Your Response to Stress

by ltconsulting on September 29, 2011

We provide training courses for managing stress, handling stress, reducing stress, in fact all work related stress issues.  Over the years we have trained thousands of people to enable them to recognise stress symptoms and causes and have given them stress management tips and techniques to enable them to identify the signs of stress and to beat and avoid it.  Our courses have a proven track record in stress reduction and managing stress at work.

“There cannot be a stressful crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” – Henry Kissinger

Many of us can empathise with this quote. We are all living and working in a fast-paced society and for many of us day-to-day work (and life stress) is quite normal. The reality is that every job comes with responsibilities, people are often competitive and pushy and jobs are no longer for life. No matter where you work and for whom, work can be stressful.

Pressure at work can be healthy. Feeling the excitement of new but reasonable demands helps motivation, as the adrenaline that stress produces pushes us to perform better. Overloading on the adrenalin, with your workload becoming excessive is when we cross the dividing line from ‘positive’ to ‘negative’ stress and start to feel out of control.

THE DIFFERENT STAGES OF YOUR RESPONSE TO STRESS

We have distinguished between different levels of pressure, and helped you identify how you think, feel and behave under optimum pressure. It also helped you identify how you respond when the equilibrium is lost because the pressure is too low, or too high.

Another useful way of understanding your response to high pressure is to consider how you respond initially, and how you respond if the high pressure continues. Hand Selye – a leading figure in the physiology of stress – identified three stages of response to a stressful situation:

STAGE 1: ALARM

Imagine that an angry tiger suddenly looms in front of your desk. What would you do? You would probably adopt one of the two instinctive reactions to resist the threat:

· run away quickly (flight)

· try and fight it off (fight)

If you had time to think you would notice your breathing becoming more rapid, your pulse beating faster, your hands going clammy, and that you feel very alert with plenty of energy for action. Your body would have geared itself up for action automatically by releasing hormones (including adrenalin) and mobilising energy in the form of sugars and fats. You would use up the energy either by fighting or fleeing, and then the body would slowly return to normal, having used up the extra energy released. Resource Sheet 1 The Stress Response at the end of this activity gives a brief summary of the physiological changes which take place in the body when you feet threatened.

The problem is that our bodies still react to threat in the same way as prehistoric man – by initiating the fight or flight response – but we are rarely in a position to fight or run away in a physical sense. We are more likely to fight with words or run away with excuses from present-day threats. So the energy released by the alarm stage often gets bottled up, rather than used up, and this can lead to a whole variety of longer-term stress symptoms. The alarm stage in itself is not harmful; harm occurs when it is often repeated.

As modern workers, we do not often face life-or-death situations – our threats appear in more subtle forms, such as the overdue report, the discovery that we are on a train to the wrong place for an important meeting, or the fear of drying up when giving a presentation. While some threats will initiate the full-scale alarm response, milder ones will trigger a fainter response and therefore we are less aware of them.

The alarm response does give you extra energy, and some people enjoy drawing on tins; they consciously expose themselves to threats in order to draw on energy. Make a list of situations where the alarm stage of your stress response has been triggered, and note your physical response and what your feelings were at the time (not afterwards). The Checklist of Some Immediate Responses to Stress on the next page will prompt you.

SITUATIONS WHEN THE ALARM STAGE WAS TRIGGERED

Situation My physical response What I felt at the time
e.g. I realised I was On the train to Bristol instead of London for a meeting in 2 hours Faster heartbeat Started to sweat

Panic

What will my boss say? How can I explain this? How stupid I am!

CHECKLIST OF SOME IMMEDIATE RESPONSES TO STRESS:

Immediate feelings

Anger, Fright, Aggression, Help, Surprise, Irritation, Annoyance

Immediate Physical Responses

Faster breathing, Faster heartbeat, Sweaty palms, Dry mouth, Feel sick, Tense muscles, General alertness

You probably found it fairly straightforward to identify some situations which provoked the full-scale alarm response. These may be life-or-death situations, such as accidentally stepping out in front of a car, or other situations which present a very real threat to you (but not necessarily for other people) – perhaps stepping into the interview room, or onto the stage

It was probably much more difficult to identify situations where the stress response was fainter – possibly the thought of going in to work, or waiting for your boss to give feedback on a piece of work. Learning to become aware of these less extreme responses is a key skill in managing stress, because they occur more often than life-or-death situations. It means becoming more aware of your body reactions, particularly the responses on the Checklist, and also being prepared to acknowledge the responses rather than brush them aside.

STAGE 2: RESISTANCE

If the alarm response is triggered frequently, and this is not balanced by releasing the energy generated, the physiological changes in the body will accumulate.

Responses such as a headache or skin rash are signals that all is not well; but people often do not understand the significance of these signals, or choose to ignore them. It is quite common for people to be experiencing chronic stress, without realizing it, or without acknowledging it. The disadvantage is that health and quality of life are impaired.

At this stage of stress you are starting to lose control, and experience feelings like ‘I have to. . .‘, and ‘I can’t escape from…’

Make a list of responses you experience which you think may be due to long-term stress. These may include some of the physical, emotional, mental and behavioral responses you identified earlier, and you may want to use the Checklist of Some Immediate Responses to Stress again as a prompt.

Sara works for a local authority as an information officer in a public relations unit:

“I didn’t notice the effects of my last job until I moved to this one. I had a series of mild but regular skin rashes which the doctor said was probably a food or fibre allergy. I was also a compulsive nibbler of chocolate and sweets. By the time I had worked here for about a year and a half my skin rashes had gone and I was less bothered about sweets. I wasn’t really conscious of this. It dawned on me that I was happy in my work, probably the best job I’ve ever had and that the rashes were probably to do with stress caused in my last job, which was very demanding and quite stressful – dealing with the public in a planning office.”

RESPONSES TO LONG-TERM STRESS

Once again, by recognizing the long-term symptoms of stress, you have taken the first step towards getting back in control. The key is to break the cumulative effect of stress. This can be achieved by removing the cause of stress, or counteracting the effects through relaxation and exercise.

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