Despite decades of study, stress remains one of the least understood phenomenona of our time. Yet there can be few of us who have not at some time felt our hearts racing, our palms sweating, our breath shortening, our chest tightening.
Stress is synonymous with life. These symptoms all show that our survival mechanisms are in working order. They have been among our responses to our environment since the dawn of time. We may argue whether very simple organisms such as an amoeba displays stressed behaviour if you put it in a hostile environment.
If stress is natural, what is it about our environment that aggravates our response to it? We've all read of the different personality types A, B, and C. To my mind there is little doubt that some people deliberately create stressful situations. There's even a bumper sticker that highlights this - I don't suffer from stress - I, CAUSE it! For such people, stress is a badge of honour, a bragging point so they can say to their friends (or, preferably, their friends can say) "My but you're under a lot of pressure - I don't know how you cope."
This type of behaviour, as most, has to do with the way people see themselves and the world. In Western societies, most of us are brought up to respect high achievers, high earners and to want similar things for ourselves. Very few of us stop to ask if we are capable of doing it, whether we have the right training, the right environment, or the right temperament. Not doing this can cause a gap to open between our expectations and our realities. It is into this gap that so many of us fall.
Let me say at once that nothing happens if we cannot imagine a future that is different to the present. As John F Kennedy once said "Some men see things as they are and ask why. I see things that have not been, and ask why not?"
Every sports coach knows the value of visualisation in preparing an athlete for a superior performance. An athlete trains to develop strength, flexibility, stamina and muscle memory. He or she also trains to synchronise the mental attitude with the physical experience of the action.
Before the jump, the dive, the swim, the run, the athlete rehearses it time and time again, experiencing it first in the imagination so the body follows a known, familiar path in reality. When the two are harmonised, things often come easy to the athlete, and the records fall.
Now, when items are not in synch, when our expectations are at odds with our performance, stress happens. But, let's face it, we often try to hide an inadequate performance behind layers of busywork, pointless activities that take up time but achieve little or nothing. This makes it easy to blame our below par performance on the stress of having to do too much at once.
Left unattended this type of behaviour can have serious negative effects. If we often miss the goals we set ourselves we undermine our self-confidence. We feel somehow less as people, less worthy, less in the eyes of our bosses and in our own eyes. This can become a vicious circle; the less we think we achieve, the more we are driven to do things that guarantee that we can't succeed. Anyone who has experience with alcoholics or drug abusers knows how often they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It is as if something in them just won't let them win.
Before we leave this, let me acknowledge there are situations that are in themselves deeply stressful. Any time we put ourselves in physical danger we suffer major stress. That is good and healthy. But there is no let-up that continuous adrenaline rush plays havoc with our bodies and our minds.
We are starting to understand the causes and effects of deep, prolonged stress. They are not pretty - the thousand yard stares of some bush war veterans, the uncontrollable sobbing of accident victims, the obsessional bathing of rape victims. Our police in particular have dangerous jobs, and precious little public recognition or financial reward for their good work. As the figures show, prolonged stress is a prime cause of resignations and of medical treatment of police.
But there are other stresses in our society. We have the racial issue, we have criminal violence, we have a new political order, we have higher levels of uncertainty, we have rapid technological change that is leading to new patterns of work, new competitors, new customers, new skills. We must learn and all of it quickly, quickly, quickly.
cope with it all? Probably the first and most important thing is to narrow the gap between
your expectations and your performance. Like the athlete, unless you are in peak condition
and well-trained in your discipline, you are unlikely to produce world-beating
performance. So, don't try to do it all and acknowledge that fact to yourself. Even the
best all-rounder, such as decathlon specialist Daley Thompson, get thrashed by the
specialists in each event. Yet none can do all that he does as well as him (or want to).
Identifying your real goals is key to limiting your stress horizon. The next step is to break down progress into doable steps. Yes, we know you can't cross a canyon in two jumps, but there may be other ways to get to the other side. Look for them if you are not into long-jumping.
You are probably going to be less stressed if you make a living doing something you enjoy. Some say the surest way to ruin a hobby is to try to turn it into a job, and that's probably fair comment. The point is that hobbies should be hobbies and jobs should be jobs. Your approach to the task will be governed by your view of it. If it's work, the standard is to deliver what the customer wants. If it's recreation, the standard is what pleases you. Try not to confuse them.
You may argue that you can't quit your present (hated) job because of your financial and or family commitments. In which case, you really need to sort your needs from your wants. All of us have some areas of insanity where we can't spend enough - plants, gadgets, wonderful underwear, whatever, that doesn't change the fact that most of us want a hell of a lot more than we really need.
Think of it this way. A career has three ingredients. One is that you absolutely love what you do. There should be almost nothing else you'd rather do. Second, the environment is conducive to your personality. Finally, there is enough room for growth, for challenge and to fulfill your needs, not all those of your employer's. If you don't have all three, or one element is weak, all you have is a job. If you've got all three, it is impossible that you are not making money.
If we are really honest, most of us are overpaid in relation to the value we add (which is maybe why it is so easy to replace us with computers). And we don't leave when we should; we wait for people to fire us so we can cry on shoulders about how terribly we've been treated. Rubbish! This is your life. Face the responsibility of living it to the full.
One of the hidden benefits of the present upheaval in the office is that the fashion for down-sizing and out-sourcing can play into your hands. Two of the most frequent complaints about office life are the lack of control one has and the lack of recognition one receives. (A rhetorical question - could these possibly be related?) These days, with fewer people on board it is easier to find yourself with as many or more responsibilities that you want. Dozens of surveys show that those left in downsized companies complain of longer working hours and less job satisfaction. So beware of the curse of getting what you wish for!
On the other hand, simple to use computer systems and telecommunication networks are making it easier for small companies to compete against or to service bigger companies. This is giving millions of people a chance to be their own bosses or to work in companies that function at a scale that is more human, more in line with and responsive to the needs of its staff. That is not to say there is less stress. Small businesses need to be smarter, quicker and more service oriented to stay alive. The difference is in the scale and the visibility of the individual's contribution. Feedback can be and usually is immediate and honest because there's not time for anything else. And let's face it, it's easier to put your heart and soul into something you can shape directly through your actions. At big companies, for the most part, the best they can do is to rent your body for a time.
The thing to remember is that everything is relative. Or to put it another way, every dog has fleas. Each moment in the day we make decisions, directly and indirectly, about the kind of life we want to lead. The more we can align those decisions with our ability to perform, the better able we are to handle stress in a positive constructive way.
Since one of the ways is to give ourselves time to listen to ourselves, here is a prayer, mantra, desideratum, call it what you will, which I find helps me.
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