When making big decisions, the ability to objectively and realistically appraise our environments is vital.

Easier said than done?

When it comes to stress, the answer’s probably yes.  Stress puts us into hyper-vigilant adrenaline-fuelled fight or flight mode, increasing our chances of making rash decisions. Avoidance, fear, confrontation or panic are all natural responses, but not necessarily the best ones.  No doubt about it –  stress can rapidly take us off course.

It’s not just about fight or flight either.  Stress is a major challenge to health and wellbeing.  In their latest guidance on mental wellbeing at work, the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) reported that ‘530,000 people in Britain believed they were suffering from stress, depression or anxiety due to work at a level that made them ill’ with an estimated 13.7 million working days lost as a result’.  Across the Atlantic, the 2016 Stress in America survey revealed the percentage of Americans reporting at least one symptom of stress over the past month rose from 71% in August 2016 to 80% in January 2017.

What is stress?

The stress response is in fact a normal physiological reaction to a demand placed upon us.  When the brain perceives an immediate threat, it activates our sympathetic nervous system, triggering a cascade release of neurotransmitters, including adrenaline and noradrenaline.  These chemical messengers affect almost every part of the body, for example through increasing heart rate, redirecting blood flow away from the peripheries to the essential organs, and breaking down stored fats for energy.

This stress response helps us to survive in life-threatening situations when we need to think and move rapidly – for example when faced with a physical threat.  But our brains tend to respond in the same way regardless of whether the threat is real or imagined. And imagined threats vary from person to person.

Suppose you’re terrified of public speaking and know you have a work presentation looming.  Come the day of the presentation, your body may well go through the same physiological processes as our ancestors thousands of years ago when confronted by a wild animal. Stress is a very real and physical phenomenon.

design desk display eyewear

A small amount of stress can aid performance.  The adrenaline-induced racing heart, wide eyes and quick-thinking brain may just help you perform your way through that dreaded work presentation. Stress becomes more of a problem when it turns into long term chronic stress.  Such is often the case in the workplace.  Chronic stress leads to increased circulation in the body of a hormone known as cortisol.  This can in turn cause a number of health issues, including raised blood sugar levels, muscle breakdown, low mood and reduced immunity.

prospective study of 21,290 female nurses, published in the British Medical Journal, found that the declines in health functioning associated with job strain were as bad as those associated with smoking and sedentary lifestyles.  Left for too long unchecked, stress can lead to numerous physical and mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and chronic fatigue.  Through associated unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, it may also indirectly contribute to the development of chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

What’s the real trigger?

It has to do with our individual reactions to the tasks put in front of us.  A common assumption is that stress is purely external – either it exists or it doesn’t.  But a particular stressor can affect one person totally, while another may be completely immune to it.

This is because the effects of stress have as much to do with our own perceptions as they do the stressor.  Stress can therefore be measured by the mismatch or imbalance between the perceived demands placed upon us, and our perception of our own ability to deal with those demands.  It’s not necessarily the gap between actual demand and ability, but the perceived gap that causes the stress.

“Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem”

Virginia Satir

A key factor in this process is our appraisal of the stressful event, for example the loss of a loved one, an illness, relationship troubles, moving home, exams, or work related issues.  In any deemed stressful situation, we primarily appraise the event itself. What is the stress and what does it mean to us?  Is it a threat, a challenge, or an insignificant event?  When stress is viewed as a threat, we see it as something that will cause future harm.  But when it’s viewed as a challenge, we’re more likely to develop a positive response, because we see it as something that could lead to a positive outcome.

Secondarily we appraise our coping abilities.  These can be categorised into emotion focused (such as talking about the issues, maintaining supportive friendships, writing and meditating) and problem focused (such as learning new skills, developing action plans, seeking information and support).  If we are not in a position to be able to deal with the event as it arises, we may internalise it.  Stress invariably ensues.

So it isn’t necessarily the event itself which drives the stress, but rather our interpretation of the event and its meaning to us as individuals.  If we don’t have the coping mechanisms we need, we are more likely to experience the effects of stress.

The good news is that we can learn to moderate our perceptions of stress, and our responses to it.  Make a start today by focusing on some of the above strategies.  Have a think about how you respond to stressors at work.  Do you pause before reacting?  Do take time to adopt and develop healthy coping mechanisms?  If not, try just one of them.  Perhaps you could start attending a weekly meditation practice or try to adopt some new approaches to dealing with difficult personalities at work.  Pay attention to what you agree to take on and learn to say no when the demands are too great.

man posing on sea shore during daytime

Whatever approach you decide upon, make sure you set aside some time each day to reflect on your own responses to stress and how you might be able to improve them.  In time, you’ll find yourself far better equipped to deal with whatever may come your way.

Author: Dr Rebecca Healey