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Inside Stress

by admin on Thursday 22nd July 2010

“Am I Stressed or is Everyone Just Unreasonable?”

There are two distinct ‘facets’ of managing stress. There is what goes on ‘outside of me’ – which can include many different situations or relationships that seem to cause me stress. Then there is all of what goes on ‘inside of me’ – which I experience as stress – mentally, physically and emotionally. And to really make a difference we need to attend to both.

If we don’t pay attention to both, what tends to happen is that we either feel a ‘victim’ of all the problems going on around us and can easily get into blaming external factors, or other people, without recognising what we can change on the inside. Or we focus more on how uncomfortable or ‘bad’ we feel inside and don’t recognise the opportunities to change things on the outside. Both of these are disempowering and can lead to a greater build up of stress over time.

A more empowered state is to recognise that we can’t be totally free of stress in our lives at all. After all, stress is only the reaction we have to the pressures and demands of our everyday activities…and if we tried to remove all those pressures and demands… then we would hardly be living! So instead of just wishing we could take the stress away, and we actually recognise stress as an inevitable, natural and indeed useful aspect of daily living, we can begin to open up a whole new approach to ‘managing and experiencing stress’. This approach is more ‘real’, more sustainable and in fact much more healthy for the mind and body.

It reminds me of the notion that it’s easy to find ‘enlightenment’ when meditating on a mountain top, but far more difficult to maintain that enlightenment when surrounded by all the demands of work, travelling, domestic life, children, family relationships and so on. We might think it would be easy to become ‘stress free’ if we got away from all the pressures…but not necessarily true. What seems to really matter is our ability to keep on top of it all when immersed in the daily experience of living.

The first step to knowing how to manage stress in this more ‘conscious’ and enlightened way, is to understand how the mind and body have a natural, unconscious, automatic process for recovering from stress – without you having to actually ‘do’ anything about it. The second step is to ‘tune in’ to this recovery process and discover where in your own experience this natural process gets ‘blocked’ or ‘inhibited’. These ‘blocks’ result in a build up of ‘unreleased’ stress (or ‘distress’) over time – which disturbs your sense of well-being and causes long term damage to the health of your body.

The third step is to take action to change some of your day-to-day habitual behaviours and ways of thinking, which will enable you to improve both your recovery process and reduce or eliminate some of the causes of your stress.

The recovery process itself includes a triggering recognition or awareness that stress of some sort is building up, followed by the release of emotional and physical tension from the body. But that’s not as far as it goes…after that you need to be able to ‘reconnect’ with a positive view of life so that you can more easily follow through on what you are motivated to do next, by generating appropriate goals and plans. The goals and expectations need to be consistent with what feels right for you – rather than just responding to the demands of others. And when you are engaged in taking action to achieve your goals…you need to be mindful and aware of when stress starts to build up again…so that you can notice when it’s time to take a break or do something different.

By exploring all of these areas of the recovery process in relation to your own experience, and making sure that each stage flows easily into the next, you can smooth the way and ensure that you maintain a healthy balance of stress and de-stress.

So for example, some people recognise that stress and tension is building up inside – perhaps they feel angry or frustrated – and they find it difficult to release the emotional tension which prevents them from physically relaxing at the end of the day. Things churn around in the mind, perhaps keeping them awake at night. They need to find a technique to release the emotional stress in an appropriate way without making the situation worse. Or others may find that they are rushing around doing stuff for everyone else and they don’t have time to catch up on what they want to do for themselves. They need to find a way to negotiate priorities with themselves and others.

There are many different ways that people get ‘stuck’ and once the block is identified and understood, it becomes much easier to find solutions that will make a big difference very quickly.

So any effective stress management strategy needs to include the ‘inside factors’ (self-awareness, releasing emotional and physical tension, finding a more positive and motivated state of mind) and the ‘outside factors’ (identifying appropriate goals, creating workable plans, negotiating priorities and taking positive action to achieve successful outcomes). If any of these are missing or incomplete, then there is a block to fully recovering from stress, maintaining your mental and physical well-being and fulfilling your true potential.

Peter Jefford

July 2010


Organisational Stress

by admin on Monday 24th May 2010

Stress: The Stigmas, Myths and Downright Statistics

Why does stress continue to be a workplace taboo in the 21st Century?

I often hear the question…”So why is stress still such a big problem in so many organisations right now…and why does it continue to get worse year on year?” But then just as often I hear from senior managers: “I don’t believe there’s any such thing as stress, it’s just that some people can’t cope with the pressure” or “If they can’t stand the heat they shouldn’t be in the kitchen” or “It goes with the territory and they should be in a lower paid job where they can handle the workload”. Which all point to the same problem: people don’t really agree on what is meant by the word ‘stress’ and still the ‘macho approach’ is to try and ignore it. The reality though, is that it is hurting badly, for employees, employers and businesses. All too often the substantial financial and human costs are hidden dangerously from view.

