Managing Stress

managing stress
Managing Stress

Stress Management is an important part of daily living for everyone. We all need stress in order to survive. Teams need it to perform well, and in the right doses, it can be very healthy, or even enjoyable.

 

However, when stress becomes excessive it can be very damaging. It can harm:

 

  • Health
  • Happiness
  • Work Performance
  • Team spirit and co-operation
  • Relationships
  • Personal Development

 

Stress management involves, at the simplest level:

 

  1. Recognising the symptoms of stress
  2. Identifying the causes
  3. Taking action to address the causes and thereby reduce the symptoms
  4. Where necessary, taking interim steps to relieve the symptoms until the underlying causes have been addressed.

 

With the pressure of modern life, it is easy to fall into the trap of neglecting steps 2 and 3. That is, only relieving the symptoms. It is important to recognise and address the underlying causes of stress, or else the experience of stress will never go away.

 

For example, suppose ‘overwork’ is causing stress, which is resulting in headaches. If you only address the symptoms (eg: by taking pain killers to reduce the headaches), the stress remains, and the headaches will return. However, if you can restructure your work demands so that you are not overworked, the headaches will then disappear without the need for pain killers.

 

A further complication can arise in that some symptoms may be ‘learned’, and therefore removal of the underlying causes may not relieve the symptoms. For example, in the overwork example, the headaches might continue long after the problem of overwork has been addressed.

 

What are the signs of stress?

The symptoms of stress are many and varied, such as:

 

  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Illness (particularly at weekends or during holidays)
  • Insomnia
  • Tiredness/lethargy
  • any many more…

 

Sometimes, you can be experiencing stress but your mind and body are so good at hiding it from you that you are unaware of it. In such cases the symptoms might be more subtle and therefore difficult to recognise, such as:

 

  • Working endlessly without tiring
  • Having little feeling or emotion (except the occasional outburst of anger)
  • Increased use of alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes or other drugs (which may suppress feelings of stress)
  • Behaviour that is ‘out of character’
  • An inability to relax

 

If you are under a lot of stress for a prolonged period of time, but do not feel stressed, eventually it may catch up with you and cause more serious symptoms, such as:

 

  • Stomach ulcers
  • Heart problems
  • Minor illness (allergies, skin disorders, migraine)
  • Serious illness (eg: arthritis, cancer, diabetes)
  • Mental problems (eg: depression)

 

There may be cultural or social pressure to ‘be strong’. Perhaps the employment culture is such that to acknowledge that you are under stress is interpreted as a sign of weakness and could be damaging to your career prospects. If this is the case, you may be tempted to suppress your feelings of stress – which leads to a strategy of stress denial rather than stress management.

 

Most people experience a significant period of stress or depression during their lives. To feel stressed at various times is to be normal. If you think the stress may be excessive and you need help, then consult a suitably qualified professional (such as your doctor or a counsellor).

 

The impact of excessive stress on teamwork is also harmful, and it can damage:

 

  • Individual work performance
  • Team performance
  • Working relationships
  • Cooperation between team members
  • Team Spirit

 

The more effort team members have to expend in managing their own stress, the less they have to contribute to teamwork and mutual support.

 

In part two of this article, we will look at the causes of stress, and what can be done to deal with it.

 

What are the causes of Stress?

 

The factors that contribute to the experience of stress are many and varied. A useful overview of these causes can be gained by using the ‘analysis wheel’, to view them. Using this wheel, you can take six different perspectives on the causes of stress. Each of the lists below contains a sample of ideas only – there are many more causes of stress than those listed.

 

Biological

 

The causes of some stress lie in the biological make up of your body, or the interaction of your body with the food you eat or environment you live in. Some examples of the biological causes of stress include:

 

  • Lack of fitness
  • Poor diet (eg: deficiency of vitamins; too much caffeine)
  • Allergic reaction to chemicals in food
  • Genetic disorder resulting in chemical imbalances in the body
  • Changes in bodily functions, such as pregnancy, puberty, menopause, PMT or ageing

 

Social/cultural

 

Stress can be caused by a whole range of social and cultural pressures, such as:

 

  • Change of social circumstances (eg: bereavement of spouse, moving job, marriage, holidays)
  • Pressure to conform to social or employment patterns of behaviour, especially where these behaviours are not the preferred behaviours of the individual (eg: demands on an introvert to behave in an extrovert manner)
  • Conflict in relationships, or an absence of praise and being valued by others
  • Lack of support, time to be listened to, and time for relaxation.
  • Having a high-pressure job, being unemployed, or only having a small range of social circumstances (eg: rarely leaving the house, few hobbies).

