Stress is a natural response to feeling threatened or fearful. When a stressful situation is encountered, the body reacts by releasing two hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – that work hard to prepare for an automatic reaction known as the fight-or-flight response. This automated response was particularly useful in prehistoric times where danger loomed everywhere, such as running away from a sabretooth tiger - which is less likely to happen in the present day.
This can still can be very useful when facing a difficult situation today; for example, you may need to make a quick decision to escape from a situation where you feel under attack, or in danger. Typical symptoms of these automated responses include heart palpitations, sweaty palms, elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate and stomach or chest pain. This is a normal physical reaction. For most, this moment will pass when the stressful situation has ended; those physical symptoms will stop.
Too much stress for too long can have a negative impact on our mental, emotional and physical health; therefore, it’s important to manage your stress levels before they harm your health long-term. It’s important to note that stress can impact all areas of your life; for instance, you may experience an ongoing stressful situation at home, and the effects of this stress might have knock-on effects on your work environment. There are ways we can influence stress levels, but it does take some focus and awareness of the situation.
Causes of Stress
Everyone experiences stress differently and the root cause of stress will vary from person to person. The following sources have been identified as stressors that may influence your everyday work-life balance:
- Physical stress: alcohol consumption, poor sleep, poor nutrition, long-term and temporary illness
- Environmental stress: poor housing or social isolation
- Emotional stress: relationship problems, peer pressure (work and social), highly expressed emotions within family home, conflicting cultural values and beliefs, leaving home, marriage or pregnancy
- Acute life events: bereavements, relationship break-ups, acute physical illness, physical violence and verbal abuse
- Chronic stress: malnutrition leading to ill health, loss of home or job, debt, prolonged use of alcohol and drugs
It is important to note that even positive events can be a source of stress, such as planning for a wedding or special birthday, having a baby, or a promotion.
The working environment can create stressors that can be short and long term, such as: conflict with colleagues; bullying and harassment; lack of purpose or recognition; work overload; lack of resources (both human and material), lack of support and flexibility; difficult workplace relationships and office politics.
When explaining our response to stress, experts refer to our level of vulnerability to stress. Some people have a low vulnerability to stress and some people have a high vulnerability to stress. Vulnerability can be explained by factors such as coping styles, thinking style, genetics, environment, and social skills (adapted from Zubin & Spring, 1970). For example, two individuals with a similar role and similar personal situation might experience a change in job role and responsibilities differently. One person might enjoy the challenge, adapt quickly, and explore the benefits of this new change. The other person might find it more difficult to adapt; they might take longer to process the change, and see only the challenges they face.
It is important to know that people with low vulnerability to stress are not immune to stress and may experience stress at different levels.
External signs of stress will be different for everyone. These are some examples, but this list is not exhaustive:
- Feeling tired, irritable or withdrawing – for example, sleeping at desk
- Drinking more often than usual
- Tension in the body – body aches, headaches, bone or joint ache
- Affected thinking pattern – distracted, lack of concentration, brain fog
- Sleep disturbances - interrupted, night terrors, taking in sleep more often than usual
- Feeling of sadness, panic or anger – that gut feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach
- Lack of co-operation – non-responsive or argumentative during team meetings
- Productivity – lack of focus, not reading emails properly
- Presenteeism – not listening, daydreaming, wishing you were elsewhere
- Loss of motivation – change in attitude or personality
- Absenteeism – taking too much time off work (through sickness or other absences)
- Overworking – long hours, not taking breaks, email anxiety
- Erratic timekeeping – losing track of time, missing deadlines, lateness or leaving early
- Safety issues – laughing, crying, shouting, screaming unexpectedly (out of character behaviours)
- Conduct problems – continuously missing goals set during 1-on-1 meetings
It is important to recognise the physical, mental and emotional aspects of stress, and that there are many strategies we can use to help manage our stress.
Develop coping strategies - everyone will have their own!
- Try exercising – physical movement counteracts the stress hormones working in overdrive end releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain reliever
- Practice meditating – focus of the mind helps bring awareness and clarity of thought processing
- Consider talking it through – share your concerns. Showing vulnerability helps build trust and shows compassion which releases the ‘happy hormone’ called dopamine
- Challenge your thinking – reflect on your thoughts, ask yourself: Why am I feeling this way? Who has dealt with something similar that I know? What did I do last time that helped me reduce my stress? Who can I go to for support?
- For others, finding enjoyment in hobbies can help focus your attention, calm your thoughts and distract your attention from the stressors at play. These can include cooking, writing, singing, drawing, knitting, reading, or simply taking a quiet moment to yourself to process your thoughts.
Address what you can – deal with the issue
Sometimes a situation or issue that causes stress can be dealt with, no matter how daunting that may feel, so dealing with the source of the stress will help reduce its negative impact on your life. Breaking down ways this issue can be solved, or seeking help, can be useful. Sometimes a situation or issue that causes stress cannot be solved, and being accepting of this will help you focus on what you can do for yourselves. In this sense, changing our thinking pattern might help us managing and reducing our stress.
Accept your level of vulnerability
It is useful to know how much stress we can handle so that we can make informed decisions about what we can take on and what we cannot. Be aware of your level of vulnerability and adopt the suggested coping strategies to get you through the tough times.