. You can also work with your manager to do a Job Analysis to zero in on what’s most important in your role, so that you can prioritize your work more effectively. Ask if there is a team or product vision that will enable this. This helps you reduce stress, because you get the greatest return from your efforts, and you minimize the time you spend on low-value activities. Also, avoid multitasking , only check email at certain times, and don’t use electronic devices for a while before going to bed, so that you use this time to “switch off” fully.
People can be a significant source of stress, especially if you are Managing Conflicting Priorities. Start building great stakeholder relationships so you can align across priorities and drop those where there is no alignment. Learn to become more Assertive and manage your boundaries, those great stakeholder relationships will come in useful when dealing With unreasonable Requests, and you will be able to say yes to the person, but no to the task itself. Those relationships will help you ensure that your needs are respected.
Workspace stress can come from irritating, frustrating, uncomfortable, or unpleasant conditions in the workplace, or if you are working from home, the office setup at home; if you are in the middle of renovating; that will cause stress at work. Take action to minimize stress in your working environment .
Emotion-oriented approaches are useful when the stress you’re experiencing comes from the way that you perceive a situation as often, a lot of stress comes from overly-negative thinking. How can you reframe your thinking? Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Do you have the perspective to know that everyone at work does the best for the company, given their view of their work? Learning to reframe is a really useful and important skill that can reduce stress.
There are so many methods to be able to change how you think about stressful situations, listed below are some that you can look into and see which one connects for you.
- Use Cognitive Restructuring , the ABC Technique , and Thought Awareness, Rational Thinking, and Positive Thinking to change the way that you perceive stressful events.
- Use Affirmations and Imagery to overcome short-term negative thinking, so that you feel more positive about stressful situations.
- Understand that every message has an intent, the message itself and the interpretation, learn to be responsible for the interpretation that you are adding. Repeating what you heard back to the person, is a useful skill to employ, so you can get clarification
- Learn to let go of perfectionism, it needs to be workable, understandable, move action forward, but not perfect.
Acceptance-oriented approaches apply to situations where you have no power to change what happens, and where situations are genuinely bad.
To build your defenses against stress:
- Use techniques like meditation, transcendental meditation and physical relaxation techniques to calm yourself when you feel stressed.
- Take advantage of your support network around you, including friends, family, as well as people at work and professional providers, such as counselors 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. Resilience is so critical in dealing with stress; more to come on that later.
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 defenses against stressful situations that you cannot control – use your network, be sure to get enough exercise and sleep, and learn how to relax.