Defining, Understanding and Overcoming Stress
Stress is undoubtedly one of the biggest problems facing the modern workforce. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, 77 percent of adults regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. 
Not only can these symptoms be profoundly unpleasant, they can seriously affect our health, our relationships and our work. However, it is possible to manage stress.
In this article, we'll look at what stress is, common causes of it, and some techniques you can use to manage the symptoms of stress.
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only. Readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses, or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
What Is Stress?
The most commonly accepted definition of stress (attributed to psychologist Richard Lazarus) is, "a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize." 
This means that we experience stress when we believe that we don't have the time, resources, or knowledge to handle a situation. In short, we experience stress when we feel "out of control."
However, different people handle stress differently, in different situations. You're more likely to handle stress better when you feel confident in your abilities and are able to take control of a situation – and if you feel that you have adequate help and support.
One of the early researchers on stress, Hans Selye, put forward the idea of "eustress" (good stress) and "distress" (bad stress). He suggested that a mild level of stress can actually encourage people to behave in a more active way, while an excessive level of stress can hamper performance.
This idea has since been further developed, with "stress" being replaced by "pressure." You can learn more about this in our article on The Inverted-U Theory, which looks at how a good amount of pressure can actually boost performance, while too little or too much can damage it.
Reactions to Stress
When we feel stressed we tend to respond in two ways:
Fight or Flight
Physiologist, Walter Cannon's early research on stress revealed that when an organism experiences or perceives a threat, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive. This is the well-known "fight or flight" response.
These hormones help us to run faster and fight harder. They increase the heart rate, blood pressure and make us sweat more.
Historically, this would have been very useful to our survival. For example, if you need to fight off an enemy or run away from danger.
The problem with the fight or flight response is that, although it helps us deal with life-threatening events, we can also experience it in everyday situations. For example, when we feel under pressure to meet a tight deadline, when we speak in public, or when we experience conflict. And this can cause some uncomfortable side effects, such as excitability, nervousness, anxiety, and irritability.
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
GAS is a response to long-term exposure to stress.
Hans Selye, who first put forward the theory about GAS, found that we cope with stress in three distinct phases:
- The Alarm Phase — where we react to the stressor.
- The Resistance Phase — where we adapt to, and cope with, the stressor. The body can't keep up resistance indefinitely, so our physical and emotional resources are gradually depleted.
- The Exhaustion Phase – eventually we become "worn down" by stress and cannot function normally.
Fight or flight and GAS are linked. The exhaustion phase of GAS comes from an accumulation of many fight or flight responses, built up over a long period of time.
Symptoms of Stress
Everyone reacts to stress differently. However, some common signs and symptoms include:
- Frequent headaches.
- Cold or sweaty hands and feet.
- Frequent heartburn, stomach pain, or nausea.
- Anxiety, restlessness and impatience.
- Excessive sleeping or insomnia.
- Obsessive or compulsive behaviors.
- Social withdrawal or isolation.
- Constant fatigue.
- Irritability and angry outbursts.
- Shaking hands.
- Significant weight gain or loss.
- Consistent feelings of being overwhelmed or overloaded.
- Pessimistic or negative thinking.
Long-term stress can also cause conditions such as burnout, cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. You can see a more comprehensive list of stress symptoms at the American Institute of Stress website.
How to Manage Stress
Stress can negatively impact our everyday life, our relationships, and our ability to work effectively. It can be difficult to overcome feelings of stress, but there are a number of different strategies you can use to reduce the symptoms.
These include action-oriented, emotion-oriented and acceptance-oriented strategies. Let's take a look at these in more detail, as well as some practical techniques you can use for each one:
1. Action-Oriented Strategies
Action-oriented strategies are practical things you can do to overcome stress. These include:
- Identifying Stressors. Before you can manage your stress, you need to understand where these feelings are coming from. Start by taking the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale test. This can help you to identify specific events that trigger a stress response.
Consider starting a stress diary as well, to identify the causes of stress in your life. As you write down events, think about why the situation made you feel stressed, as well as your thoughts, feelings and emotions at the time.
Next, list the main stressors in order of their impact. Which affect your health and well-being the most? And which affect your work and productivity?
- Taking Control of Your Workload Busy workloads are a common source of stress for many people, particularly if you have a role with many competing tasks or projects on the go. Learn to prioritze your workload. What's really important today? And what can wait till tomorrow?
Write out all your tasks in a To-Do List and then re-order them by importance. This will help you to take an organized, clear and thorough approach to your workload.
If you're really busy and the requests are piling up, you may need to take a harder line. Negotiate with your boss about what you can and can't take on. Saying "I can do x, but I can't do y" to your manager or colleague will help you to set some clear boundaries, and prevent you from becoming overloaded.
Look at your time management skills too. If you're working on big or long-term projects, all the things you need to do can often feel overwhelming. Breaking large projects into smaller chunks or sub-tasks can make them more manageable. And, if you're really struggling to fit it all in, see if you can extend your deadlines or delegate some tasks to another person.
