What Is Stress?

Stress 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.

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

The “fight or flight” is 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.

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

GAS is a response to long-term exposure to stress & cope in three distinct phases:

  1. The alarm phase, where we react to the stressor.
  2. 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.
  3. The exhaustion phase, where, eventually, we’re “worn down” and we cannot function normally.

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.

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 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 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 well-being 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. Ensure you consider time management by creating to do lists, action programs and prioritizing.

Thinking about what’s most important in your role, so that you can prioritize your work more effectively. 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 only 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.

Other People

People can be a significant source of stress. Ensure that you manage conflict appropriately and immediately. Be assertive but also know your boundaries and don’t forget that it is OK to say no to a task that you will be unable to adequately complete.

Working Environment

Workspace stress can come from irritating, frustrating, uncomfortable or unpleasant conditions in the workplace. Take action to minimize such stressors as workplace noise, poor lighting, lack of ventilation, poorly designed workstations and other workplace stressors.

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. To change how you think about stressful situations may be use the ABC technique:

The ABC Technique is based on our explanatory style. That is, how we explain difficult or stressful situations to ourselves, across dimensions of permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. These thoughts directly impact what we believe about the event, ourselves, and the world at large.

The Technique pushes you to analyse three aspects of a situation:

  1. Adversity.
  2. Beliefs.
  3. Consequences.

Whenever you encounter adversity you develop thoughts and beliefs about the situation. This, in turn, leads to consequences. To be optimistic, you must change what you believe about yourself, and the situation, when you encounter adversity. Positive beliefs will, in turn, lead to more positive consequences, and a more positive outlook

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 & 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 EAP Assist.
  • Get enough exercise & 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 & build resilience so that you can overcome setbacks.

Key Points

We experience stress when we feel threatened, and when we believe that we don’t have the resources to deal with challenging situations. 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.