21st February 2014

Four actions that managers and leaders need to take to reduce growing pressure

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18th February 2014

From catastrophe to success

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  • Personal resilience and emotional intelligence – is there a link?

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  • When will organisations really take stress seriously?

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  • Manage stress and mental health to improve performance

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What is stress?

“Stress” originates from the Latin word “stringere” which means to compress or to draw tight. This would be a good description of how some people experience stress – tight, over-stretched, strung-out or compressed.

The International Stress Management Association (ISMA) consider stress as the state where:

People have an adverse reaction to excessive pressures or other types of demand, where these exceed the person’s ability to cope. Prolonged exposure to this may result in unhealthy physical, emotional, mental and behavioural symptoms.

Stress comes from a response to pressure. We have to remember one person’s idea of a pressure might be another person’s motivator! Also, most of us need some level of pressure in order to maximise our performance or effectiveness, as shown below:

Stress curve

What is often overlooked is that a lack of pressure can also lead to problems – where people become bored, disinterested and feel a lack of challenge or worth. Unfortunately, this can become a habit and any requirement to shift from this can lead to a stress response because people feel as though they cannot cope. A pattern or worsening condition follows, as people begin to suffer from real stress as they are operating in the “burn out” area for too long.

Reactions and responses

Stress is most visible as a physiological reaction where the brain triggers a variety of over 1,000 responses to help protect us. It also involves emotional responses. An initial surge of various chemicals, including adrenaline, are released to heighten our senses and to move us into “fight of flight” mode. Our heart rate increases, eyes dilate, muscles tense – ready to run from the stress or to confront it. Although most of us are not at risk from woolly mammoths any longer, we do have pressure from a variety of sources and our basic response is still the same. We might stay in this state until the source of the stress has gone away, whatever direction we took! There is a third option which some people take and that is “freeze”. They can recognise the symptoms and feel agitated but are unable to respond.

This is the first stage of what the medical world call the General Adaptation Syndrome, or GAS. The second stage occurs if the cause is not removed, and involves resistance or adaptation. The body aims to provide long-term protection and more hormones are produced, increasing blood sugar levels to sustain energy, and raising blood pressure. If this phase continues the symptoms of “burnout” begin to show – and take over. This stage is identifiable through excessive fatigue, concentration lapses, irritability, and loss of appetite amongst a raft of other symptoms.

The third stage of GAS is exhaustion. In this state, the body has run out of its reserves of energy and immunity is compromised. What follows is “adrenal exhaustion” and decreased blood sugar levels, leading to reduced pressure tolerance, progressive mental and physical exhaustion, illness and collapse. The consequences of this are likely to be onset of chronic illness.

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