Create Calm in Your Career
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.
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 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.
While the stress management techniques in this article can have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only. You should take the advice of a suitably qualified health professional if you have any concerns over stress-related illnesses, or if you are experiencing significant or persistent unhappiness.
What is Stress?
A widely accepted definition of stress, attributed to psychologist and professor Richard Lazarus, 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
Walter Cannon identified the "fight or flight" response as early as 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 – 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, which Hans Selye identified in 1950, is a response to long-term exposure to stress.
Selye 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.
Fight or flight and GAS are actually linked – 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 – 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 behaviors.
- Social withdrawal or isolation.
- Constant fatigue.
- Irritability and angry episodes.
- Significant weight gain or loss.
- Consistent feelings of being overwhelmed or overloaded.
You can see a more comprehensive list of stress signs and symptoms at the American Institute of Stress website.
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, and well as on our general well-being and relationships.
Long-term stress can also cause conditions such as burnout, cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. (Sure, if you're stressed, the last thing you want to think about is how damaging it can be. However, you do need to know how important it is to take stress seriously.)
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. Also, use the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale to identify specific events that could put you at risk of long-term stress.
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.
Take our time management quiz to identify where you can improve, and make sure that you use time management tools such as To-Do Lists, Action Programs, and Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle to manage your priorities.
Then use Job Analysis to think 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.
People can be a significant source of stress. Our guide to Managing Conflicting Priorities helps you juggle multiple requests, while our articles on Assertiveness, Managing Your Boundaries, Dealing With Unreasonable Requests, and Saying "Yes" to the Person, but "No" to the Task will help you ensure that your needs are respected.
Workspace stress can come from irritating, frustrating, uncomfortable, or unpleasant conditions in the workplace. Take action to minimize stress in your working environment.
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:
- Use Cognitive Restructuring, the ABC Technique, and Thought Awareness, Rational Thinking, and Positive Thinking to change the way that you perceive stressful events.
- Take our positive thinking quiz to learn how to think more positively.
- Use Affirmations and Imagery to overcome short-term negative thinking, so that you feel more positive about stressful situations.
Some people experience stress because they're maladaptive perfectionists, who struggle to let go of tasks unless they complete them perfectly. Others experience stress because they have a fear of failure or a fear of success.
If any of these apply to you, use the techniques explained in our articles to adjust your mindset accordingly.
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 defenses against stress:
- Use techniques like meditation and 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 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.
Our articles on Working in an Emotionally Demanding Role, Surviving Long Work Hours, Surviving Business Travel, and Surviving a Stressful Job offer further guidance for dealing with stress in specific situations.
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.
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