Understanding and dealing with Stress
The dominant view of stress is individualistic – it’s the person who is unable to cope with the pressures of life. Stress in the workplace is consequently perceived as the result of pressures that overwhelm the individual. The traditional remedy is to confront stress where it occurs – in the individual with self help strategies and, as a fall back, counselling.
Swift take a “systemic” perspective of stress, which is understood to be a complex mixture of experience, perceptions and symptoms arising from individuals within their work and other social contexts. The word “stress” is a shorthand label our society has developed to describe a set of ideas about ill health, a lack of coping mechanisms and physical and emotional reactions to various factors in the environment. It is also useful to think of stress symptoms as a communication about the fit between individuals and their environment.
We therefore address stress as a set of encounters between people and their environment: each one of which is unique, being formed within several interrelated systems – work team, family, social club, church, and so on. Simply focusing on the individual is unlikely to be useful in the longer term without some simultaneous change in the relevant work or social context. From an organisational perspective, dealing with stress management at an individual level is not always the best service to the organisation or to the individual
Stress management programmes – for lasting benefits
It’s our systemic understanding of stress that underlies the Swift approach to the issue of managing stress in the workplace. Stress management programmes that provide lasting benefits require attention to both the individual and the systems in which they participate. Swift enables this to happen through an integrated set of modular interventions that can be tailored to each client organisation’s circumstances.
Misconceptions about stress
There are many misconceptions regarding stress. A better appreciation of what stress is and is not can help us understand our problems and assist us in resolving them. For example:
Stress affects everyone in the same way. It doesn’t. Each of us reacts to our environment in an unique way. A situation that is stressful for one person may be stimulating for another.
All stress is bad for you. Not true. What we call stress is a natural reaction to our environment. Stress tells us something about the fit between ourselves and our environment and visa versa. Positive stress energises us to peak performance and makes us happy and productive, whereas negative stress, either in short intense bursts or over a long time can be very damaging and even result in death. The key is to be able to manage stress in a way that enables us to optimise our performance where the individual, team and the organisation all benefit.
Stress is everywhere and there is nothing you can do about it. Not so. We participate in the creation of stress. It is a function of how we interact with the environment around us. We can indeed do something about stress, from simple things like setting priorities for our work so that stress doesn’t overwhelm us, to thinking deeply about our life priorities so that we are able to balance the various demands on our resources, to making changes in our environment that improve the fit.
There is a “one size fits all” stress reduction programme that works for everyone. How could it, each one of us is unique when it comes to stress – our lives are different, our environments are different and our reactions are different. There is no universal remedy, although there may be many common elements across individual programmes. Stress management programmes have to be tailored to each person’s particular needs if they are to have a lasting benefit.
If there are no symptoms there is no stress there is no need to be concerned. People often resort to taking medication or abuse alcohol or drugs to alleviate stress symptoms. Suppressing the symptoms doesn’t mean that we’ve dealt with them. And, restraining them deprives us of an essential communication about ourselves that can, literally, mean the difference between life and death.
Only serious symptoms require attention. Minor recurring symptoms like headaches, acid stomach, irritability, feeling tense and being unable to relax should not be ignored. They may not be serious in themselves, but they are part of our natural “early warning” communication system that tells us all is not well and that you need to do a better job managing stress.
Warning signs that stress may be affecting you health
These vary considerable from person to person. Most of us have our own ways of responding to environmental pressure. For some it manifests itself in a headache, in others it may be an outbreak of eczema or diarrhorea. The warning signs tend to fall into two categories;
Emotional Reactions. The first signs of stress are usually changes in our psychological state affecting our emotions or behaviour. The most significant change to watch out for are increases in tension, irritability or moodiness. Minor interruptions or life difficulties may seem unbearable if they come on top of a stressful day. You may have an overwhelming desire to smash the toaster that doesn’t pop up as expected, or to pull out the phone connection if it rings again!
There may also be changes in appetite or weight. Some people lose interest in food; others have a constant desire to eat. Our ability to cope at home or work becomes variable: paying bills may take a major effort or an intervention like disconnection of the phone. An increase in smoking or drinking may be evident.
Physical Reactions. Physical stress reactions are designed to enable us to fight or flee from danger. When stress hormones are released into the blood stream to respond to stressful events, our pulse and blood pressure increase, we breathe more rapidly and our ears, eyes and nose become more alert.
However, when the stress response goes on for a long period of time, or occurs frequently and at inappropriate times, it may lead to a wide range of unpleasant feelings. The number and nature of physical feelings will again differ from one person to another, but the most common are listed in the box below.
Physical reactions to stress
- Butterflies in stomach
- Change in appetite
- Chest discomfort
- Constant restlessness and fidgeting
- Constipation or diarrhorea
- Dilated pupils
- Dry mouth or throat
- Fast shallow breathing
- Frequent urge to pass urine
- Muscle tension
- Muscle weakness or trembling
- ‘Pins and needles’ in hands or feet
- Rapid, uneven or pounding heartbeat
- Sick feeling in the stomach
- Sleep problems
- Tiredness or weakness
- Weakness of the limbs
- Worsening of long-standing discomforts or pain
How people behave under stress can change considerably. Some people hate to be alone and try to seek out family and friends for support. Others become withdrawn and indifferent, seeming to lose interest in people.
Some people may continually seek reassurance and can become indecisive about even routine matters – like going to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread. Some people change their minds a lot – speaking of someone fondly one moment and dismissing them the next. They may be tearful and difficult and have impossibly high expectations that people will understand them.
There may be a change in sexual habits, from a loss of interest, an increase in casual sex, or alternative sexual preference. Previously mild mannered people may become verbally or even physically aggressive
A person who used to be relaxed may become rigid and obsessive, repeatedly checking door and window locks, or may insist on tidying a room and putting the furniture in a particular position. Actions of this sort may represent an attempt to bring some sense of order and certainty into what they perceive as a generally disordered social environment.
People under stress often deny that they are showing these symptoms, and may get angry if told by a friend or colleague. These are, themselves, signs of stress!
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