My recent work with one of the clients triggered my attention to stress in the workplace again. Although our circumstances were different, the triggers and effects of stress were quite similar. See, I used to be notorious for experiencing episodic acute stress. I am one of those people who are referred to as “Type A Personality”. With someone like me, the only way to change the ways of dealing with stress was to change the habits. Many professionals sacrifice their health because they are told by “corporate” or a "boss" to get some insane tasks done to protect their own reputation and to keep their jobs. Until I learned what stress was doing to me, I believed that I had to get everything done on-time and perfectly, even if I knew that the demanded goals were preposterous.
Our life, whether it is professional or personal, is full of various circumstances that can create stress. Our emotions matter because they affect our behaviors and the way we react to the situations we are put in. Our basic emotions, which are anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise, along with the secondary and more complex – intense, mild, unpleasant, or pleasant, create additional responses that could cause stress ("Introduction to Psychology", 2010). We need to understand how to recognize and deal with stress in order to avoid any possible negative impacts. We need to educate our leaders and managers on how stress impacts humans.
Different Types of Stress
Most likely you used the statement in your life, “I am so stressed!”. Stress is a powerful emotion, and it impacts how we act or behave in different situations. Hans Selye, defined stress in 1936 as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. Stress refers to how our body and mind respond appropriately to emotional and physical threats. According to American Psychological Association, there are three kinds of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic.
Acute stress is the most common and could potentially be beneficial in small doses, and thankfully most people can recognize it and manage to move on. For instance, the ride on the roller coaster or sky diving are thrilling activities, but your body and mind go through short-term stress (reaction). Getting scolded by your boss also can bring emotional distress, but could be managed beyond the initial reaction fairly quickly.
Episodic acute stress is experienced by people whom we refer to as “worry warts”, “Type A personalities”, or people “with lots of nervous energy”. These are the individuals who can feel the short burst of anxiety, anger, or other negative emotions. Their habits need to be changed to manage the stress.
Chronic stress destroys bodies, minds, and lives.
When you work with the team of people with the different skill levels on a big project that is just not moving along fast enough, you can potentially experience the unpleasant emotions, such as tension, frustration, or annoyance. Or, when your boss is consistently giving you the projects at the last minute to complete, you can start feeling miserable or distressed if this continues happening over the extended period of time.
When a person has a dramatic life changing event such as spouse passing or another extremely life-impacting events, similar to a violent crime, they experience Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a result, they can feel anxiety, sleeplessness, and nightmares.
These complex emotions produce certain behavioral responses to your thinking and your physical feelings. Most companies, don’t care to delve into employees’ personal circumstances, they are looking only at the results that have to be achieved. In my opinion, it is a big mistake, because the quality of the results is in direct correlation with who gets the work done (Common sense, right?)
How Your Body Reacts to Stress
Hans Seyle, the Hungarian endocrinologist, was the first one to come up with an explanation of how stress works and developed the stress model called General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). GAS has three stages of how our body responds to the effects of a long-term exposure to stress.
The first stage is called general alarm reaction. During this stage, our body reacts to stress by releasing stress hormones, such as cortisol.
The second stage is resistance, and it is when our body adapts to experiencing chronic stress and tries to return to normal functioning. During this stage, glucose and blood pressure are increasing to help sustain energy.
The third stage is exhaustion, when your body used up all the reserves of energy and immunity. During this stage, the blood sugar decreases, causing our body to be unable to cope with stress, leading to mental and physical exhaustion and sickness. When the person has reached this stage, the organs start to fail leading to serious illnesses and death.
Real-Life Situation #1
Jane gets promoted to a business unit leader. She is excited about the promotion, but quickly realizes that her peer group is not very tolerant to people who are new to the roles. They consistently avoid helping Jane to settle into her role. Jane puts a lot of pressure on herself to get acclimated, but despite the effort, she misses the deadlines and gets heavily criticized by her peers and the boss. She feels embarrassed, annoyed, and stressed. This situation impacts her day to day life as the experience of this stress is lasting for a few months. Initially, she feels threatened that she can lose the job and continues to work even longer hours. This is her reaction to stress, when her body is going into the fight-or-flight state trying to protect her reputation. Her body resources are ready to meet and fight the perceived dangers. Next, she is trying to adapt, but is starting to notice that her blood pressure is going up. After a few months, she is exhausted and is no longer able to cope with the situation. She sees a doctor who informs her that her blood results indicate some abnormal changes to her heart. Jane ends up being treated for anxiety as well.
