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    Albert H. Smith, PH.D., CEAP

  Stressed Man
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What is Stress?

Stress in humans has a very definite biological basis that goes far back in our history.  Whenever we feel threatened our bodies automatically gear up to run away or fight.  This is because most threats to primitive humans were things that called for physical responses:  threats from animals, threats from other tribes, etc. Our bodies have built into them the “fight or flight” response. 
In today’s world, and especially in the work place, most threats aren’t physical ones like our primitive ancestors faced, but they are very real.  So real, in fact, that our bodies don’t seem to know the difference.  For example if you boss yells at you or your department at work gets reorganized or you are transferred to another section you feel threatened.  There’s no physical threat, but you know good and well that the danger to your well being, self esteem and possibly even you ability to earn a living is very real. You may want to run out of the boss’s office, or pick up the paperweight on her desk and throw it, but you probably don’t.  You can’t take physical action, so the physical tension has nowhere to go.
All the while your body is reacting just like it was being physically attacked.  Your muscles get tight so you could run or fight if you needed to.  Your senses become alert so you could see a danger coming, your digestion gets interrupted because your body diverts blood away from that process to the skeletal muscles, so you could fight or run.  Your blood pressure goes up to make sure those muscles get a good supply of blood.  Your breathing gets shallow and rapid insuring a good supply of oxygen to the muscles for the fight or flight response, and many other things occur.  In fact most of the symptoms of chronic stress (high blood pressure, digestive problems, headaches, back aches, nervousness or hyper-vigilance) can be tied to our body’s fight or flight response.  Chronic stress also lowers our immune response and it has been proven that we get sicker more often when we are under stress.
Be alert to the physical signs of stress.  When you are driving along are you gripping the steering wheel to tight?  Are you having headaches, back aches?  Are you sensitive to noise or do you startle easily?  Are you having digestive problems?  Are you having sleep problems?  Are you drinking too much?  Are you irritable and angry much of the time?  All of these things can be early warnings that you need to take steps to reduce the pressure or stress in your life.
Stress at work is becoming one of the major causes of worker disability.  Studies show that up to 40% or worker turnover is due to job stress.  Job stress is estimated to cost American industry 200 to 300 billion dollars annually.  The cost to a company to replace one employee who left or became unable to work because of stress or any other reason can be up to twice that worker’s salary.  It makes sense to keep people on the job and in many cases that means reducing job stress.

The emotional effects of stress:

When human’s feel threatened stress results.  When we feel threatened, we automatically feel the need to run away or fight.  There are obvious feelings that go with these automatic urges.  Threat causes us to feel fear.  Fear is not cowardice; it is a natural, unavoidable reaction to any threatening situation.   We may call it nerves, “butterflies in my stomach” anxiety, tension, or any number of other names, but it all falls under the umbrella of fear.  Fear would have been useful for a primitive human who was threatened, because it would have motivated him to run away from the danger even faster.
If that same primitive human decided to fight instead of run, however, the natural feeling he or she would have had would have been anger.  If someone is mad he or she will fight stronger and better.  Fear comes first when we are threatened, then anger comes.  If someone is angry, it is usually safe to assume that they are also afraid of something.  Again this is not a sign of cowardice or weakness; it is an automatic reaction to sensing a threat.
Anger that goes unresolved becomes depression.  People who complain of feeling burned out or who simply can’t stand the thought of getting up in the morning and doing what they need to do that day are often feeling the cumulative effects of fear, anger and depression resulting from chronic stress and chronic threats to their well being.

Symptoms of stress are a warning sign that something needs to change.

Sometimes very simple changes can improve a stressful situation.  A clean organized work area goes a long way to make a job tolerable.  Reducing noise, interruptions or clutter can help.  These are small things and they won’t totally fix a problem, but maybe a 10 or 20 percent change in your level of stress can make a worthwhile difference.
The kind of conversations and interactions we engage in with others can significantly contribute to our feeling of stress and discomfort, especially at work.  Make an effort to keep conversations on more of a positive note.  Don’t pass on negative rumors.  Never talk badly about someone behind their back.  Don’t automatically assume malice in the actions of others.  Say things that show your appreciation of others, especially those you supervise.  Keep promises to others, do what you said you’d do, when you said you’d do it.  A work environment where everyone makes an effort to do these things is much easier to get up and go to in the morning.
Sometimes our stress comes from a particular person.  Most of us are reluctant to approach someone who causes us stress however; because we unconsciously know how angry we are with that person and fear that we’ll lose our temper.  However, confronting someone who causes problems for us does not have to be hostile.  It is not necessary to humiliate the other person, to back him or her into a corner and make them admit they were wrong:  it is only necessary to get them to change the problematic behavior.  Phrases like, “We need to talk, is now a good time?” or “You may not be aware of it, but you’ve been doing something that causes a problem for me . . .” can be very useful.  Avoid accusations or finger pointing.  Approach the situation expecting only the minimal change on the other person’s part that will help your problem.  No one has to be the winner or loser, it is only necessary that the problem situation changes.

The Value of Relaxation:

When we are under stress, our bodies react in automatic, predictable ways.  Muscle tension, increased heart rate and blood pressure, shallow rapid breathing, interrupted digestion are all signs of stress.  Our brains use these physical conditions in the body to confirm that something is wrong.  We sense a threatening situation, our bodies react, our brains note the reaction and a vicious circle develops that increases our level of discomfort, worry and tension. 
A direct and easy place to interrupt the cycle is to directly relax our bodies.  The easiest, quickest and least noticeable thing to do at work is take a few deep breaths.  Stop what you are doing.  Notice how tense you are and begin to breathe deeply and slowly.  No one will know you are doing it, you won’t look silly, but your level of tension and stress will go down a little.  Your rate of breathing can set the pace for your whole body.  If you slow that down, you slow other things down too.  It also helps to take a kind of “inventory” of you bodily stress reactions.  Are your muscles tight, do you feel a headache?  Is your stomach upset? Are you hands or feet cold?  It is possible to take some control over these reactions and consciously relax.  Go through areas of the body one at a time and deliberately relax the muscle groups.  End with deep and easy breathing.  You can do this in 5 or 10 minutes sitting in a chair.

Getting Help:

Finally, if stress is a genuine problem for you and you can’t seem to get control of it by yourself, ask for help.

Five Ways to Reduce Stress: Just remember the word S.T.A.I.R
S tair The stressful situation itself. Can you take action and change something in the situation that is causing you problems?
s T air Your own thinking about the situation. What are you telling yourself that is keeping you worked up?
st A ir Change another person. Would it help to talk to the other person who is causing you to feel stressed?
sta I r Reduce the physical impact of the stress. Is there something you can do to reduce the impact of the stress on you?
stai R Your role in creating the problem. What is your role in keeping the stressful situation alive?