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Stress: identify it, understand it, shrink it

News & Articles 08-09-2015

“I’m so stressed!” Anyone that has worked in an office, or business of any type for that matter, will recognise this very well-used phrase. The effects of stress on the body and mind should not be underestimated on the individual, or the company.

A recent Labour Force survey found that there were 400,000 cases of stress in 2010/11 in the UK, leading to the loss of 10.8 million working days, so it is clear that nobody in business benefits from stress. Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist, Herjoyt Ubhi, from South West London & St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, working in the Wandsworth IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies) service, tells AWM how to manage stress before it manages you.

What is stress?

In a nutshell, stress and anxiety is the body and mind’s way of communicating that it is feeling overwhelmed. Prolonged and intense stress has the potential to lead to anxiety which occurs when someone overestimates the demand/ perceived ‘threat’ and underestimates their ability to cope. Stressors can include problems with work, family, finances, life events, illness, loss and sometimes even perfectionism. Usually this reaction builds up over time and those of us who are used to coping with a lot of stress and demand may not recognise what the limit is until it overflows. This is why it is important to recognise our early signs and symptoms.

What is good and bad stress?

Everyone is different and can cope with varying levels of pressure and demand. Some people even thrive on it. But anxiety is our innate system designed to keep us safe. During the primitive hunter gatherer times our bodies coped well with the dangers it faced. However, today’s stressors are somewhat different but the body can still react in the same way as it did back then which can leave people feeling demoralised, frustrated and exhausted creating a vicious cycle.

However, not all levels of stress are harmful. Athletes, for example, need a good level of stress to perform optimally. When delivering training or a presentation to potential customers the excitement and adrenalin are important to get the job done. So stress has its functions as well as its dysfunction. However, knowing the level that makes the difference between optimum performance or under performance is important – so understanding YOUR own stress levels and how it impacts your productivity and performance will help you to manage it better and use it to your advantage.

If stress is ignored it can lead to physical health problems such as headaches, backaches, sleep problems or an impaired immune system.  Links have also been found between stress and coronary heart disease. Psychologically it can potentially, although not in all cases, lead to more severe forms of anxiety, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic attacks, social anxiety or health anxiety for which professional help is advised.

How can you reduce stress?

Sometimes people turn to vices such as drink or drugs to cope with high demands. These are quick fixes but can exacerbate and maintain the stress or anxiety.

Although not exhaustive, here are some healthful tips to combat stress and anxiety:

  • The first step is recognising you are becoming stressed and taking a step back to evaluate its causes
  • Write a stress diary logging your stressors and how you actually coped and how you would prefer to cope
  • Get some distance from the problem and come back to it with a clear head – practical problem solving approaches are helpful but require you to be as composed as possible as the stress hormones can inhibit your rational and problem solving abilities
  • Enlist support from others – it can be a lonely place being the chief of your company with stress as your companion
  • It is imperative you find time to relax and unwind. The body functions on perfect physiologically balanced processes – your psychological wellbeing is no different. So balance stress with relaxation and pleasurable activities – without the guilt! Work hard and play hard
  • There are many helpful internet based resources to help with effective time management combating procrastination, helping to create healthy boundaries between work, home and leisure
  • Identify when perfectionism is helpful and when it hinders you
  • Identify what kinds of thoughts go through your mind at times of stress compared to when you are excited and driven about your work
  • Avoid swinging on the ‘past-future’ pendulum. Keep your mind on point – focus on NOW
  • Your interpretation of the situation is a key indicator of whether you become stressed or not – so start becoming aware of HOW you interpret stressful situations and try to find a more balanced perspective
  • Ask yourself – have I been in a situation like this before? What did I use to help myself then that I can use now? What did I learn from it? What’s another way of looking at this?

 

Often we can be experiencing a lot of stress and not even realise it. If you think this might be you, ask yourself:

“Am I thinking…”

I have too much work to do – I can’t cope anymore”
“I’m a professional – I should be able to handle this pressure”
“I must get this done at all costs!”
“What will others think of me if they find out I can’t cope?”

“Am I feeling…”   irritable, anxious, angry, sad or inadequate?

“Am I experiencing…”   increased heart rate and breathing, tense muscles, sweating, nausea, and blurred vision, excessive and perceived uncontrollable worry, feeling restless or on edge?

Where to get further help

If you think stress is having a detrimental impact on your life there are places to go to get help. One way to combat stress is through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a clinically proven evidence-based approach that helps people understand the intricate links between their thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physiological responses. It uses a range of techniques and strategies to help people understand and raise awareness into their own cognitive (thought) processes essentially enabling them to become their own therapist, using a very tailored and collaborative approach. It teaches skills for life to cope with stress, anxiety or depression.

To gain access to CBT you can seek private therapists online or speak to your GP if you are concerned about the above problems. In addition there are many self-help materials on the internet, but are not an alternative to individual support.  

In summary, recognise your own triggers and signs for stress, understand how your thinking and ability to cope with change affects you, and use more healthful coping strategies to reduce stress or anxiety to help you perform at your best.

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