How Stress Changes the Nervous System, Hormones and Heart
The initial stress, when managed right away, is an adaptive process, but the prolonged stress, as discussed in the previous section, is damaging. The imbalanced activity in our nervous system, specifically the increased activity in our sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and suppressed activity in the parasympathetic division of the ANS, creates negative impacts to our physical body. ("Introduction to Psychology", 2010). The system continues to release cortisol, the hormone that can help control blood sugar levels, and because of its increased release sometimes even tumors could be formed on the pituitary or adrenal glands. The immune system weakens, which leads to body’s reduced ability to fight off illnesses and heal slower.
Prolonged stress can also lead to a heart disease because the heart pumps more blood, and with this activity our arteries are unable to process all the blood flow through the arteries properly, because the increase in levels of cortisol lead to a buildup of plaque on artery walls. This reaction can cause increased blood pressure that damages heart muscles from extensive work and eventually leads to a heart attack or even death. One more fact needs to be considered carefully to understand the harm caused by prolonged stress, and that is that stress can damage your DNA, which will reduce your body’s ability to repair itself after wounds and diseases.
Optimism, Self-Efficacy and Hardiness
Researchers believe that positive thinking can help with managing and reducing stress. It is associated with optimism. When a person is optimistic about the future outcomes, they tend to be able to manage stress more productively because they approach unpleasant situations more effectively by thinking of the best that is going to happen versus the worst outcome. Positive thinking can also come from self-efficacy, which is an ability to believe in taking actions that deliver what was desired. The individuals with self-efficacy are proactive in learning the necessary information, talk to people they trust, and take it upon themselves to reduce the negative outcomes. It helps people perceive that they are able to control the stressors that come their way.
There is another trait that helps us deal better with stress - hardiness. According to Dr. Salvatore Matti, hardiness consists of challenge, control, and commitment. It is our ability to be resilient and cope with stress effectively. People who possess hardiness trait are able to see positive outcomes and deal with stress.
Reasons and Importance of Managing Stress
We have a lot of daily demands put on us. Our body’s normal reaction to these demands is to respond and this is why we feel stressed. As discussed earlier, the very first response about the situation or stressor is the alarm. This stressor sends a signal to your brain that there is a potential danger. Then, your brain tells your body to release a burst of hormones to give you more power to respond. In many instances, the feeling of danger lasts seconds and your body returns to a normal state. However, when the stress is lasting every day at work or at home, we need to recognized that it is time to start managing it, so the alarm in your brain and body shuts off and helps you relax. As soon you recognize that you are constantly in this alert state, make stress management your priority.
Strategies for Managing and Responding to Stress
No matter how tough life gets, don’t give up, as there is a way to help yourself. Some people try to ignore (or appear to ignore) the worries, anxieties, or even depression. Scientists actually determined that suppressing your feelings and ignoring them is not an effective approach at all.
Real-Life Situation #2
You have been told by your boss to get a Project Management Profession (PMP) certification in the next three months otherwise, you won’t be able to keep your job as a manager. There is also no guarantee that other positions will be available in the near future. You have so much going on in your day to day work and personal life, that you are trying to put off taking this exam. You are trying not to think about it, but you are, because your job is on the line. You can’t really ignore the worry about not getting this certification, right? So, no matter how hard you try not to stress about the situation, this is actually all that you think about over time. And…you spiral into the stress cycle that can make you ill.
Here are a few different ways you can manage stress:
Express your feelings and talk to someone you trust.
Start a journal and write down your thoughts.
Try hanging out with the positive crowd that will eliminate new stressors from your life.
Try practicing the method called emotion regulations, which takes time, but could be beneficial to how you react to unpleasant events.
If nothing helps, consider contacting a doctor. See if you have access to Employee Assistance program and call a professional to talk about the troubles.
Companies need to build cultures where teams feel good about helping each other. We need to become more responsive to people’s needs. Create avenues where the employees feel welcome to share their challenges and learn from each other. Don’t allow bullies and backstabbers prosper. Stress can kill, so learn to manage it effectively and help others by not being the "Stressor".
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