A Strategy to Slim Stress and Cope Better
Posted on 29th August 2020 at 13:24
I was wearing two forensic suits and alone in a laboratory in Oxford. I knew if I made one wrong move, over £16,000 worth of equipment and materials would be lost. Over twenty-five years ago, I was part of a development team, working on new medicines. The project involved critical steps that required the use of practices and procedures to prevent contamination and minimize infection (aseptic technique). I performed the lab steps methodically and slowly. I was NOT stressed. I had the ability and resources (inside and out) to cope with the work demands placed on me. I was subject to positive pressure but not stress.
Lazarus and Folkman, use the term eustress to describe short-term stress that is perceived as being within our coping abilities, helps us to focus, improves performance and results in greater fulfilment and other good feelings. The pressure I faced in the laboratory was positive, motivating and essential in my job. It helped me achieve work goals and perform better.
We often use the term "stress" to describe negative situations. HSE's formal definition of work-related stress is: ‘The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work’. Distress or negative stress, is perceived as being outside our coping abilities. Lazarus defines stress as ‘a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that the demands placed on them exceed the resources the individual has available’. Stress is not an illness, it is a state and a natural reaction to too much pressure. Stress can be short term or long-term and cause anxiety or concern. It feels unpleasant and decreases performance and if experienced frequently or chronically can lead to physical and mental problems. Stress can also result, when there is no pressure or incentive to fulfil a task leading to low motivation and poor performance. Bored workers and undervalued employees can face stress. Stress is known to be linked with high levels of sickness absence, staff turnover and other issues such as more errors and poor job satisfaction. Presenteeism occurs when employees come to work but function at less than full capacity because of stress or ill health and this causes a reduction in productivity.
Stressors trigger stress. Lazarus & Cohen describe stressors as ‘demands made by the internal or external environment that upset balance, thus affecting physical and psychological well-being and requiring action to restore balance’. The body responds to stressors differently depending on whether the stressor is new or short term (acute stress), or whether the stressor has been around for a longer time (chronic stress). Individuals have different reactions to particular situations and we have varying tolerance levels to stressors. Effective stress management starts with identifying sources of stress and developing strategies to manage them.
Some stressors are events that happen to you while others seem to originate from within. Much of our stress response is self-induced and caused by feelings and thoughts that pop into the head and lead to unrest are known as internal stressors. How an individual appraises a stressor determines how he or she copes with or responds to the stressor. Lazarus studied people's stress levels and said that events are not good or bad, but the way we think about them is positive or negative and therefore has an impact on our stress levels. For example, an individual is late for work and is in slow traffic. Slow traffic is not in itself a good or bad thing but a belief that it's a negative experience because it's going to make the individual late to work, leads to a feeling of pressure and a sense of negative stress.
Lazarus states ‘the interpretation of stressful events is more important than the events themselves.’ Appraisals (i.e., our evaluations, interpretations, and explanations) of events, lead to different specific reactions in different people. Lazarus's ‘Theory of Cognitive Appraisal includes primary, secondary and reappraisal components. In the primary appraisal, we decide if a situation is threatening or positive, relevant or irrelevant to our situation. We evaluate: 1. Is the threat significant to that person, 2. Is it a positive encounter, 3. Is it threatening/harmful/challenging. In the slow traffic scenario, an individual decides that the situation is threatening the following may occur: anger, disappointment, worry, anxiety and a fear response. The theory states that before a feeling of stress, individuals first appraise the situation. Your primary appraisal answers the questions: 'What does this situation mean?' and 'How can it affect me?' If you're waiting in traffic, it means that you will be extra late to work and perhaps your manager will notice you arriving late. In the secondary appraisal, we assess what resources are available to us to help combat or cope with the stressor. An individual may choose to use internal options such as will-power, inner strength, or external options such as professional help. In our late to work example, the individual mindset may move to accepting that they will be extra late but they see it as good thing as it gives extra time to catch their thoughts before going into the office. The process of reappraisal is ongoing and involves continually reappraising both the nature of the stressor and the resources available for responding to the stressor. Stress is likely to result if a stressor is perceived as threatening and few or no effective coping options are available. Seeing the situation as a positive experience reduces or eliminates the feeling of stress.
The good news is that the act or process of developing an opinion, judgment, or assessment of the value of an event (appraisal) can reduce excessive pressure. Negative stress can be managed through an awareness of internal stressors and by reframing your thoughts and choosing a positive mindset.
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