Understanding stress & building resilience

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Modern life is increasingly more stressful, complex and demanding of one’s time.  Advances in technology over the past two decades have seen an exponential increase in general accessibility, as well as a swift rise in the frequency and volume of information sources that people are exposed to.   The implications of a 24/7 cycle leaves much less time for rest, relaxation and recovery. Although the digital age has resulted in many great advances for society, the pace of change has been so rapid that many struggle to keep up with the busyness of life and ultimately experience higher levels of personal stress than before.  It has become more difficult to step away and recharge than at any other point in history – or at least that’s what most people tell themselves.

In psychology, stress is typically defined as a perception that the demands placed upon an individual exceed their capabilities and personal resources. This is not always a bad thing – in small and infrequent doses stress can actually help one find focus, clarity and motivation for the task at hand. However in higher amounts, or over a prolonged period of time, stress has a much more detrimental impact on the quality of physical and psychological health.  When an individual experiences an event that is perceived as a threat, the “fight-or-flight” response automatically kicks into gear and prepares them for the full use of their physical resources.  It narrows their attention, increases blood flow to their muscles and suppresses their immune system – all important actions for fending off or fleeing from an attack.  While this might have enabled common ancestors to survive on the plains of the Sahara, today few face situations that actually require this level of physical response.  Yet modern stressors are processed in the same way as a real threat to survival would be, leading to the equivalent physiological response.  For example worrying about an upcoming presentation, or the difficult conversations needed with a direct report, can actually elicit the same nervous system response as that of a facing off against a saber-toothed tiger!

Left unchecked an over-active stress response can lead to major health issues, including heart disease, impaired immune function, anxiety and depression. Without the necessary release mechanisms in place, the body fails to make use of the built up hormones which impacts the ability to return to a more balanced and stable state of functioning.  This is the reason stress is widely said to be the underlying cause of the vast majority of modern health issues (up to 90% of all GP visits).

From an organisational perspective, employees (and particularly senior executives) are tasked with managing a number of additional responsibilities with the added pressure of knowing that they are constantly being judged on their performance. It is easy to see how stress can play a major role in the health, well-being and success of professionals.  Research also indicates that during periods of high stress the electrical activity in regions of the brain that are associated with logical reasoning and factual recall significantly decreases, whilst activation increases in areas associated with emotion.  What does this mean for the busy executive who is under significant pressure?

The good news is that while it may not be possible to control the hectic pace of modern world, the impact that stressful events have  can be managed and effectively controlled with the right level of understanding and focused activity. Importantly, stress is highly subjective.  While the resulting physiological processes may be the same for all people, it is the way an individual interprets and processes their experiences that actually triggers the stress response in the first place.  By learning to understand thoughts and emotions more clearly, everyone can develop an increased awareness of the role they play in overall levels of stress.  The field of Positive Psychology has had much success with interventions that have been designed to specifically help individuals build greater personal resilience and understanding so that they can cope successfully with the ups and downs of normal life.

Although the most effective way to manage individual stress is through a targeted program specific to an individual’s situation and style, below are a couple of quick tips that may be of value.

  1. Understand your triggers
    Keeping a record of situations or events that cause stress can help you recognise environmental triggers that are contributing to your experience.  This knowledge can help you better prepare for times when you will be facing these situations in the future.
  2. Watch the self-talk
    Stress is subjective and often results from what you are saying to yourself or how you judge your own performance/capability.  By learning to recognise when you are slipping into the role of “personal self-critic”, you can actively step back from the unhelpful thinking patterns and learn to adopt a more accepting and balanced perspective.
  3. Learn to meditate
    Mindfulness has been shown through countless research studies to significantly help you understand and better manage stress.  It also has many additional benefits associated with the development of a deeper appreciation of who you really are and what is most important to you.
  4. Exercise more
    Exercise is one of the most powerful ways to help the body release tension associated with stress and promote optimal health and well-being.  When you are feeling stressed, get active as soon as you can!
  5. Be playful
    Allowing time for the lighter and more enjoyable things in life helps bring greater balance and perspective to the reality of your situation.  Remember you are in control of your own choices – so make an effort to have more fun!

Please contact us if you would like to learn more about how Optim works with executives, teams and private individuals to help them build sustainable personal resilience.