Although ‘stress’ is a much used word in relation to the workplace, many senior managers in organisations wish it would just ‘go away’ or that people would ‘just deal with it’. The problem is that most of us don’t quite know ‘how’ to deal with it yet, or even necessarily what ‘it’ is! Having delivered stress management workshops over a number of years and talked in depth with many hundreds of people working in organisations large and small, public and private sector, at senior and junior levels I have come to some very distinct conclusions.

The first conclusion is that in most organisational cultures stress really is a major taboo. In the research articles we read about all the various stigmas attached to the subject, where people are frightened to admit to feeling stressed, or even of using the word at all, because they believe they will be castigated, seen as not good enough or shamming, labelled weak, limited in their career progression and so on. Hence the ‘condition’ gets hidden and this of course makes it worse – people think “I’m the only one having difficulties”, they suffer in silence or visit the doctor for medication which deals with the symptoms and ignores the causes. There is much greater understanding now within the medical profession regarding the links between ‘stress’ and serious health issues – both as a contributory cause and in exacerbating pre-existing conditions. Some believe that there are strong links between this ‘workplace taboo’ and the relatively poor state of health in such a highly developed nation.

People sometimes dismiss the problem by linking it with pressure in the workplace and saying “I work better under pressure”. There is of course some truth in this; we do tend to become motivated when under a degree of pressure…but it also hides a myth. If we plot a graph of performance against pressure for example, most people will notice that their level of work performance does increase as the pressure increases…but only to a point. Then the curve tends to flatten out; we are performing at our optimum. If the pressure increases still further, what usually happens is that performance begins to diminish; we become less effective, particularly if the pressure is sustained for any length of time. The reason is that actually our success in organisations is more about being creative and productive, so that we can generate useful results, rather than about being busy. When we become tired, or the pressure feels like too much, our ability to think creatively and act quickly starts to drop to below optimum again.

Have you ever noticed yourself in that state of mind when the pressure is just too much for too long? You are very busy, but mainly reacting to the latest situation, problem, or crisis and your ability to think clearly, focus on priorities, review options and make good decisions is running away from you? Often we get into this state without even realising it’s happening, perhaps until afterwards. It reminds me of the notion of ‘doing things right’ rather than ‘doing the right things’…when I’m busy and feeling under too much pressure I can find myself spending more time trying to get things ‘perfect’, rather than completing them ‘adequately’. Especially when ‘adequate’ is all that is needed and a clearer mind would enable me to engage in other higher priority activities.

My second conclusion is that unless each person in an organisation is well tuned into their own individual experience of ‘well-being’, or otherwise, at these critical times (so that they can notice when the peak is reached and surpassed) it is difficult for them to resist further pressure and step back in a way which will restore or maintain a healthy state of mind and body. Their performance will diminish and the business will suffer as a direct result. So rather than trying to ‘hide’ from the issue of stress, or pretend that it doesn’t exist, I would do better for myself as a manager, and get better results from my team, if I recognised that this effect is real and if I actively encouraged people to notice it themselves and be more proactive in how they respond to it.

One might ask: what would be a better way of dealing with stress, which will be healthier for the organisation, the business and the individual? Well, if we accept that we all do experience ‘stress’ in one form or another and remember that, simply defined, ‘stress is an adverse reaction to increasing levels of pressure’, then we can help by learning how to recognise the early warning signs and taking appropriate action straight away. Or at least before there is a resultant effect on productivity, health, other people’s stress, business performance and so on. A useful way of approaching this problem is to change our way of thinking and talking about stress, individually and within organisations.

Which brings me to my third conclusion: stress is not something we might ‘suffer from’, or that we ‘have’ or ‘don’t have’, or is ‘good’ or ‘bad’…stress is just a natural, healthy aspect of normal life. We all regularly experience stress, it’s just that we might not recognise it as such or call it that. (We might call it tiredness for instance, or fatigue or even boredom.) We all experience adverse reactions to anything that we do, if we do it for long enough. For example, too much looking at a computer screen, too long painting the bedroom wall, too long sitting in one position, too much thinking about a particular problem, too long talking to one person and so on – these all lead to some sort of adverse reaction, be it physiological or emotional. So the secret is knowing when to change, move, stop or do something different. It really is that simple and the only reason we make it complicated is because we try to label ourselves and others according to whether we think someone is ‘prone to stress’ or not. The reality is that we all experience it to a certain degree but some of us respond to it and recover from it more effectively than others, consciously or unconsciously.

Imagine trying to avoid all the potential sources of stress around us. If we didn’t have some stress in our lives then we would hardly be living – so the axiom is ‘too much and you burn, too little and you rust’ – we simply have to maintain a healthy equilibrium. To improve our health, success and happiness we need to accept that we will regularly experience some degree of stress, learn to recognise how and when it starts, treat it as a welcome warning indicator and do something useful in response to it.

More managers are now discovering how to help themselves and their staff to respond to stress more creatively and thereby sustain both a higher level of work performance and a healthier lifestyle. Even introducing some new phrases into the language of the organisation gets people talking in a way that begins to break down that old taboo!

Peter Jefford

May 2010