Stress may be an inevitable part of life. But how we recognise and respond to it can differ immensely from person to person.
Pressures will occur for all sorts of reasons; perhaps it is a sudden spike in workload or an accumulation of demands in our professional or personal lives, or it may be that the pressure has been ongoing for some time without the necessary downtime to recuperate, leading to a feeling of running on empty. When pressure persists, stress can creep in, and when that goes unchecked the problems begin.
This is a problem that is on the rise in the UK. According to the Health and Safety Executive, there were 526,000 UK workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17, up from 480,000 people the year before.
Many employees are reluctant to talk about stress at work, believing they will be seen as weak if they admit to it. Instead, they find their own means of coping, which may be healthy and sustainable or they may deploy short-term fixes which ultimately create longer term problems. For example, drinking alcohol to de-stress may appear to be effective in the moment, but can have serious repercussions as a long-term coping strategy.
Everyone is different and responds to pressure in their own way. Some can deal with a lot of pressure and others cannot, and this changes for each of us depending on what else is going on in our lives. Similarly, we all cope in a manner that is specific to us.
Less resilient people tend to use emotion-focused mechanisms to manage stress, such as comfort eating. Some behaviours might also include avoidance or delay tactics such as procrastinating, and ruminating on the negative aspects of a situation.
Resilient people, however, know they have a choice in how they respond and are much more likely to be proactive in managing stress in a healthy way. Research has found that resilient individuals recognise what causes them stress and they take steps every day to keep it under control. They also understand that sometimes it will get the better of them and a stress reaction is triggered, as this article from Harvard Business Review explains.
Spotting The Signs
Stress can be insidious and individuals may only become aware of it when it is causing them problems. The most resilient people have identified their own personal markers for when stress is creeping up, enabling them to take action quickly. We asked our team of consultants, coaches and trainers to share how they know when they’re starting to experience stress and what they do about it.
Our Head of Client Delivery, Desiree Ashton, says that, for her, physical traits are a tell-tale sign that stress is on the rise: ‘My voice changes – the tone and pace is higher and faster than normal. And my face and neck will become flushed with my Scottish complexion giving me away every time.’
As soon as she spots it, she resets in the moment by taking an immediate short break. Real-time-resets that work for her include running her hands and wrists under cold water or stepping outside to take a few deep breaths. In the throes of a busy day, she’s found that knowing her ‘real-time-resets’ can work wonders to get the day back on track.
‘I’ll also touch up my makeup. This has less to do with appearance, and a lot more to do with taking time out to focus on something which is very different to the actual situation I’m dealing with. These few minutes of quiet calm provide an invaluable window for my emotions and thoughts to ‘recalibrate’. It’s a moment of individual self-care for me that can help me re-centre and feel ready to take on the world again,’ says Desiree.
Stress also manifests itself in a physical way for Helen Beckingham, one of our trainers.
‘Signs for me are, without doubt, waking between 3-5am and having difficulty returning to sleep. It also affects my digestive system,’ she says.
Helen Brown, another trainer, knows that her particular markers are being very tired or busy and she is aware that in these circumstances there is a danger of passing her stress threshold. When she reaches it, Helen’s stress manifests through her behaviours and thoughts.
‘I move quicker, talk shorter and nag more! I’ll have a sense of being out of sorts and I’m less tolerant of things,’ explains Helen. ‘I’ll also feel that I have too many things to think about.’
To combat stress in the moment, Helen favours the STOP technique:
- Stop what you’re doing
- Take a breath
- Observe what’s happening, to you and your feelings, the situation and the other person
- Proceed by planning the most effective way forward
Rod Yapp finds that regular journaling is an effective way of managing stress: ‘It seems to release the issue from your head preventing this “washing machine of thoughts” going around and around. Once you get your concerns on paper and then ask yourself, “How much would I care about this if one of my children was ill?” or “How does this problem compare to those facing a Syrian refugee”, it gives you a strong sense of perspective.’
A loss of perspective can be a sign of stress and taking steps to regain it can be very powerful. Gemma Walton, our Project Manager, says that she asks herself a series of questions about what is making her stressed. This helps to get her problems into perspective.
‘One of my techniques is rating my stressors honestly on a scale of 1 – 10, where 10 is death. I find that things rank much lower than I’d imagined when I do this,’ she says.
Gemma also suggests that a helpful way to feel back in control when stress has crept in is to write worries on a piece of paper then screw it up and throw it in the bin.
‘Binning that piece of paper is cathartic because it feels like the stress has gone into the bin with it,’ she explains.
For other ways of keeping stress in check, take a look at the NHS’s top stress busters. All of them have their foundations in building emotional strength and being in control of how you respond to any situation. Our examples from within the team demonstrate that each person will have their own markers that indicate stress is rising as well as their own very individual means of getting it back under control.
The trick is finding yours.
Our 5 Pillars Of Resilience Masterclass in June offers individuals the opportunity to identify healthy coping strategies and build greater resilience. To find out more, please see our open course page.