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Stress Management

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Take action quickly when “cracks” start to appear.

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A lot of research has been conducted into stress over the last hundred years. Some of the theories behind it are now settled and accepted; others are still being researched and debated. During this time, there seems to have been something approaching open warfare between competing theories and definitions: Views have been passionately held and aggressively defended.

What complicates this is that intuitively we all feel that we know what stress is, as it is something we have all experienced. A definition should therefore be obvious… except that it is not.

Definitions

Hans Selye was one of the founding fathers of stress research. His view in 1956 was that “stress is not necessarily something bad – it all depends on how you take it. The stress of exhilarating, creative successful work is beneficial, while that of failure, humiliation or infection is detrimental.” Selye believed that the biochemical effects of stress would be experienced irrespective of whether the situation was positive or negative.

Since then, a great deal of further research has been conducted, and ideas have moved on. Stress is now viewed as a “bad thing”, with a range of harmful biochemical and long-term effects. These effects have rarely been observed in positive situations.

The most commonly accepted definition of stress (mainly attributed to Richard S Lazarus) is that stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” In short, it’s what we feel when we think we’ve lost control of events.

This is the main definition used by this section of Mind Tools, although we also recognize that there is an intertwined instinctive stress response to unexpected events. The stress response inside us is therefore part instinct and part to do with the way we think.

Fight-or-Flight

Some of the early research on stress (conducted by Walter Cannon in 1932) established the existence of the well-known “fight-or-flight” response. His work showed that when an organism experiences a shock orperceives a threat, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive.

In humans, as in other animals, these hormones help us to run faster and fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. They increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss if we are damaged. As well as this, these hormones focus our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else. All of this significantly improves our ability to survive life-threatening events.

Not only life-threatening events trigger this reaction: We experience it almost any time we come across something unexpected or something that frustrates our goals. When the threat is small, our response is small and we often do not notice it among the many other distractions of a stressful situation.

Unfortunately, this mobilization of the body for survival also has negative consequences. In this state, we are excitable, anxious, jumpy and irritable. This actually reduces our ability to work effectively with other people. With trembling and a pounding heart, we can find it difficult to execute precise, controlled skills. The intensity of our focus on survival interferes with our ability to make fine judgments by drawing information from many sources. We find ourselves more accident-prone and less able to make good decisions.

There are very few situations in modern working life where this response is useful. Most situations benefit from a calm, rational, controlled and socially sensitive approach.

In the short term, we need to keep this fight-or-flight response under control to be effective in our jobs. In the long term we need to keep it under control to avoid problems of poor health and burnout

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Introducing Stress Management

There are very many proven skills that we can use to manage stress. These help us to remain calm and effective in high pressure situations, and help us avoid the problems of long term stress. In the rest of this section of Mind Tools, we look at some important techniques in each of these three groups.

This is a much-abridged excerpt from the ‘Understanding Stress and Stress Management’ module of the Mind Tools Stress Management Masterclass. As well as covering this material in more detail, it also discusses:

  • Long-term stress: The General Adaptation Syndrome and Burnout.
  • The Integrated Stress Response.
  • Stress and Health.
  • Stress and its Affect on the Way We Think.
  • Pressure & Performance: Flow and the ‘Inverted-U’.

These sections give you a deeper understanding of stress, helping you to develop your own stress management strategies for handling unique circumstances. Click here to find out more about the Stress Management Masterclass.

The first of these articles shows you how to keep a stress diary – an important technique for undertsanding the most important sources of stress in your life. To read this, click ‘Next article’ below.

Warning: Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, can cause death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and 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.

The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale

Understanding the Impact of Long-term Stress

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Are you “burning the candle at both ends?”

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People use the word “stress” to describe a wide variety of situations – from your cell phone ringing while you’re talking on another phone – to the feelings associated with intense work overload, or the death of a loved-one.