- Managing your relationships. People can be a significant source of stress, too. Difficult relationships, conflict at work, or "needy" colleagues can be draining. If someone consistently makes you feel stressed, try to limit the amount of time you spend with them, and keep conversations strictly work-related.
2. Emotion-Oriented Strategies
Stress is often caused by how we subjectively perceive a situation as stressful. This might be because we get emotional, get caught up in negative self-talk, or find it hard to stay calm.
Emotion-oriented strategies can help here. They include:
- Challenging negative thinking. Most of us will experience pessimistic thinking at some point in our lives. But, persistent pessimism or negative self-talk can damage our self-confidence and self-esteem. And this can result in stress, anxiety and even depression, if left unchecked.
It can be difficult to break free from this cycle of negative thinking, but with practice it can be done. Tools like Cognitive Behavioral Restructuring and the ABC Model, can help you to challenge negative thoughts and replace them with more positive, objective and rational ones. This in turn can help you to deal with difficult or stressful situations in a healthier, calmer way, and to maintain a positive outlook, even when things go wrong.
- Using affirmations. Another useful way of countering negative thoughts is by using affirmations. These are positive statements that you can use to replace and overcome negative self-talk. For example, if you find yourself habitually saying things like, "I'm not talented enough to progress in my career," try to replace it with rational, positive thoughts like, "I am a skilled and confident professional, and I believe in my own ability."
- Practicing stoicism. Stoicism can be particularly useful if you feel overwhelmed by a situation and find it difficult to stay calm. It can help you to take a pause and refocus on what really matters. Stoicism is an ancient practice that relies on four key principles: wisdom, self-discipline, justice, and courage.
Essentially, stoicism involves dividing our experience of the world into things we can realistically control, and things we can't. It makes no sense to let ourselves be emotionally affected by the things we can't control. By looking at situations in a rational, objective way like this, we can reduce stressful emotions and negative thinking.
3. Acceptance-Oriented Strategies
When we have no power to change a situation, it can make us feel helpless and hopeless. But it's vital that we move on from obstacles like this by learning how to accept these kinds of situations. Acceptance-oriented strategies can help here. These include:
- Identifying what you can control, influence and accept. If you find a particular situation overwhelming, use the Control Influence Accept Model to help you take a more rational approach. Is there anything you can control or influence to improve it? For example, could you use your skills to solve the problem, or ask someone else for help and advice?
If you aren't able to control or influence the situation, then the best thing you can do is to adapt to it or accept it. This doesn't mean you're ineffective, passive or lazy. It shows that you are resilient to change, you know your limitations, and you can deal with difficult situations in a mature and intelligent way.
- Use relaxation techniques. Techniques such as meditation, mindfulness and deep breathing are all great, practical ways of combatting the physical symptoms of stress, such as hand shaking and shallow breathing. They also enable you to clear your mind and regain calm, when you're stressed.
- Reach out to your support network. Many people suffer from stress in silence, afraid that they'll look weak or irrational if they voice their anxieties to others. And they're worried about the response they'll get if they do.
But the plain fact is, it helps to talk! Chatting through an issue you have with a trusted colleague or friend is a great way of exploring your own thoughts and letting off some steam. It also gives you an opportunity to get someone else's, more objective opinion on the issue. Perhaps they think you're doing absolutely fine, or they're in a position to help you out in some way.
If you're really struggling with an issue at work that's causing you a lot of stress, talk to your HR department. They may be able to point you in the direction of internal support, such as an Occupational Health Advisor, a mental health first aider, or an Employee Assistance helpline.
- Look after yourself. Finally, take some time out for you. This could simply be getting some exercise, taking the dog for a walk, or listening to some music – anything that makes you feel calm.
Remember to get a good night's sleep, too. Stress and worry can often cause insomnia, and things tend to feel worst when we've had a poor night's sleep, which can result in us developing poor sleep habits. Use techniques like guided imagery to help calm your mind before you go to sleep, switch off your phone, and aim to get between seven and nine hours sleep every night.
We experience stress when we feel threatened, and when we believe that we don't have the resources to deal with a challenging situation. Over time, this can cause long-term health problems, and affect our home life, our work and our relationships.
There are three different types of strategies you can use to overcome stress and manage the symptoms, each of which include a number of different techniques. These include:
- Action-oriented strategies. These include practical things you can do to manage stress, such as identifying your stressors, taking control of your workload, and managing your relationships.
- Emotion-oriented strategies. These help us to reframe how we perceive stressful situations and manage our emotions. They include challenging negative thinking, using affirmations, and practicing stoicism.
- Acceptance-oriented strategies. These help us to accept difficult and stressful situations, rather than waste time worrying about them. They include using the Control Influence Accept Model to reduce overwhelm, using relaxation techniques and reaching out to our support network. It's also vital to look after ourselves by taking regular exercise and getting a good night's sleep.
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