Author: Todd Pernicek, HR Manager
Stress is something everyone experiences in daily life. People in the workplace can be expected to experience some sort of stressor at least once daily. When most people think about stress or experience it, they automatically view it as a negative.
How Much Stress is Normal?
Stress can be a good thing in our lives. Certain types of normal stress—expectations, deadlines, pressure, schedules—can be motivating and helpful. People need healthy forms of pressure to be successful, motivated, and challenged with new endeavors. Moderate amounts of stress are natural and not necessarily correlated with negative outcomes. Knowing stress can be positive sets a different perspective on what stress is and how it can affect us.
Emotional Responses to Stress
Everyone experiences stress and pressure differently. Some retreat within themselves and internalize stress, which can lead to an inability to focus, or even feelings of depression. Others may respond more externally to stress with agitation or strong, outwardly emotional reactions.
Stress can become harmful when people:
- overact to stressful situations
- experience chronic stress
- fail to recognize stress for what it is
- manage stress in unhealthy and unhelpful ways
We must be self-aware of our own stress responses and then take action to minimize the impacts. Having a basic understanding of how stress works and influences our lives is the foundation to making action plans to addressing personalized stress responses.
Physical Responses to Stress
Natural responses to stress are a result of built-in bodily evolutionary protective systems. This is the fight-or-flight response. When we perceive a threat, our brains spring into action giving us a shot of cortisol—the stress hormone—along with adrenaline and other hormones. This surge of hormones primes the body to protect itself through elevating blood pressure, increasing heart rate and other biological responses important for protection and survival.
This biologically hard-wired reaction to stressful situations is helpful and important as long as the perceived threat is real. However, if we are having stress responses to threats that, while important, are not truly life-threatening – like looming deadlines, pressures in the workplace, or team conflicts – the brain response may not be as beneficial. This is when stress becomes a serious problem, because it can have significant lasting and damaging effects on our physical and mental health.
Minimizing Effects of Stress
People can minimize the effects of stress in many ways. Regular exercise, meditation, or mindfulness is recommended. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is equally important. Getting the right amount of sleep every night can also help with daytime stress.
Finally, people can positively reduce stress responses through self-questioning. When you find yourself having stressful thoughts or emotional reactions, you can circumvent or minimize the stress with great self-regulating questions:
- What are you already doing well?
- Are you allowing other people to support you?
- What really matters in this situation?
- What might we/you do to arrive at the best outcome?
- If you solve this problem, how will it contribute to you or your team?
In the moment, when you feel yourself becoming stressed, make a conscious effort to acknowledge what is happening. Stop, take a few deep breaths, and ask one or more of the above questions to reset and re-center yourself. Cy Wakeman, a well-known author, speaker, and workplace drama researcher frequently challenges people by saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
If you are interested in learning more, check out Cy Wakeman’s TEDx Talk.