April 2021 is World Stress Awareness Month, the 30th anniversary of its inception in 1992.
Why is stress so important that it gets its own month? In this blog I will be explaining what stress is, what it’s caused by, how it affects us, how to recognise it in others and what we can do to help ourselves and our colleagues.
I’ll explain how stress affects performance at work and what steps we can take to reduce or eliminate its harmful effects.
What actually is stress?
Like many of our mental and physical responses,stress has been with us since the earliest days of man, when we lived in the trees and caves and had to be constantly on our guard against life-threatening events. When confronted with a wild animal our ancestors were faced with a simple choice. Fight, flight (run away) or freeze, and it was a decision that they had to make almost instantly.
In the time it took for them to react, their subconscious mind had already prepared them for their physical response. It did this by releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. These would cause a number of reactions, sharp intakes of oxygen, blood being diverted to muscles and the shutting down of unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion.
These physical responses to the threat of danger are what we recognise as stress.
Is stress a bad thing?
The likelihood of being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger is pretty remote these days, but there are times when we still need to be able to respond quickly and decisively to avoid danger. In that sense, stress is definitely a good thing.
Unfortunately our subconscious mind, which acts to protect us, can sense other dangers that don’t have the same immediate or physical threat. In our working environment it can perceive threats from all sorts of situations:
- An upcoming deadline
- An excessive workload
- Presenting to an audience
- Being asked to work outside of our comfort zone
- A demanding boss or client
- Being let down by a supplier
- Strained relationships
- Financial pressure
… the list goes on and on!
In these circumstances, running away and climbing up the nearest tree is seldom a viable option, nor is giving a colleague, supplier or customer a swift left hook! We are therefore confronted with a set of physical triggers that no longer align with the responses that are available to us.
The result of this is that our brain and our body lose equilibrium and balance. We become temporarily confused or disoriented, we can feel sick or dizzy, our blood pressure increases, heart rate accelerates, we can develop an upset stomach and we can lose the ability to think rationally.
Stress is often associated with a particular event and once that event has occurred, we tend to breathe a sigh of relief and return to our normal state. In that sense, stress is a normal part of everyday life, but it can become a problem.
Recognising long term stress
If stress is prolonged, the effects can be debilitating, fatiguing and harmful to our physical and mental health.
Exactly how it manifests itself can vary from person to person, but stress will typically affect the weakest parts of our physiology and character. Sometimes the effects are physical and visible, for example the appearance of skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis or spots, dark shadows under the eyes, poor condition of hair and fingernails.
Stress also affects our mental health. It can affect our memory, our ability to make decisions, confidence, creativity and mental energy. We can become moody, despondent, irritable, frustrated and cynical. If this continues for the long term it can lead to more serious mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks, addiction and suicide.
So in the short term, in certain circumstances, stress is helpful. It can stimulate an immediate response to actual danger. Even in a work environment where the threat is not physical, it can trigger a fast response when one is needed, focusing attention and activity.
But, if stress is ongoing, it is not only unhealthy it is potentially dangerous. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues to be aware of stress in ourselves and in them. If we identify it, it is important to take steps to combat it, allowing more breaks or time off, supporting, reorganising, reallocating, listening… whatever is needed.
Better than addressing the problem is to minimise the risk of stress becoming problematic in the first place. There is no prescriptive method that will work for everyone, but if you follow the following advice, the chances are that your life will be less stressful.
- Adopt a positive mind set
- Take frequent breaks from technology
- Eat for wellbeing
- Establish a consistent sleep routine
- Try to be active – walk, run, cycle or swim
- Learn to say no. You can’t always do everything
- Manage your time – use a diary or planner and make lists
- Avoid watching bad news and reading negative social media
- Relax with deep breathing, yoga, meditation or Tai Chi
- Put your health first
- Stay hydrated, drink water and avoid alcohol
David Langdown is co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Focus7 International, a purpose-driven, brand-led growth agency. He attained an Advanced Professional Diploma in Psychotherapeutic Counselling and is a practicing counsellor and Member of the National Counselling Society.
Please feel free to contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org