By Ellen & Dana Borowka, MA
As we deal with the various issues like the pandemic, the fluctuating economy and racism, we all need to be thinking as clearly as we can in order to stay a step or two or three ahead of the curve. The stress or “fear” of the future can prevent individuals and organizations from seeing opportunities that could be staring right at us. Life always seems to be filled with hectic schedules and looming deadlines. So, how do we deal with the daily pressures and stresses at work and home? Let’s first take a look at what stress is and what causes it.
Definition and Causes
The dictionary has a few definitions that we found to be helpful in exploring what stress is all about. One definition is a force that tends to distort a body. We like to think of stress like hands pressing against a blown-up balloon, causing the balloon to have a distorted shape. Sometimes we may feel like there are invisible “hands” or forces that push and pressure us, so that we feel twisted out of our normal condition. What are those forces? What makes up the forces that tend to control our lives? Other definitions of stress are: A factor that induces bodily and/or mental tension; and an automatic physical reaction to a danger or demand in the environment. What kind of dangers or demands is there in your daily routine? Perhaps it is when the bills come in the mail or when someone puts another project in your in-box.
There are many different causes of stress, but we’ll just cover a few here. The first is the fear of failure and making mistakes, like when we take on an important project or job that we want to do well on or when we have to take a test that has an impact on our lives. Failure and mistakes can be very hard on one’s self-esteem. Another stressor that impacts our self-worth is fear of rejection, like when a friend doesn’t return a phone call or when we are not included in a social event. This kind of stressor encourages some to not reach out to others and remain distant and isolated.
Another stressor is changes. Changes, even positive ones like getting a promotion, are difficult, because suddenly we are in unfamiliar, unknown territory. Other difficult changes are when we experience loss of a friend or relative, money problems, illness or injury, and career transitions. Unrealistic expectations from one’s self and others also causes stress, like when we expect ourselves to do more than we can or when a supervisor expects a project to be completed in a different, yet unstated, manner. Finally, life pressures cause much tension for us, like deadlines at work or taking care of one’s children or relatives.
The Effect of Stress
Stress can have a snowball effect, passing from one person to another until there is an environment full of fear. Stress can become like a spiraling blizzard, and if not taken care of then it can impact all aspects of our lives. An example might be if someone has some personal issues going on and they start yelling at people at work or seem really edgy and curt with others. Many times the issue has nothing to do with our co-workers… yet what we may be going through can affect others.
While we don’t hear this often, there is a positive side to stress too. Stress gets one to make movement to face difficult challenges, to find solutions to problems, and push ourselves to achieve our goals. So, we need stress to do the things that we need to do in life. What is important is to find a balance with stress – to use it as a tool to manage life, yet to not let it take over our lives.
An example of someone, who was not managing stress well in his life, was a furniture manufacturer who participated in a major university study on the physical impact of stress and fear. This businessman had a full physical one day, then had a heart attack the next. He agreed to let the university medical staff run some tests to see if they could figure out how someone could seem to be so healthy one day and suffer a heart attack the next day. In the video we saw of this study, they filmed a psychiatric nurse asking this man a series of questions while being hooked up to a machine that also allowed the researchers to see a picture of what his heart was doing at the same time. The nurse began by asking him what he does and how were things going for him, his heart showed little change. When she asked questions that were more specific about his company, like how many people work for him and when payroll was due, his heart began to beat faster. Then she asked him even more detailed questions like if there was enough money available to meet payroll and how was he going handle that, his heart muscle actually shifted and they had to stop the interview as the man came close to having another heart attack. So, considering this story – How does stress impact you?
The Physical & Psychological Impact
What is the physical impact of stress? First, since stress is a similar emotional response to fear, it helps to look at how animals respond when dealing with a fearful situation. For example, a zebra meeting up with a lion on the Serengeti Plain would exhibit what would be termed, the “Fight or Flight” survival response. The zebra would experience certain bodily changes. Hormones would rush through his body to speed up the heart rate, he would eliminate waste to be lighter when running, muscles would tense up for running, pupils would dilate and eyes would tear to see clearly, and the mouth would get dry to prevent gagging. Does any of this sound familiar? We experience similar changes when stressed and anxious. The physical impact on humans is increased heartrate, surge of adrenaline, diarrhea, neck and stomach tension, lack of energy, headaches, rashes, back pain, and cold hands and feet. Long-term stress can create ulcers, allergies, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and stroke.
Stress impacts us at a psychological level too. Stress colors how we think and feel about others the world and ourselves. Stress attacks our self-esteem and positive feelings of self-worth. It makes it harder for us to relate to others in the way we would like. It influences how we view and interact with the world. It becomes a filter that can distort how we see the world and the messages we send to and receive from others. For example, someone who is under a great deal of stress, may tell their spouse that they love them, but all their spouse hears is the irritation or frustration in their voice. Plus, stress depletes our energy we need to participate in activities and events around us. Some psychological signs of stress are confusion, depression, crying, mood changes, changes in sleeping, eating and sexual habits, and increased use of alcohol & drugs.
