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Stress can be helpful, harmful, and everything in between. A little stress can enhance performance. Too much can destroy performance, and way too much can kill.
When does anticipation, excitement, or thrill become dread, anxiety, or stress?
Our experience of stress seems to emerge from a combination of factors. Here are just two: the picture of stress we have in our minds, combined with the situation we are in. For instance, both work and lack of work can be stressful. If you think of stress as work that is unwelcome, with unrelenting pressure that you can’t control, then that experience may be stressful. If you think of stress as not having any work, and you can’t do anything to get work, then that will be stressful.
What do those circumstances have in common? Lack of control over something that we perceive is harmful to us. Too much work that we can’t control can be as stressful as too little work that we can’t control.
‘Perceive’? You may reasonably protest: ‘Stress is real and not just a matter of perception.’
Yes, it is real. There is no doubt that the body of most people reporting high levels of stress shows real physical changes, both short- and long-term. Real physical changes cover a wide range including, but not limited to: sweaty palms, heightened blood pressure, elevated heart rate, palpitations, raised levels of adrenaline and cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’), suppressed immune system, sleep disturbance, memory and concentration problems, weight gain or loss, stomach upset and pains, tension related problems (headaches, muscle pain), negative thoughts and depression, suicidal ideation… As you can see, severe and prolonged stress is very serious.
Causes of stress need not be prolonged to be enduring. Posttraumatic stress injury (PTSI) can be triggered by a one-off event lasting seconds and take years or even decades to be healed.
Stress Awareness Day is about promoting knowledge and understanding of stress, with the intention of helping more people to deal with it successfully. Please note the use of PTS- I for injury and not D for disorder. Injury implies the possibility of healing, whereas the other term implies permanence. To stand a chance in dealing with stress injury people need to have hope of healing and recovery. Even how we describe it has an effect on how we perceive stress, how we deal with it, and how quickly, or if at all, we recover from it.
Two people, with the same skill, knowledge and resources are faced with the same challenge. One describes it as stress, the other as a learning experience. Which one is likely to experience stress? The person who has already told themselves a story that stress is what they will experience. The story we tell ourselves about stress plays a large part in how much or how little stress we experience.
Bringing up-to-date Victor Frankl’s famous observation: ‘The person who knows the “why” for their existence, will be able to bear almost any “how”.’If someone has strong meaning for what they are facing (a clear positive story) that seems to reduce the level of stress they experience.
Perhaps by taking internal control of how they perceive what is happening, the negative chain of health damaging effects is not triggered, or, if triggered, a milder version follows.
Most of us have experienced stress, in its negative form, and have felt its effects vary from near paralysis at one end to pleasant “butterflies in the stomach” at the other.
Taking that (probably) universal experience, and combining it with Victor Frankl’s observation, perhaps it is useful to ask: how much of stress is in our environment, and how much is in the story we tell ourselves, and how much in the way we respond to our environment?
It seems right to think that there are huge individual differences in how people react to exactly the same circumstances. What does that tell us?
Here are some of the variables that seem to be involved, and the effect they seem to have:
- Some people are naturally resilient; whatever life throws at them, they find a way through.
- Others make a conscious choice to deal with adversities, and have trained themselves in that ability.
- Many have been trained to deal with circumstances that others would find crushingly stressful.
- Many feel that they have no control over their environment or how they deal with it internally, and perceive that stress is something done to them, and is beyond their control.
- Some seem hardwired to perceive almost everything as stressful, they go through life constantly anxious and stressed.
- A few are so afflicted with stress that they cannot function in society.
Genetics, education and training, choice, situation, control, perception, and many other variables play a part in stress.
What can you do to keep your stress levels in the healthy zone? What is the healthy zone?
Here is my explanation. Too little stress is bad for you: it impedes growth, it leaves you out of practice to deal with stress; you feel under-stimulated, and all of that probably means the squandering of potential for bigger and better things.
Too much stress has the effects we described previously. The healthy zone is probably best felt internally rather than prescribed by external factors. If you feel excited, enthusiastic, passionate, motivated, dedicated, inspired, focussed, and engaged you are probably in the healthy zone; the sweet spot.
What do you do if you are not in the sweet spot? Either change perception or change circumstances. Sometimes circumstances cannot be changed. If so, minimising the damage done by the stress is wise.
Here are some useful techniques:
Avoid making the stress worse
Drugs and alcohol use, to deal with stress, almost always starts off as self-medication, and ends up making the problem much, much worse.
“Comfort” eating makes it worse. There is nothing comfortable about damaging physical health to deal with stress. Obesity, reduced fitness, increased blood pressure, and a hugely higher risk of diabetes are not going to solve the problem.
Avoid sugar highs and lows. If sugar levels in the body are all over the place because of comfort eating, the problem is made worse: in addition to having to deal with the stressors, you have deal with fluctuating moods and energy levels.
Smoking kills, and those it does not kill have their health massively impaired. That will add a lot more stress.
Caffeine is toxic. A huge number of visits to the physician are, unknowingly, to deal with caffeine overdose. It causes dehydration, which worsens stress, heightened anxiety levels, palpitations – a long list of harms almost all of which make stress worse.
Take immediate action to make the stress better
If you are stressed there are many helpful ways to take immediate action.
- Exercise can be done anywhere anytime. You don’t have to wait to go to the gym. Take the stairs. No stairs? Take a short brisk walk. Can’t walk? Do some floor-based exercise (for example, press-ups, sit ups, squats, lunges). No floor space? Do some wall-based exercises. For example, wall-presses, one or two-handed, chair squat – lean your back against the wall with your feet away from the wall and slide your back down until your thighs are parallel to the floor then hold as long as you can. No floor? No wall? Or, I can’t be seen to be exercising? If you are in such a place, my recommendation is get out ASAP. If you can’t get out, try this: seated exercises. Some examples: sitting on your chair, tense your buttocks so that your whole body lifts a little, hold that for 10 seconds. Repeat as you wish. Elbow lift: sit with your elbows and forearms on your desk, push down with your arms to lift your body a little. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat. There are a huge number of exercises that you can adapt to any situation.
- Two-minute mind shut down. Decide that you will think of nothing for about two minutes. Easier said than done! Either lying down, sitting or standing (obviously only when safe to do so), choose to close your eyes, take slow deep breaths, focus on breathing in and breathing out. If any thoughts jump into your mind, acknowledge them, and go back to focusing on your breathing. Two minutes is a rough guide; the key here is to allow the mind to be quiet for enough time to switch off your fight or flight mode.
- A healthy diet. For most people take lots of fruit and vegetables helps reduce stress. If the body has the right balance of vitamins, minerals, etc, it is much easier to deal with stressors. You don’t want to be having to deal with internal as well as external problems.
Many stressful situations can be managed by external world action if circumstances are within your control, or, by mental action if out-with your control. Even if we cannot reduce the external stressors, we can take positive steps to cope with them better.
Was Charles R. Swindoll right when he said: ‘Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.’ If so, we all know the person who can do most to reduce our stress levels.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the leadership coaching practice PsyPerform and is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.
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