Weekly Blog #25 - Don't stress yourself out...

Learning more about the things that unsettle me and finding ways to deal with the reasons behind them has helped me a lot in the past few months. Being stressed-out is one of them...

Stressors and Strain


Stress is caused by a number of internal and external factors and there are good models to explain how we react and develop stress in threatening or unfamiliar situations. Sudden and severe stress usually leads to an increased heart rate, increase in breathing (lungs dilate), decrease in digestive activity (don’t feel hungry), and the liver releasing glucose for energy - all of which are the results of our sympathetic nervous system acting in full force (aka "fight or flight response").


One of the models that I stumbled across lately made me think of situations during my professional career where I felt stressed-out but was not able to allocate the reasons and therefore probably made some bad decisions from time to time. The model I am talking about is the "stressor/load-strain-model" (Rohmert / Rutenfranz, 1975) that explains how different external factors that cause psychological load (stressors) are effecting and causing psychological strain or stress within an individual.


It is important that the "psychological load" that we are influenced by should be seen as neutral unless we understand the effects better. The types of load that is being put on our shoulders on a day-to-day basis can vary. The load can consist of tasks that we are facing, tools we are given to manage the tasks, our physical environment and our social environment, just to name a few. Psychological load can be described as the entirety of all (external) graspable influences that are psychologically affecting an individual.


All these external influences cause psychological strain or stress which can lead to positive or negative reactions. They can activate or challenge us, they can also cause fatigue, monotony, decreased attention and psychological saturation. The effects of psychological load and the individual's reaction usually depend on the combination of current and outlasting predispositions, including the individual's coping abilities.


Instrumental vs. Emotional Coping


Stress is not an immediate reaction to specific triggers or stressors, it is a reaction to "intermediary processes" or, in other words, cognitive and emotional assessments.


So, how does all of this work in reality? Usually, when we are put in new situations we consciously or unconsciously decide if we care about the situation or not. If we do, there are two options to choose from: is it dangerous/threatening or is it positive/rewarding? If we categorize the new situation as challenging, dangerous or threatening, we make a second judgement: do we have the mental and/or physical resources to deal with it? If the answer is yes, we don't worry about it too much. If the answer is no, however, it causes psychological strain and we develop stress.


There are two different ways to cope with this stress. The first one is called "instrumental coping". This, in short, means taking action and dealing with the challenge, e.g. through finding new ways to handle the challenge, increasing/improving our resources or entering a conflict with the target to resolve and decrease the psychological load. The ultimate goal is to learn from the situation and prepare ourselves to deal with it better next time so that we won't categorize it as threatening or dangerous again.


The second way of dealing with stress is "emotional coping". This can be described as the more passive approach which can be characterized through emotional adaptation, distraction, trivialization and even the intake of intoxicating substances. Passively dealing with psychological strain or stress can lead to distress with long term negative effects, such as headaches, an upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, sexual dysfunction, and problems sleeping. Emotional problems can also result from distress. These problems include depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry.


Frankly, it's always better to pro-actively deal with the situation whenever possible and try to detect stress-related symptoms such as sleeping problems, grinding teeth, tiredness and exhaustion, an upset stomach or other general aches and pains without a clear source early on.

I've experience stress-related migraines and tinnitus as a results of grinding teeth during sleep, especially while studying and preparing for important exams but also during my first years as management consultant. At times these reactions, first and foremost the migraines, were so severe that I lost control of my physical abilities for up to 6 hours. Learning to release stress and cope with it has fundamentally improved my ability to approach stressful periods with a lot of external load and I can tell you: I wouldn't want to go back.


Here are just a few other methods to deal with stress if you feel stressed-out or anxious right now:

  • Accept that there are events that you cannot control.

  • Be assertive instead of aggressive. Assert your feelings, opinions, or beliefs instead of becoming angry, defensive or passive.

  • Learn and practice relaxation techniques - try meditation, yoga, or tai-chi and reconnect with nature as often as possible.

  • Exercise regularly - your body can fight stress better when it is fit.

  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.

  • Get enough rest and sleep - your body needs time to recover from stressful events.

  • Learn to manage your time more effectively, make time for hobbies and interests.

  • Set limits appropriately and say no to requests that would create excessive stress in your life.

  • Don't rely on alcohol, drugs, or compulsive behaviors to reduce stress.

Also, here is a nice and short article regarding "7 Habits of People Who Don’t Stress Over the Little Things": https://www.realsimple.com/health/mind-mood/stress/habits-of-people-who-dont-stress


And last but not least: keep a positive attitude and seek out social support. Spend enough time with those you love!

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