But perhaps the most useful and widely accepted definition of stress (mainly attributed to Richard S. Lazarus) is this: Stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” In less formal terms, we feel stressed when we feel that “things are out of control”.

Our ability to cope with the demands upon us is key to our experience of stress. For example, starting a new job might be a wholly exciting experience if everything else in your life is stable and positive. But if you start a new job when you’ve just moved into a new house, or your partner is ill, or you’re experiencing money problems, you might find it very hard to cope.

How much of this does it take to push you “over the edge”? Not all unusual events are equally hard to deal with. For example, compare the stress of divorce with that of a change in responsibilities at work. Because of this, you need to be able to rate and measure your total stress score appropriately.

The Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), more commonly known as the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, was created to do just that. This tool helps us measure the stress load we carry, and think about what we should do about it.

This article looks at the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, and explains how you can use it to manage the stress in your life.

 

The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale

In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe decided to study whether or not stress contributes to illness. They surveyed more than 5,000 medical patients and asked them to say whether they had experience any of a series of 43 life events in the previous two years.

Each event, called a Life Change Unit (LCU), had a different “weight” for stress. The more events the patient added up, the higher the score. The higher the score, and the larger the weight of each event, the more likely the patient was to become ill.

The Stress Scale

To score your stress levels, simply check the box in the right hand column next to all the events that have happened to you in the last year. Your score will automatically update.

This table is taken from “The Social Readjustment Rating Scale”, Thomas H. Holmes and Richard H. Rahe, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 11, Issue 2, August 1967, Pages 213-218, Copyright © 1967 Published by Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce granted by the publisher.

This scale must not be used in any way to cause harm to an individual’s professional career.

Analyzing the Diary

Once you’ve kept a Stress Diary for a number of days, you can analyze it and take action on it:

  • First, look at the different stresses you experienced during the time you kept your diary. Highlight the most frequent stresses, and also the ones that were most unpleasant.
  • Working through the stresses you’ve highlighted, look at your assessments of their underlying causes, and your appraisal of how well you handled the stressful event. Do these highlight problems that need to be fixed? If so, list these areas.
  • Next, look through your diary at the situations that cause you stress. List ways in which you can change these situations for the better.
  • Finally, look at how you felt when you were under pressure, and explore how it affected your happiness and your effectiveness. Was there a middle level of pressure at which you were happiest and performed best?

Having analyzed your diary, you should fully understand what the most important and frequent sources of stress are in your life, and you should appreciate the levels of pressure at which you are happiest. You should also know the sort of situations that cause you stress, so that you can prepare for them and manage them well.

Note:
You’ll reap the real benefits of having a Stress Diary in the first few weeks that you use it. After this, you may find that you have better uses for your time.

If, however, your lifestyle changes, or you begin to suffer from stress again, then it may be worth using the diary approach one more time. You’ll probably find that the stresses you face have changed.

Next Steps

Your next step is to get your stress under control.

Start by looking at the people and events that cause the most stress for you.

Tip:
Some stresses will be unavoidable, especially if you’re in a job with lots of responsibility. Our article on Cognitive Restructuring can help you to reduce stress by changing the way that you think about things.

More Tips and Resources

  • Listen to our Expert Interview “Take the Stress Out of Your Life” with Dr. Jay Winner. He offers some great tips for eliminating stress and putting more relaxation into your day.
  • Use imagery during your day to relax and reduce stress.
  • Consider taking a vacation. Keep in mind that although the people or tasks causing your stress will still be waiting for you when you get back, a vacation can give you enough distance to relax, refresh, and come up with some effective solutions.
  • Meditation can be very effective for dealing with stress, even if you can only meditate for five minutes at a time. Our article, Meditation for Stress Management, shows you how to start using this technique.
  • Are you getting enough sleep? Most people need 7-8 hours of sleep to stay healthy and productive. A lack of sleep can definitely contribute to your stress level.
  • Do you find it difficult to “switch off” at end of the day? Learn how to relax after a hard day.
  • Our Bite-Sized Training session on Stress Busters can help you deal with stress by showing you how to relax in situations where you have no control.