In fact, many people facing chronic stress or anxiety have trouble finding a way to deal with it. Some, when faced with such a stalemate, will search out ways to numb out the fear and turn to various substances. Man is the only creature on earth that makes an effort to shut off fear – through drinking, drugs, or other forms of addiction. It’s ok to be scared, but it’s vital to find a better, as well as healthier, way. If you are struggling with an addiction – first, don’t deny it and next, seek out help immediately. Addictions only get worse as time goes on.
How stress is handled determines how much one is impacted by stress, and if long-term problems will result from the stress. Successful people handle fear and stress much like chimps and many other animals. They run to each other for support. Perhaps we should learn from the other creatures how to support each other. Reaching out for support is one of the best ways to deal with anxiety. So, what are some other ways to manage stress?
Three Steps in Managing Stress
- Acknowledge & accept it. Be aware of when you are stressed and take the responsibility to make a change. Some people ignore, minimize or don’t realize that they are stressed, until they get sick or overwhelmed. Don’t try to deny or suppress your stress. It’s important to deal with the situation. How do you suppress it? By eating, drinking, smoking, shopping, fighting…? The first thing to do is to become more aware of stress by monitoring yourself and short circuiting your personal stress cycle. A good way to do this is to ask yourself, “How do I express my stress?”Become familiar with how you react to stress and find ways to interrupt your cycle. For example, someone might first feel worried and confused over an upcoming project. That person might have some queasiness in the stomach, begin to bite their nails, then get some tension in the neck and shoulder muscles that may turn into a painful headache. This person might try going for a walk or meditate as soon as he or she recognizes the stress symptoms.
- Pinpoint the source of the stress. Look at what is going on underneath the fear and tension – Ask yourself, “What am I stressed about, and why am I so stressed?” Since stress is basically a low grade anxiety, it might be helpful to consider if there are any fears involved. Review what emotions you are having about the stress. If you feel anger then you may have to search beneath the anger, and usually there is some hurt or pain. Many people accuse someone or something outside themselves when they get stressed. Who or what do you accuse when you get stressed? Since we have much more control over ourselves then others, it’s important to consider what you can do to make changes to reduce the tension.
- Make an action plan. Once you know the source then brainstorm to manage the problem. How can you deal with the situation differently than ever before? Most people are uncomfortable with making changes. Changes are hard and unknown – even a difficult situation is at least familiar. An effective way to make successful changes is to take small steps of change. Think of some small steps that you can take to make changes in your life. Start with one little change and once you become comfortable with that change, then you can move to the next. An example of small changes is someone who is shy and wants to become more comfortable talking with others. That person may first say hi to neighbors, co-workers, etc., then begin to have small light conversations with perhaps the cashier at the supermarket, and ultimately, move on to participating in a club or organization. The key is small, baby steps to making changes.
Helpful Ideas for Dealing with Stress
• Set realistic goals and expectations for yourself and your relationships at both home and work.
• Work as a team at home and work. Reach out for support when dealing with difficult problems.
• Prioritize your work. Ask your supervisor and co-workers to help you organize your work. Break large projects down into smaller parts.
• Don’t try to do more than you really can. Say no when you need to.
• Prepare as much as possible for stressful events.
• Realize this is a difficult time and you must take care of yourself: Eat healthy, drink enough water, regularly exercise or take walks. Keep fruit bars, fruit, and crackers in your work area. Take 5-10 minute breathers to the water cooler, window or outside. Take time during the day to stretch and/or do some deep breathing exercises or meditation.
• Find ways to relax, like taking warm baths or listening to your favorite music or nature tapes. Get away from stresses by participating in group and individual sports, social events and hobbies.
• Work to resolve conflicts. Deal with anger and conflict by taking 30-minute timeouts before responding, and listen with empathy. Try to understand why others feel the way they do.
• Say to yourself during the day, “I don’t have to be perfect.”
• Seek help when stress gets out of control.
Some of this may sound like common sense. Yet, if common sense was so common, then we wouldn’t find ourselves in the trouble we do. Many times, we just want to get rid of stress, much like we try not to feel sadness or anger. However, stress and fear are a natural and necessary component of life. Stewart Emory once said, “The absence of fear is not an option that is available to most people. People are looking for that, but that is just not an option. The difference between people who are really making it in the world and the people who are not is simple: The people who are making it in the world are making it and they have fear.” We can’t eliminate stress, but we can find ways to balance and use stress to achieve our goals and dreams in life.
Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2020 This information contained in this article is not meant to be a substitute for professional counseling.
Dana Borowka, MA, CEO and Ellen Borowka, MA, Senior Analyst of Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC with their organization constantly remain focused on their mission statement – “To bring effective insight to your business”. They do this through the use of in-depth work style assessments to raise the hiring bar so companies select the right people to reduce hiring and management errors. LCS can test in 19 different languages, provide domestic and international interpersonal coaching and offer a variety of workshops – team building, interpersonal communication and stress management. They have over 25 years of business and human behavioral consulting experience. They are nationally renowned speakers and radio personalities on this topic. They are the authors of the books, “Cracking the Personality Code”, “Cracking the Business Code” and “Cracking the High-Performance Team Code”. To order the books, please visit www.lighthouseconsulting.com.
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