 

Psychodynamic

 

The term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to subconscious thoughts and feelings, which often arise from childhood experiences. The way in which you learned to cope in childhood is by using defence mechanisms that involved a degree of self deception. You still use those defences today. Examples of psychodynamic causes of stress include:

 

  • Inner conflicts that have not been addressed, but repressed (ie pushed out of conscious awareness)
  • Encountering situations that evoke stressful feelings that were experienced in childhood
  • Expending effort to maintain defences in situations that threaten self-esteem
  • Lack of self-awareness
  • Increasing self awareness and personal growth

 

Rational

 

The rational processes in our minds constantly interpret and evaluate the world around. Events can be interpreted in many ways, and the way in which this is done can influence the level of stress that is felt. Some examples of rational causes of stress include:

 

  • Perceiving the consequences of actions as being dangerous or threatening. These perceptions may or may not be accurate – ie the stress might be beneficial, in preparing for a real danger, or harmful, in creating unnecessary stress
  • Having an inaccurate perception of self
  • Believing one is capable of achieving far too much – setting standards and expectations too high (and therefore falling short of them)
  • Misinterpreting the actions of others so as to discount (ie: not accept) the love and support that is given
  • Not having the skill or knowledge to cope with certain situations, such as not having a rational approach to problem-solving, or conflict resolution, and therefore being unable to cope with problems as they arise

 

Experimental

 

What are you experiencing at this point in time, and how are you, personally, reacting to it? The way in which each individual experiences each snapshot in time, even in very similar situations, is very different. One person may find a situation highly stressful, whilst another may find it stimulating or enjoyable – every reaction is unique. There may be many instant pressures that cause an individual to experience stress, such as:

 

  • Too many simultaneous demands from different people
  • Environmental stresses, such as noise, cramped conditions, or cluttered surroundings
  • Needs that are being unmet or frustrated
  • The appearance of a threat to survival, self-esteem, or identity
  • Change in patterns of eating, sleeping, time zone, relationships etc…

 

Spiritual

 

The need for individual spiritual development has long been recognised by religion. It is only during the last 30 years that psychology has acknowledged the existence of a spiritual side to the individual. Some spiritual causes of stress include:

 

  • Violation of personal or religious moral code, contravention of accepted group practice, or violation of laws (“sin”)
  • Lack of spiritual development
  • An absence of truth (eg: self-deception and deception of others)
  • The lack of a sense of personal agency – ie that one can influence events – or the failure to recognise and exercise choice
  • Absence of a relationship with God, and lack of forgiveness

 

Addressing the causes of stress

 

Once you have identified the causes of your stress, you can then make plans to address them. For example:

Cause of stress Action that can be taken to reduce stress
Need for time of privacy and solitude not being met Find a place and a time of day when you can be on your own, or go on a retreat
Lack of fitness Engage in some sport or fitness activity (may need to consult your doctor)
Unexplained inner feelings of stress Consult a doctor, and perhaps get referral to an appropriate specialist (eg: a counsellor or dietician)
Stressful job circumstances Negotiate different working schedules with your boss
PMT Consult your doctor about available treatments
Lack of skill to resolve conflict or manage demanding workload Attend training courses in assertiveness, conflict resolution or time management

In conclusion

 

The analysis wheel can be useful in both recognising the causes of stress and in planning how to address them. Each perspective offers a different way of explaining the origins of stress. These perspectives do not necessarily provide ‘either..or’ explanations – they can be complementary and provide different views of the same cause.

 

For example, if someone is looking after a large number of children, and finding it stressful, the different perspectives might offer complentary explanations:

 

  • From a psychodynamic point of view, the children may be invoking unpleasant memories from childhood (say, of being bullied by a large group of children), and defence mechanisms try to suppress those memories and feelings (to keep them out of conscious awareness)
  • From an experiential point of view, the person may be an introvert, and find lots of external demands difficult to cope with
  • From a rational point of view, the person may be fearful that they are not going to be able to cope
  • From a biological point of view, there may be chemical imbalances in the brain that cause the individual unpleasant feelings in such situations
  • From a social point of view, there may be little support from other people to help the person through a difficult period, or a lack of skill in dealing with large groups of children
  • From a spiritual point of view, the individual is unable to find an inner peace, and is in inner turmoil. This then ‘resonates’ with the chaos in the world around

 

Whilst these explanations are different, they are not totally independent. In fact, they may well be integrated or intertwined. (This can perhaps be likened to several strands of spaghetti on the same plate – you cannot alter one without moving the whole plateful). For example:

 

  • The person, naturally an extrovert, may have become introverted as a result of bullying in childhood
  • The inner preference for extroversion is in conflict with a self-perception of introversion, which may be contributing to a lack of inner peace
  • The person is fearful that they are not going to cope because they know they do not have inner peace
  • The individual feelings of not coping may also be based in past feelings that he/she did not cope well when being bullied in childhood
  • There might be a relationship between the defence mechanisms formed whilst being bullied, and chemical imbalances in the brain
  • Because the individual is behaving in an introvert manner, a network of friends to provide support has not been built up

 

When you read books on stress management, bear the analysis wheel in mind. Ask yourself whether the book is considering stress from a number of perspectives, or whether it is focussing on just one. For example, a book on stress that focuses on physical fitness and diet is using (primarily) the biological perspective. For some people, whose causes of stress lie primarily in biological causes, such a book is very useful. But if your stress is rooted in social or psychodynamic causes, taking a biological approach to managing stress is going to be of limited benefit.

 

Summary

The stages involved in managing stress are:

  • Recognising the symptoms of stress
  • Identifying the causes
  • Taking action to address the causes and thereby reduce the symptoms
  • Where necessary, taking interim steps to relieve the symptoms until the underlying causes have been addressed

It can help you to identify the causes and solutions of stress by using the analysis wheel (right).

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