Note:
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, can cause death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only. Seek the advice of a qualified health professional if you have any concerns over stress-related illnesses, or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness.

Key Points

Stress Diaries help you to get a good understanding of the routine, short-term stresses that you experience in your life. Using them, you can identify the most important, and most frequent, stresses that you experience, so that you can concentrate your efforts on these. They also help you to identify areas where you need to improve your stress management skills, and let you to understand the levels of stress at which you are happiest, and most effective.

To keep a Stress Diary, download our worksheet and make a regular diary entry, for example, every hour. Also make entries after stressful events.

Analyze the diary to identify the most frequent and most serious stresses that you experience. Use it also to identify areas where you can improve your management of stress.

The ABC Technique

Overcoming Pessimistic Thinking

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Can you learn to be optimistic?

© iStockphoto/cervo

Robyn has worked hard on a report all week. The deadline was tight, and, as she hands it over to her boss for an initial read-through, she swells with pride. She knows her boss is going to commend the quality of her work.

However, as her boss reads it, she develops a small frown. A moment later, she hands the report back to Robyn.

“I think you did a good job,” she says. “If you’ll just rework section two and add the figures I sent over last night, this will be ready to present to the board.”

Robyn heads back to her office, crushed. She worked so hard, and her boss thinks the report is lousy. She adds the new figures with a sinking heart, wondering how long it will be before she’s demoted or fired. For the rest of the day, she can’t get the image of her boss’s frown out of her mind. Her mood is down, she’s listless, and her work suffers. She even misses a sale with a key client, because she’s not on her game.

Clearly, Robyn is blowing the situation way out of proportion. With her pessimistic outlook, she has assumed the worst, and has turned a small setback into a disaster.

How about you? Are you an optimist? Or would you have reacted in the same way as Robyn?

Optimists have been proven to be happier, healthier, more productive and more successful than pessimists. The good news is that optimism is a skill – you can learn how to be more optimistic. In this article, we’ll show you how to use the ABC Technique to develop a more optimistic outlook.

 

About the Technique

This approach was originally created by psychologist, Dr. Albert Ellis. It was then adapted by Dr. Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor and past president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman’s adapted version was published in his 1990 book, “Learned Optimism.”

ABC stands for:

  • Adversity.
  • Beliefs.
  • Consequences.

In short, we encounter Adversity (or, an Activating Event, as per Ellis’s original model). How we think about this creates Beliefs. These beliefs then influence what we do next, so they become Consequences.

Here’s an example – you yell at your assistant because she forgot to print a key report before your meeting (Adversity). You then think, “I’m a really lousy boss” (Belief). You then perform poorly during your meeting, because your self confidence has plummeted (Consequences).

The key point occurs between adversity and belief. When you encounter adversity, how you tend to explain it to yourself directly impacts your mindset and your relationships. Seligman calls this your “explanatory style,” and he says that it is a habit that influences your entire outlook on life.

There are three dimensions to your explanatory style:

1. Permanence

Pessimistic people unconsciously assume that the causes of bad events are permanent, while optimists believe that bad events are temporary.

For instance, imagine you had a bad day and had no time to help a colleague who needed your expertise. A pessimist might think, “I should never be friends with anyone at work because I’m a terrible friend.” An optimist might think, “I was a terrible friend today.”

The difference is subtle, but it really matters for your outlook!

2. Pervasiveness

Pessimists make universal statements about their lives when something goes badly, while optimists make specific statements.

For instance, a pessimist might think, “All my reports are useless.” An optimist might think, “This report was useless.”

Again, the difference is subtle. Pessimists take one negative event and allow it to turn their entire work, or life, into a catastrophe. Optimists recognize that they might have failed in one area, but they don’t allow that failure to overwhelm other parts of their lives.

