Let’s put in a good word for stress. Climbing mountains is stressful, but you’d be struggling to talk some people out of it. It’s stressful competing in tennis or chess. Even watching your local football team in action can be very stressful. Imagine how dull life would be without it.
Believe it or not, it’s usually not reactions to crises that make people ill, but hassles, frustrations and the daily grind. You’d expect police officers to be stressed and they are, but a study of police officers in a tough part of Florida found that they were much more stressed by daily paperwork, irritations with the media and the slow pace of the justice system than the possibility of a shoot-out or intervening in domestic battles night after night.
The evidence suggests that our bodies cope with the big problems well, but constant worries about teenagers, annoying neighbours, and ‘leave your brain at the door’ jobs damage our immune systems. Developing our resilience to stress makes us not only more productive, but healthier too.
You and I might react very differently to a traffic jam. Is it a problem or an opportunity? It could be stressful or an opportunity for some quiet contemplation. A power cut could be irritating or provoke us to anger or worry. It could also be a great opportunity to get the candles out and for the whole family to tell stories the way we used to.
What we tell ourselves about a situation governs our reaction to potentially stressful situations. Researchers have shown that people who worry or are pessimistic carry those traits into their assessment of new situations. They are more likely to interpret ambiguous information as threatening and believe there is a greater threat than there is – even for relatively routine problems. It’s important to focus on ways of reducing stress in potentially stressful situations, but for many people it’s the initial appraisal that provides the key to reducing stress. When our brain, in its constant appraisal of new events, asks, ‘Is this event a threat?’ we can choose to say 'No, just a challenge'.
If you sense that you are a perfectionist, try to focus on doing your current best rather than being perfect. Think of it this way: striving to be perfect is not the perfect way to get the best from your talents. It will lead you into stress and decrease your performance. If being less than perfect really worries you, think of perfection as a life-time goal, not something you have to achieve for this particular exam, presentation or game. Do your best today and be content with that. Develop your skills and do your best next time.
When you are stressed it’s too easy to exaggerate setbacks and it’s no help to have you playing the role of antagonist against yourself. Keep reminding yourself that setbacks are opportunities to learn and steps on the way to success. Ask some sceptical questions about the cause of your stress. 'What’s the worst that could happen? Is that really likely? What plans can I make if the more likely worst-case scenario does happen?'
You could also create a vivid image of yourself as calm, relaxed and in complete control - then act the part. Eventually, your body will believe it. Perhaps more important, in the meantime, you might have made some progress on finding a solution to your crisis. If you are a leader, you’ll have to pretend anyway as part of your obligation to everyone else. Embellish your pretence. Show off a bit. Use it as a chance to show how cool you can be when things get hot. It’s a choice, after all. If you can combine the pretence with a clear plan and a few early successes as you put it into action, you’ll begin to feel less stressed quite quickly.
As you’d expect, many counsellors and therapists advocate deep breathing and other forms of relaxation. They also suggest keeping healthy with regular exercise, a balanced diet, not skipping meals. It's important to talk to supportive friends and family members about your how you are feeling, but it's not helpful to ruminate - to go over and over the causes of you worries. Find interesting and absorbing hobbies to give you some balance to stressful situations at home or at work.
Suzanne Kobasa has studied people who handle stressful situations well and uses the term ‘hardiness’ to describe their strengths. She and her research colleagues found that stress-hardy people show three characteristics: the three Cs of hardiness – control, commitment and challenge. The three Cs give us a coordinated strategy for handling stress and disruptive emotions using many of the most effective coping strategies we’ve seen so far in this chapter.
Control means facing reality and taking charge of the stressful situation. Hardy people believe they can choose how they handle situations, and do. They see stressful situations in context, so they make sure they know why the threats are happening and how serious those threats really are. They also have a range of coping skills.
Let’s take an example of control in action. Say you develop a life-threatening illness. You decide to reduce your workload and take more exercise (so you are making choices). You know that the survival rate for that illness gives you a good chance of living a normal life (seeing a context for the stress) and whenever you feel stressed you find ways of relaxing and keep reminding yourself of your odds of survival (using your coping skills).
Commitment means being committed to goals and to relationships with family, friends and colleagues. People who make those commitments have a sense of purpose and they know they can call on their relationships in times of stress. Let’s say that you are the coach of your sports team and the results for the first few games are so bad that there’s talk of you being replaced mid-season. You remain committed to your team winning the national championships and exude confidence with the players and the supporters (committed to goals). You also make sure that you don’t compromise ‘family time’ (committed to relationships) and draw on the support of your partner, particularly after the team loses another game (calling on relationships).
Challenge means feeling challenged by stressful situations. Perhaps your business is under attack from a large rival that has just moved into the market and is beginning to head-hunt your most valuable staff. You decide that you’re going to enjoy the battle with your rival (feeling challenged). You remember how the last couple of times competitors threatened the firm, you made some very worthwhile changes and ended up with a much stronger, more efficient organization (seeing stress as more an opportunity than a threat).
Interested in an in-house workshop on resilience?
Grier, Kenneth. (1982) A study of job stress in police officers and high school teachers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of South Florida, Tampa. Reported in Psychology, Carole Wade and Carol Tavris pp540
Joseph Oliver & Paula Brough, Cognitive appraisal negative affectivity and psychological well-being, New Zealand Journal of Psychology, June 2002, vol. 31, no. 1, pp2-7
Suzanne. C. Kobasa, Salvatore Maddi & Stephen Kahn, 'Hardiness and health: a prospective study', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (1982) vol.42, pp168-177