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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Making Stress Work for You

Inspired by today’s Harvard Business Review’s Management Tip of the Day, on August 31, I’d like to elaborate on making stress work for you.

As the saying goes: Too much of a thing is seldom good, whether it be a good thing like exercise or a bad thing like fatty foods. The same goes for stress. Too much can and eventually will wreck your mind and your body as many studies over the past decades have shown. But stress is unavoidable, stress isn’t always bad, and stress certainly does not have to be damaging. You can make it work for you, because a certain amount of stress can help you improve your health, your results, your relationships, and life in general. In small doses, stress can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. However, when you’re constantly on high alert, when you’re running in emergency mode, when you frequently feel overwhelmed, put differently: when your stress is out of control, it will wear you out. Your mind and body will pay a high price.  

Before I go into how you can make stress work for you, I want to take a closer look at the concept of stress and define this widely used (and misused) word. I’ll give you several ‘definitions’ of stress that I feel, altogether, capture this mechanism:

-       Stress is pressure or tension exerted on a material object or a person.
-       Stress is bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.
-       Stress can be described as the feeling you get when your shoulders have to carry more than they can handle.
-       Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or that upset your balance in some way.
-       The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life It will give you extra strength to defend yourself or help you slam on the brake to avoid crashing into that car in front of you.

The above should provide you with a good picture of what stress is. I do not intend to provide you with the perfect definition of stress nor with an all-encompassing article on the workings of the nervous system or all the possible causes, factors, symptoms, responses, and remedies related to stress. I will take a big leap and jump to the part of this post that readers are likely most interested in: some of the things you can do to make stress work for you!

Suggestions for effectively dealing with inevitable stress and for avoiding unnecessary stress:

1.    Catch it while it is still small. Anything small is so much easier to deal with than anything big. Having said that, it’s also more difficult to notice, to see it for what it is and what it can become, and to take stress seriously while it is still small. But, again, if you let it linger and become big it is so much more difficult to return to a healthy balance.

2.    Know your personal stress signs, whether it be irritability, changing sleep patterns, eating more or less than usual, moodiness, chest pains, or any other sign. Learn to recognize what precedes increasing stress for you so you can act timely and restore the balance that is lost when under stress.

3.    Make sure you have a supportive network that works for you. A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against life’s stressors. Knowing you have somebody to turn to can bring significant relief and some great ideas and perspectives!

4.    Work on your ‘sense of control”. If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events (in jargon: internal locus of control) and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to deal with stress than for people who are vulnerable to stress and who tend to feel like things are out of their control.  

5.    Recognize stress for what it is. Stress is a feeling, a temporary condition (post-traumatic stress disorder and other long-term and severe conditions excluded, of course) and not a sign of dysfunction. When you start to worry, realize it's an indication that you care about something and an indication that your balance sheet is in danger. No need to panic if you recognize your symptoms and causes and act accordingly.

6.    Focus on what you can control. Too many people feel bad about things they simply can't change which is useless and increases your sense of ‘no control’ (victim behavior). Remember what you can affect and what you can't.

7.    Be mindful of your attitude and your outlook on life. Stress-hardy or resilient people have an optimistic, can-do, and will try-attitude. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, are able to put things into perspective, and they accept that change and uncertainty is a part of life. Just one area in which this is widely researched and proven is recovery time for patients.

8.    Increase your ability to deal with your emotions. You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or afraid, or worse, if you don’t even know what you are feeling. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity.

9.    Increase your knowledge and prepare better. The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last, how it pushes which of your buttons, and what to expect, the easier it is to cope with that situation. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.

10.  Increase your assertiveness by learning to say ‘no’, by learning to ask for help, by learning to stand up for your needs and wishes, and by learning to prioritize.

11.  And least but not least, some suggestions for quick stress relief that we hear off so often and tend to utilize so little: deep breathing, relaxing your muscles, a brief walk around the house/neighborhood/office, getting someone else’s perspective, enjoying music, nature, or children to put your mind to something else, and visualizing something that makes you feel happy and relaxed just to name a few.

Some of the above advice will apply to you, some of it won’t, and chances are that some specific ways for you to increase your stress-resilience are not listed here. There are many digitalized and old-fashioned resources to consult, please do so and be your own stress consultant or contact your physician or psychologist.

With the practical part of the ‘how to’ out of the way, I want to refer back to being knowledgeable and being able to prepare better. To become more knowledgeable and better prepared, you need to be able to recognize stress in order to respond timely. Therefore it is crucial that you know how to recognize stress warning signs and symptoms of which I will list the most common ones. And remember: The more signs and symptoms you notice, the closer you may be to stress overload.

Examples of cognitive symptoms are memory problems, inability to concentrate, poor judgment, seeing only the negative, anxious or racing thoughts, and constant worrying. Of course, any one of these can be a warning sign of problems other than stress. Examples of emotional symptoms are feeling overwhelmed, a sense of loneliness and isolation, depression or general unhappiness, irritability, agitation, and an inability to relax. Again, these symptoms can be caused by so much more than just stress. Examples of physical symptoms are aches and pains, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, dizziness, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, loss of sex drive, and frequent colds. Last but not least, examples of behavioral symptoms are sleeping too much or too little, eating more or less, isolating yourself from others, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax and nervous habits like nail biting or pacing. Since every person is unique, you might recognize symptoms like nail biting, easy constipation, or racing thoughts without experiencing any stress. Also, many symptoms can be caused by other psychological challenges or by one of many diseases so I again stress that you consult a physician whenever in doubt.

Another prerequisite to be able to prepare yourself best is that you need to have a good idea of what kind of situations and pressures cause stress, in particular, that cause stress for you. People generally think of stressors (as the causes of stress are generally referred to) as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule, loss of a loved one, or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you or forces you to adjust can be stressful. This includes positive events such as moving abroad, committing to a long-term relationship, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion. What causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of the situation, yourself, and the world around you. Something that's stressful to you may not be to someone else. Your neighbor might even enjoy the very things that cause you stress.

Having said that, stress can be caused by external factors or be self-generated. Here are some examples: major life changes, financial problems, work, relationship difficulties, being too busy, not being busy enough, children and family, pessimism, perfectionism, lack of assertiveness, inability to accept uncertainty (a crucial one in these times), negative self-talk, long-term illness, long-term unemployment etc. What's most important is to create a list with what is stressful for you, which, again, is often quite different from what is stressful for someone else. Peter might enjoy an unstructured environment and perform best under these chaotic conditions while John gets completely stressed out without structure, discipline, and clarity. Jessica may love to speak in front of large groups and thrive when taking the spotlight while Christine is terrified of performing before large crowds even though she might have a much better understanding of the topic than Jessica.

In order to avoid this post from turning into half a book, I’ll move to the recap: If kept under control – your control – the stress response can help protect you, help create better results, and help you meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work. Stress is what sharpens your concentration during an examination. Stress is what motivates you to play some more tennis in order to perform at the highest possible level during the tournament. And to prevent stress from causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life, you need to know yourself, be honest in your evaluations, be prepared to take small and bigger actions, and remember that you need to be in control of your stress. You can protect yourself by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms that cause you too much stress and by taking timely and personalized steps to reduce its harmful effects.

The HBR post that inspired this article is called Turning Stress into an Asset.

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