In our high-paced and multitasking lives, we all hear the exclamation : “I’m so stressed out!” many times every day either from ourselves or from other people. We tend to use the word “stress” as a catch-all notion for anxiety, frustration, agitation or nervous tension that we feel when we’re stuck in traffic, have pressing deadlines to meet, when we’re confronted with difficult people or simply have too many things to do.
However, the emotions we feel in these situations are often closer to frustration, indignance, anger or worry than stress, which is a particular physical, mental and emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.
It’s important to be able to understand what exactly stress is. Labelling our responses to every challenging situation as stress is counterproductive as we define stress as an integral part of our work and life.
The word “stress” was invented in 1936 by Hans Selye, the pioneering Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist, to explain the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change. As we all know, stress can also be positive, motivating us to meet our deadlines and perform. However, the topic I’m interested in exploring is how to manage profound stress, that is intense or overwhelming stress that is persistent and involves strain at a mental, emotional and physical level.
Examples of profound stress
Being on a transatlantic flight for someone who has a phobia of flying is going to provoke profound stress. This is a demanding situation for the person as they don’t see a way out. Tfly11hey can’t just get off the plane or, unless they are a trained pilot, can’t start flying the plane themselves. The stress is persistent as it lasts the entire flight and is all-encompassing : it is mental (they are imagining worst-case scenarios, turbulence is interpreted as engine failure, every person who is behaving in a slightly eccentric way is a potential terrorist), emotional as this provokes deep emotions in them (“I’m going to die, I’ll never see my children again… they’ll be orphans”) and often physical, (heart palpitations, chest pains). This is a profoundly stressful situation and only stops when the plane lands.
A situation that I often see in coaching is people who experience profound stress in their work, which is usually linked to either :
- Being in a situation or context you don’t want to be in and you don’t know how to change it or don’t see a way out ; or
- Being in a situation or context you want to be in but feeling out of control because the demands faced exceed the resources you are able to mobilise.
To manage such stress, which can be debilitating as it makes you feel out of control (not knowing how to change the situation), trapped (feeling you have no options) or a victim (it’s other people’s fault that you’re in such a situation), the first step is to identify what precisely is the stressor, or the source of the stress.
Identify the stressor/s in your current situation
What is it about the “here” that is making you feel as though you want to be “there”? You have to start with the reality of your situation rather than thinking: “What is it about the there that attracts me”? Looking in an objective and honest way at the actual context and your place in it is the first step to correctly identify the source of stress and avoid cognitive distortions.
What does it mean, to look at your actual context and place in it? To look at your actual context means looking at each of the following :
- The environment you’re in,
- Your behaviour,
- Your capacities and resources,
- Your feelings about what is important to you and your needs, and
- Your beliefs (beliefs that are constructive and beliefs that hold you back).
Once you’ve identified all this clearly, you can see where you are not aligned and what in particular is provoking the stress. At what level is the stress being induced? Is it because you’re stuck doing a job that you don’t like (environment), or in an organisational culture that is too stressful for your personality (your capacities to function in this culture are stretched) or is it just that you believe you should have been raised by now an feel enormous stress that you haven’t (it’s important for you to have a raise). Identifying the stressor/s is essential to be able to separate the real stressor/s from your stress-inducing feelings, thoughts and behaviours and develop strategies to deal with it.