In the working world and beyond, all avenues of life seem to be plagued with a surfeit of roadblocks that spring up out of nowhere. These can be practical challenges that catch us off guard or abstract problems we face day to day but regardless, they can really take their toll on our psyche. It’s important that we vault over these roadblocks, losing as little momentum as possible but I’m sure you already knew that. The real problem is the stress that’s born from each of these challenges and just the knowledge that there are always more on the horizon. It’s a game that doesn’t seem to end and how can you win when just the thought of stress is, in itself, stressful?
What is Stress?
Stress is like a small flame that lives at the core of your chest. It never fully dies out but instead, just waits to be fed. Unfortunately, it’s not a picky eater either. Encroaching deadlines, the pressure of juggling your responsibilities, or even the general fear of falling short are only a few common sources of stress in the workplace alone. It only takes a couple of stressors together to turn your pesky flame into a full-on blaze that will have you flinching at just the thought of another day of work. Letting stress take over is harmful to your health on both physical and mental levels. Chronic stress can put you in a constant state of exhaustion as your body remains in a perpetual ‘fight or flight’ mode with little to no respite. Health problems such as high blood pressure and headaches can arise, whilst mental consequences can include anxiety and depression. It all sounds pretty doom and gloom until you realise that stress is more of anti-hero than a villain in your story. Fearing stress is counterproductive and when processed correctly, your stress can be as force for good that outweighs its own risks.
The first step towards mastering your own stress is understanding it. What we call “stress” is really just the body’s natural method of preparing us to face what we perceive to be a demanding situation. Everything is kicked into a new gear to get you best equipped for either meeting these perceived demands or fleeing from your stressor. Now, as tempting as it is to go off the grid and leave our duties in the dust, it just isn’t plausible. Even by running from responsibilities temporarily, you’re costing yourself time and shooting yourself in the foot in the long run. That leaves only one real choice – fighting. By no means does this mean you should simply throw yourself into your work whilst stressed but rather focus on changing how you view and react to your stress. To do this well, it’s best to acknowledge that stress is a double-edged sword that often helps us more than we’d like to admit. It’s when our stress response runs rampant that it becomes much more of a threat to our wellbeing than an asset to our productivity.
Spotting your Stressors – Divide and Conquer
When tackling the goliath that is workplace stress, it’s easy to be dwarfed by its scale. Breathing techniques and other stress management behaviours are great but are often more curative than preventative. Going toe to toe with stress itself is an uphill battle so it’s also important to set your sights on the root of the problem.
As the word suggests, “stressors” include every source (both mammoth and minute) that contributes to your stress. It would probably take all day for any one person to sit down and list them all and there are probably a bunch that you don’t even acknowledge. Perhaps you see an unexpected email from a supervisor saying that they need to speak to you or maybe a computer program you urgently need to use is lagging behind more than usual – regardless, these things can all play a part. What really matters is being mindful of stressors as you encounter them and appraising them accordingly. What are the stakes? What can you do to meet them? Why does that scare you? Doing this won’t suddenly make the pressure vanish but it may help to shift your focus from your fears to whatever practical steps you can take to allay them, as well as identifying why your body responds to them by going into a fight or flight response.
The Power of Perception
Stress is both physical and psychological, so this is a war on both fronts. Healthy thinking isn’t just an overused platitude and it’s so easy to forget the power of mind over matter. A 2012 US study placed participants in three different conditions:
These participants were taught to look at their own stress responses in positive ways, learning the benefits of different physical changes that take place and how they optimise success when meeting challenges.
In this condition, participants were taught techniques to help them ignore their stressors and supress their stress in order to cope.
The remaining group were not advised on any stress management methods.
After carrying out the same series of stressful tasks, including giving a recorded speech in front of an evaluator, the physiological changes for each participant were tracked. In a standard stress response, the heart begins to race and blood vessels narrow in an effort to divert blood to the brain and muscles. Although the purpose of these changes is to prime you to face the challenge at hand, the resultant spike in blood pressure can take its toll on your cardiovascular health if it happens excessively.
Whilst the control group showed the most extreme physiological changes with the most blood vessel constriction, participants in the reappraisal group showed the most blood vessel relaxation even if their heart rate was high. As a result, the appraisal group had reduced levels of blood pressure and this seemingly simple difference says a lot about the importance of how we look at stress. By minimising potentially harmful stress changes through our perception, we also reduce the risk of potentially fatal events such as heart attacks. This means that just seeing stress in a different light has the potential to add years to your lifespan.
Putting This Into Practice
Now, of course you’re not going to want to dive into stressful situations or work yourself to death. What you should do is remember that even in the workplace, which can be an oven of pressure, your body is rushing to your aid in every way that it can. This power lies with you even when you don’t realise it and accepting this help is best for both your health and productivity. Self-awareness and understanding are the key to channelling stress and setting yourself up to triumph over any obstacle in your path. With this in mind, hopefully the prospect of another day is just a little less daunting.