‘The Stress of Life’ – what poignant words Hans Selye used when he wrote his book on physical and emotional stress in 1956. This is when academics and medics really started to research this phenomenon. As Paul J. Rosch, M.D., F.A.C.P writes, Hans Selye was not only the originator of the word ‘stress’, meaning bodily and psychological responses to pressure, but also that of ‘stressors’ – the causes of stress, or the stress triggers.
This blog post looks at work related demands and the dark side of distress so you can take preventive steps before it is too late.
Distress and Eustress at Work
There are two groups of stressors: physiological and psychological, both leading to the release of stress hormones. The first group is concerned with pressures on our body that are caused by, for example, illness or injury. Psychological stressors are those situations, events and everyday encounters that lead to us feeling overwhelmed by our emotional reactions.
At work, we are exposed to numerous demands which lead to different stress reactions as Debra L. Nelson and Bret L. Simmons highlight in the Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology. However, the authors explain how stressors do not trigger only negative stress reactions (‘distress’) but can also elicit positive stress reactions (’eustress’) depending on our personal psychological make-up. A good example could be gaining a promotion.
If you are offered an excellent position in a top company, you may feel excited, happy, even ecstatic. However, you may also start to experience fear, panic, or self-doubt about being able to cope with much larger challenges and responsibilities. From this completely natural experience we can see that both distress and eustress “are separate, distinct, multivariate, and potentially interactive in nature” as Debra L. Nelson and Bret L. Simmons teach us. Let’s not forget that stress reactions are also our life-savours. Indeed the ‘fight or flight’ mechanisms have to be activated in order to survive in dangerous situations.
Stress is a necessary response within our body and mind. However, we need to recognise how often we are experiencing it. This includes setting the alarm to get up extra early to fit in that gym session, then rushing to the office so as not to be late. Getting up early and going to the gym can be great but over time the biochemical and emotional effects of constantly being in a rush takes a significant toll on the body as explained by Dr Libby. Before we know it, we are paying far too high a price for the privilege of being a part of an ever-consuming world – damaging our physical and mental well-being.
When it all becomes too much
The fast pace of modern life, the constant influx of information and the technical progress of social media can be overwhelming for some, but exciting at times too. The warning lights, however, should come on when we start thriving on overbooked diaries, numerous projects, endless meetings, overflowing to-do-lists, ‘forgetting’ to take our lunch breaks – all in the favour of the job getting done. In the office, where superior productivity is associated with high achievement and recognition, we can easily be seduced to become ‘stressaholics’ – literally addicted to high levels of stress. When such high pressure is sustained, and we are not equipped with effective stress management strategies, or knowing our stress thresholds, we can easily burn out.
The Consequences of Burnout
The feelings of being ‘burned-out’ are much “more intense than what is ordinarily referred to as stress” according Dr Levinson, an American psychologist and organisational consultant. Burnout is a consequence of stress. It is an “internal and emotional response” to external pressures that exceeds our personal resources to cope, as pointed by Luke Treglown and colleagues. First warning signs include “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment” explain Michael P.Leiter and Christina Maslach.
In simple terms, the consequences of burnout are an inability to deal adequately with people, emotional detachment from your job and an inability to appreciate your own skills and expertise in your achievements. Dr Levinson explains it is seen across all levels of an organisation with several common identifiable characteristics.
What can you recognise from the list below?
- being continuously exposed to high pressure situations over a prolonged period of time;
- experiencing deep fear, powerlessness, deception, artificialness – strong emotional responses that have to be controlled or even repressed;
- putting in long hours without a light at the end of the tunnel
- not seeing any “visible results” or receiving adequate compensation for your efforts;
- feeling “angry, helpless, trapped, and depleted”, in short, “burned out”.
But this is not all. Apart from psychological signs, there are also physical signs and symptoms that you could be experiencing, such as sleepless nights, headaches, heart palpitations, stomach aches, low immune system, becoming more susceptible to colds, and/or allergic reactions.
Burnout is highly individual as we respond to pressure differently. What is important to recognise is that long-term it has major consequences to health.
So, is there merit in slacking off?
Perhaps the answer is yes.
The key to managing burnout is daily prevention; replenishing your mind and body. Often this is simply recognising when we need to say ‘stop’ and take back the control. However, this does not have to be for extended periods of time.
As I discussed in my article ‘Are you Paying Attention’, there are different components of activity in the brain that help us maintain attention and be creative when we stop concentrated effort.
Allowing yourself permission to ‘slack-off’ mentally can actually provide the brain with not only an opportunity to rest and replenish, alleviating feelings of stress, but also it provides the headspace to allow new and fresh ideas to come to mind.
Stress in its various forms – distress and eustress, is a fact of life. How we deal with them, especially when they reach excessive levels, is key to good health. Learning to put in daily rituals that provide your brain with an opportunity to have a mental escape is paramount to health and success.
So, the next time you are in the office and the stress of life feels too much, give yourself permission to stop and perhaps read or listen to something else not related to the task at hand. It only takes five minutes but your mind and body will thank you for it.
If you are interested in learning more, read my next blog Are You Strong Enough? for practical tips to building resilience.