3. Personalization

When we experience a negative event, we have two ways to think about it. We can blame ourselves for the event (internalizing it). Or, we can blame something outside ourselves (externalizing it).

Pessimists often internalize blame. They think, “This is all my fault,” or “I’m too dumb to do this job.” Optimists have higher self-esteem because they tend to externalize blame, thinking, “This is all John’s fault,” or “I haven’t learnt enough about this skill yet; that’s why I’m not doing well at this task.”

Note:
Remember – adversity doesn’t always cause negative beliefs. This will depend on the event, and your explanatory style.

So, how can you reset your own ABC pattern?

Step 1: Track Your Inner Dialog

Begin by keeping a diary for several days. Your goal is to listen to your inner dialog, especially when you encounter a stressful or difficult situation.

For each situation, write down the adversity you experienced, the beliefs you formed after encountering the adversity, and the consequences of those beliefs.

Consequences can be anything, from happy or unhappy thoughts and feelings, to specific actions that you took. (Use our worksheet to get started.)

Example

Adversity: A colleague criticized my product idea in front of the team during our weekly meeting.

Belief: She’s right; it was a dumb idea. I don’t have much of an imagination, and now the entire team can see how uncreative I am. I should never have spoken up!

Consequences: I felt stupid and didn’t speak up for the rest of the meeting. I don’t want to attend any of the other team meetings this week, and have already made an excuse to avoid tomorrow’s meeting.

Step 2: Analyze Results

Once you’ve written down several ABC situations, take a look at what you have found.

Here, you need to look for patterns in your thinking, specifically, how any broad beliefs have led to specific consequences.

To be optimistic, you need to change your beliefs following adversity. This, in turn, leads to more positive consequences.

Step 3: Use Distraction and Disputation

As you can see, the beliefs you develop after encountering adversity play a major role in your life, and determine whether you’re an optimistic or pessimistic thinker. This makes it important to manage negative ABC patterns.

There are two ways to override these: distraction and disputation.

Distraction

If you want to interrupt your negative thoughts, you need to distract yourself. Simply telling yourself “not to think negatively” isn’t going to work: you need to interrupt the cycle.

To do this, try distracting yourself when you start creating negative beliefs.

For example, you could wear a rubber band around your wrist. After you’ve gone through a stressful situation, and when you begin to formulate negative thoughts and beliefs as a result, snap the rubber band against your skin. This physical sting will remind you to step out of the cycle of negative thinking.

Once you’ve interrupted your negative thoughts, you need to shift your attention somewhere else. Concentrate intently on something else for a minute.

Disputation

Although distraction is useful for interrupting negative thinking, a more permanent solution is to dispute them. Think of Disputation as a “D” after ABC.

To dispute your negative thoughts and beliefs, you argue with yourself rationally. In particular, you look for the mistaken assumptions about your explanatory style that we talked about earlier.

We’ll use the previous example to illustrate this technique, below.

Adversity: A colleague criticized my product idea in front of the team during our weekly meeting.

Belief: She’s right; it was a dumb idea. I don’t have much of an imagination, and now the entire team can see how uncreative I am. I should never have spoken up!

Consequences: I felt stupid and didn’t speak up for the rest of the meeting. I don’t want to attend any of the other team meetings this week, and have already made an excuse to avoid tomorrow’s meeting.

Disputation: I’m blowing this out of proportion. My colleague had every right to criticize my idea; it was nothing personal, and her critique was spot on. She even commended my creative thinking once the meeting was over. All I need to do is think my ideas through a bit better next time.

About Zahra Eghbalpoor

Zahra Eghbalpoor
Managing Member, Board of Directors

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6 comments

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    • Zahra Eghbalpoor
      Zahra Eghbalpoor

      Thank you for your attention. Please introduce yourself and your resume stating & educational level pls.
      Z.Eghbalpoor
      manager director

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