How Stress Aware Are You?



One could argue that the stress word is a tad overused these days. Everyone seems to claim to be stressed pretty much all of the time. And yet the fact is it’s probably true.

Stress as ‘Overwhelm’

We’re often in a state of ‘overwhelm’ driven by the pressure of 24/7 communication, overflowing email inboxes, demanding clients, squeezed resources, attempting to juggle work and home demands, too much consumer choice and therefore too many decisions to make, possible financial pressures and so on. This is the stress most people recognise and the way they typically define stress. However, it’s much wider than that. It was only when I started to study stress and resilience that I realised stress can be much more insidious than that.

If you regularly experience emotions like guilt or shame these are just as stressful as anger or fear. If you’re frustrated by a situation at work or at home; if you’re beating yourself up about not seeing enough of your kids or not doing enough exercise; if you’re in a job that makes you unhappy; if you’re constantly having to compromise your core values you will be feeling stressed. In fact, whenever you feel any internal conflict, whenever your inner voice (or chattering monkey as the Buddhists call it) starts having a go, you’re experiencing stress.

Good and Bad Stress

Now don’t get me wrong. Stress is not all bad. We all need an element of stress or what I prefer to call healthy pressure to function and perform. The stress hormone cortisol is the hormone involved in our circadian rhythm – cortisol gives us the energy to get out of bed in the morning and get on with our day! Too little of it and we can feel demotivated, frustrated and undervalued. The right amount of stress and pressure and we’re in our peak performance zone – firing on all cylinders, engaged, excited and driven to succeed. Too much for too long and we reach our tipping point where we can no longer cope.

Unhealthy levels of stress can have a really negative impact on people’s lives. They can change personalities, negatively impact relationships (both business and personal) and cause ill-health or disease. (Just think about the derivation of the word disease for a moment – it comes from the old French word desaise meaning lack of ease – another potential definition of stress).

So being aware of your own stress triggers and how stress affects you as well as the people around you is critical for healthy personal functioning and for the strong performance of your team.

Key Stress Triggers

According to the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) there are four key triggers to stress:

  1. Novelty
  2. Unpredictability
  3. Threat to the ego (sense of self)
  4. Sense of lack of control

These all make eminent sense when we consider them from an evolutionary perspective.

  • If there’s a stranger in our midst we’re going to be on high alert
  • If something out of the ordinary happens we’re going to watch our step
  • If someone challenges our status we will see it as a threat to our survival
  • If we feel something is happening to us that we can’t control we’re going to be concerned

They will trigger a stress response.

The Physiology of Stress

So what happens when we experience a stress response?

Essentially a stress response prepares us for fight/flight/freeze. The amygdala in our limbic system alerts the body to a threat and a string of chemical reactions ensue leading to the production of the stress hormone cortisol.

As a result:

  • Our heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugars increase to pump more blood into our muscles preparing us for action
  • Our blood flow is diverted from other areas into our muscles to provide extra energy
  • Our muscle tension increases to provide extra speed and strength
  • Our lungs, throat and nostrils open up to speed breathing
  • Our pupils dilate so we can see more clearly
  • Our blood vessels constrict to reduce potential blood loss resulting in reduced digestion and elimination functions
  • Our lachrymal glands are inhibited (responsible for tears and saliva production)
  • Longer-term functions shut down such as our immune system, sex drive, reproductive systems and growth.

Pretty amazing stuff really!

Thus the positive intention behind the stress response is protection – it’s a survival response. Our whole body springs into action to enable us to deal with the urgent short-term threat we’re facing. This was all well and good when we were regularly faced with life and death situations in the shape of a sabre-toothed tiger or a woolly mammoth. Not so good when all we’re faced with is a client deadline or a traffic jam but our system responds in exactly the same way!

Physical Manifestations of Stress

So the way to tell if you are getting stressed is to recognise the physical symptoms that result from these physiological changes. These might include feeling:

Anxious, nauseous, shaky, trembly, sweaty, flushed, cold, clammy, tense, a headache, pain in your shoulders or back, out of breath, a desperate need to urinate or defecate, a dry mouth etc. But what about your team? How do you know if someone in your team is getting stressed? What should you look out for here?

Behavioural Signs of Stress

In this instance it’s often easier to look out for behavioural signs as indicated below:




Emotional, irritated, angry

Avoiding certain meetings

Not meeting deadlines

Seeking out conflict

Avoiding social situations

Unable to make decisions

Inability to show empathy

Lots of sick days

Not contributing in meetings

What’s particularly interesting here is how little we recognise the flight and especially the freeze response – the proverbial rabbit in the headlights.

We all recognise someone might be stressed if they’re overreacting to things, getting upset and/or falling out with people. However, how many of us as leaders consider stress might be the cause of someone avoiding meetings, having regular Mondays off sick or constantly missing deadlines?

If we’re really honest with ourselves, a lot of us would be more likely to label that as “lazy” or “disinterested” or “disengaged.” Not a very helpful response if one of your team is experiencing moderate or severe stress.

Thus increasing our awareness and understanding of stress is incredibly important. We need to accept a broader definition of stress, recognising that it encompasses any form of internal or external tension and that frustration, guilt and shame can be just as stressful as anger. The responses we experience/see will therefore not necessarily be as overt as the ‘fight’ response we’ve typically called stress. Moreover, we will need to step back, show empathy and challenge the historic labels we’ve used around certain behaviours in the light of each individual we’re dealing with. When we’re able to do all that, then we’re truly stress-aware.

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