By Mark Buchan
One of the major contributors to under-performance at work is stress and a person’s ability to deal with the ever-increasing levels of pressure in the work environment. This article gives an overview and clearer understanding of why people react the way they do to the pressures of work with some suggestions of how to deal with it.
Understanding our response to stress
I’d like you for a moment to imagine your distant ancestors Mr and Mrs Cave Dweller. Their working day was very different to yours. Mr Cave Dweller literally put himself in mortal danger once in a while by going out hunting and that was his equivalent of a day at work. His environment was also one where dangers lay hidden and would occasionally pose a threat to him and his family’s existence. When threatened he and his family had the physiological equipment, their gift from nature, to help them escape these hazards: flight or flight.
Fight or Flight
When presented with danger his body’s automatic responses would be activated through the chemical reactions of the brain; his muscles would become tense, his heart rate and blood pressure would increase. The size of the arteries near the skin were reduced and adrenalin was pumped into the bloodstream to aid the blood clotting process so as to minimise the effect of any wound that he sustained. Blood and oxygen are channelled away from less important tasks such as digestion to where they were needed most such as the arms and legs. Waste products were also eliminated (giving us the popular expression “he sh** himself”!) to make him lighter. All of these physiological changes took place in less than a few seconds and he was now ready to deal with the danger. After the danger was dealt with, the body would revert back to its normal or steady state and would recover. This recovery was accelerated by the natural healing process of resting and sleeping.
Two types of anxiety
So let’s fast forward now to the modern age. The sources of our stress have changed dramatically, but our responses to our new “threats” remain the same. Psychologists refer to our natural collective responses to threats as anxiety.
Psychoanalytic theory has identified two types of anxiety namely objective and neurotic anxiety. The objective type is where the source of the anxiety is outside of the individual whereas neurotic anxiety is where the source is within the individual. Our ancient ancestors would have had much opportunity for respite from their anxiety such as being eaten, climbing a tree or hiding in a cave and these are all valid responses to external threats, well except the being eaten bit. What makes the plight of the modern individual different to their forebears is that there is little or no respite from the source of the anxiety especially when the anxiety is of the neurotic type. This results in our bodies having precious little time for the important process of recovery or healing.
The imagined threat
Modern man and woman have adapted their thinking processes to such an extent that what we now consider dangerous would not have troubled our distant relatives. Can you imagine Mr Dweller’s physiology and action responses being triggered by a Gantt chart? We have refined ourselves to imagine all sorts of disasters which result in creating uncomfortable anxious states. The threat may be imagined but the responses described at the start of this article are not. Because our minds do not know the difference between a real or an imagined thought our physiology automatically responds to what our mind imagines to be a threat. The result of this is that our bodies are being triggered for fight or flight for some people almost on a continual basis. When are bodies are this stressed it is hard for us to then get the sleep that we need to help us recover. Subjecting our bodies to continual stress and anxiety also has longer term effects on our health resulting in a large and varied number of modern health issues that probably didn’t exist for Mr and Mrs Dweller, such as increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive disorders and sleep disorders to name a few.
So is there any solution or relief from the almost continual stress or anxiety that we face? Fortunately yes there is. Personally I have found great relief for my patterns of anxiety by working on my thinking. When I began to understand that my own thought processes were a major contributor to my anxiety (the neurotic type in particular) I realised that I could change my thinking and thus change my responses. I sought out the help of therapist to help me, in particular the area of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) was of great assistance to me in this process. Other things that have been useful to me have been hypnosis and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming). One thing that particularly has helped my wife is meditation and mindfulness so these areas are also definitely worth a look if you are seeking relief from your own patterns of stress.
About The Author
Mark is an independent change management consultant who specialises in change at both the organisational and personal levels. To learn more about Mark and his experience click on any of the links below.