We all know that stress is bad for us. Or do we? On my recent travels around organisations there have been a surprising (to me at least) number of people that have declared themselves to be pretty stress free – or at least they were not prepared to admit to feeling especially stressed at the moment of asking. So considering that most of these were people who had undoubtedly got up rather early, organised their families, travelled to work, undertaken a full day at the coal face of whatever their business or organisation does then travelled to an evening meeting (even though there was usually the prospect of being fed) which was likely to end not far off bedtime only to be asked the question ‘are you stressed?’, their responses seemed to be remarkably sanguine.

Of course when you ask a question like this in public – or even in private – you don’t necessarily expect an entirely honest answer. We are after all, accustomed to the “I’m fine, thank you” response that we have been programmed to give since people began asking us that question in early life. Very rarely, even when speaking with people who I knew to be in great distress have I been given the response “I’m absolutely destroyed, thanks for asking” although I have been tempted to fire it off myself once or twice, usually in the direction of someone who I know doesn’t deserve it and wouldn’t know how to respond to it other than by excusing themselves fairly rapidly.

So were all those who declared themselves to be stress free telling the truth? In all likelihood the answer to that question would be that yes of course some were; but others may not either recognise or want to acknowledge that their headaches, irritability, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, random aches and pains, regular feelings of anxiety or reliance on cigarettes or alcohol in order to feel more relaxed may well be stress related. Most of us accept that life is sometimes ‘stressful’; what we don’t do so well is to recognise and take positive action when stress becomes a problem for us.

We have been somewhat conditioned over the years to see stress as a major issue; something to be feared that is very bad for our health. Largely to blame for this viewpoint is the ten times Nobel Prize nominated ‘Grandfather of Stress’, Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye, who in his 1930s research (which predominantly consisted of torturing rats) concluded that ‘stress’ (the response of the body to demands placed on it) was responsible for all manner of ills in rats – and concluded that this must be true of humans too. Clearly he wasn’t completely wrong – if you were abused and tortured as his rats were, then you would probably die from the ‘stress’ just as they did. Yet our experiences of stress are very rarely as extreme as that experienced by Selye’s rats; yet the fearful terminology attributed to stress has persisted and become accepted as a modern truism – that stress kills and must be avoided at all costs.

The great irony of this viewpoint is that in recent years, research has demonstrated that actually those people who view stress as a significant risk to their health are far more likely to die from a stress related illness than those who adopt a more positive mindset and proactive approach to managing stress. Happily, there have also been great leaps in our understanding of stress; from Selye’s extreme terror approach (which to be fair provided useful models for understanding acute psychological or physical stress such as domestic abuse, imprisonment, violence and so on) to a more multi-faceted understanding encompassing a range of stress responses which vary according to the source(s) of the stress and the psychological makeup of the person experiencing it. It’s a pretty sad fact though that the media tends to prefer the extreme (and probably simpler) interpretation of how stress affects our health negatively, without offering a more informed and definitely healthier viewpoint of how many of us experience and respond to stress in our everyday lives – and how we can get better at handling it.

How do we go about defining what we mean by the word stress? We use the term very loosely to describe anything from the most minor irritation to the most major of life’s challenges. And herein lies some of the problem. If we can’t define ‘stress’ (and even most scientists can’t), how do we recognise it, categorise it and learn to handle it better? For me, it all comes down to your own very personal interpretation of what are the sources of stress in your life. When asked, we can all identify the major life stressors – including bereavement, having a baby, getting married, moving house, a significant health challenge, loss of work, financial pressures and so on. Our ‘minor’ stressors, the daily irritants or hassles that we also experience can often be equally challenging, not least because they tend to be more frequent, more persistent and have a cumulative toxic effect on our stress levels, leading us to feel that we are under ‘too much’ emotional pressure and becoming overwhelmed – AKA stressed out. These regular irritants are generally where we would be well advised to concentrate our day to day efforts in managing our stress, since most to some degree can be mitigated, controlled or put into perspective, leading to positive health benefits.

It may well be then that not all stress is bad. It does however, matter. Stress matters because we generally get most stressed out by the things that are important to us, the things that give our lives meaning and a sense of purpose. Stress matters because it motivates us, gets us out of bed in the morning and helps us to achieve things that can sometimes seem impossible. Recent research highlights that those who report the highest levels of stress in their lives also report that they view their lives as being more meaningful – and we have learned that a sudden drop in our stress levels (retirement from work being an obvious example) can lead to us view life as less meaningful and fulfilling and can lead to negative health impacts such as depression and worse. My own experience of ‘retiring’ from a stressful job to enjoy countryside living with dogs, cats, hens and children some three years ago taught me that boredom (in the nicest possible way!) could be far more stressful than being far too busy but at the same time feeling a sense of achievement despite the high level of stress the job brought with it. Hence I went back to work fairly quickly, in order to regain a little of what I felt I had lost in terms of meaningful contribution to the world.

Stress matters because particularly for those in inherently stressful jobs it affects our performance at work, the satisfaction that we feel with a job well done and our desire to keep serving our clients and customers. A little stress can keep us engaged, challenged and motivated; while too much of it can have the opposite effect. The key is to know the difference and to recognise how much you can handle and when you need to rethink your stress. Feeling stressed is not a sign that you are inadequate or can’t cope; it is a sign that you are involved and that you care.

Top Tips for Stress Management:
• Pick your battles – is the outcome important enough to you to endure this stress? Or are you fighting a clearly losing battle, or a pointless one?
• Recognise your daily hassles – don’t complain about the traffic, you are the traffic! Minor irritants can often be minimised or eliminated with planning, and if they can’t then try to view them in the wider context of what you are trying to achieve
• Shift your mindset – you don’t get to choose whether life is stressful or not, but you do get to choose how you view and respond to that stress
• Know your personal values and spend ten minutes writing them down. Research shows that people who understand their values take a more positive approach to managing stress, rather than avoiding it or adopting unhealthy coping strategies
• Know why you are doing what you are doing. What do you find meaningful about your work? Reflecting on what you find fulfilling about work, even when it is challenging reduces stress and the risk of burnout
• Take good care of yourself – eat well, exercise as much as you can and minimise the unhealthy stuff – alcohol, tobacco etc. A recent study showed a dramatic decrease in liver damage, insulin resistance and disrupted sleep patterns in those who were able to abstain from alcohol for just 28 days
• Look for social support – find people to talk to, a group or club, or other opportunities to extend your social network. All of these help when stressful times occur
• Practice mindfulness, meditation, relaxation, visualisation or other helpful strategies that keep you focussed on the here and now; what is important to you and how stressful incidents fit into the overall context of a meaningful life
• Seek professional support if you find that stress is becoming a problem.Professional Help provides employee counselling services for organisations of all kinds – call 01524 782910 or email Catherine@professionalhelp.org.uk for further information.