Stress and Pressure
What happens to us?
These days a lot of people feel as though they're being asked to do the impossible. Because they're good at what they do, employees are expected to do more, fix problems, handle crises, and in general, cope with all variety of situations with a level head.
Managers are expected to deal not only with their own pressure but also with the pressure of the people they manage. There are some people who literally feel like the meat in a sandwich because they are being squeezed from above and below. And when people themselves feel pressurised, they often put additional pressure on their colleagues: a kind of domino theory of coping with stress.
Now, the one and only truism about stress is that it's different for everyone: what causes one person to feel pressured won't be true for someone else. In other words, one person's stress is another's excitement.
Equally, it is not stress itself that is the problem, but the way in which people react to the causes of stress. Unexpected things happen to us, extra demands are made, time runs out, deadlines get passed - this is the stuff of our workaday and personal lives over which we may appear to have little control. How we deal with the seemingly 'uncontrollable' is the key to good stress management.
Most people need a certain amount of pressure to motivate and challenge them, particularly in the workplace. The reasons many of us enjoy working isn't simply to bring home a pay cheque; we want job satisfaction, opportunities to stretch ourselves, learn new skills and develop working relationships with colleagues.
The kind of pressure that keeps us on our toes and gets us to use our capabilities more fully is healthy and desirable. Without it, life would be incredibly routine and dull. But when the pressure becomes unmanageable, routine and dull begins to look very attractive. We need pressure, but too much will make us unproductive and inefficient.
So, it's important to know just what gets to us: any effective work on pressure will include what's known as a 'stress audit'. Here people define for themselves the difference between challenging stress and harmful stress and what happens to them under both kinds of pressure.
Here's an exercise to try out:
Imagine your life is a big pot sitting on a stove over a medium flame: all the contents are bubbling and simmering along nicely. What's in your pot? What can you define that gives you satisfaction; what enhances and supports your work and personal life? What do you know you cope with well: what's a comfortable amount of stress for you?
Also, imagine that the flame under the pot is the energy you need to exert to keep everything moving along smoothly.
It's important to know the kinds of pressure that you can cope with, because, surprisingly, most of us cope - and cope well -with a lot more stress than we imagine.
Now, what about the pressure you don't cope with so well? This time imagine your pot beginning to boil over. It can boil over for two reasons: one is that too much gets put in the pot and there's no more room; and, two, the flame suddenly gets higher and everything heats up faster than the pot can handle.
What happens in your life that over-fills your pot? What extra things get added to your everyday life that you find you can't cope with quite as well? Alternatively, what things in your life are apt to 'heat up' on occasion and cause an over-spill? And how does this stress manifest itself? Do you get depressed, fall ill, get short-tempered, feel you're stretched to breaking point? What exactly happens to you?
Here's an example to demonstrate what we mean
The day starts off well - you've got your time organised and you know what you have to accomplish by the end of it. You have a lot to do, but it's the kind of pressure you enjoy so you feel in control of your time. By 10 am, however, three people have descended upon you insisting that each of their projects has priority and you've got to drop everything and give your time to them.
Suddenly your pot is too full. Your day now looks a mess, your time has been hijacked and you may start to feel overwhelmed by additional pressure.
Let's use the same scenario, except this time, instead of people descending upon you, your boss comes along and criticises your output for the past week and tells you he expects more from you.
Suddenly the heat just went up. Now you may feel deflated by the high expectations pressing in on you.
If we stick with the simmering pan analogy for a moment, when a pot boils over, first it makes a mess and then it puts out the flame. The energy you were using to keep everything on an even keel is now used up - there's nothing left. The pot may have stopped boiling over, but now nothing is cooking.
Pressure can sometimes get so on top of you that you grind to a dead halt and function at a low level of effectiveness, if at all.
This is the point where very little, or nothing, seems to go right. Disasters pile up, personality difficulties seem to magnify, communication with those around you disintegrates. The end results can vary from irritability, insomnia, substance abuse, nervous breakdowns; and any number of other physical, emotional and mental difficulties in between.
Too much pressure can also feel 'normal'. People get so used to working under enormous pressure that they manage to ignore the many symptoms that manifest themselves. They often don't do anything about it until they fall over and are forced to look at the situation.
People often confuse lack of ability with being under too much stress. By this, we mean that if someone is simply not up to the job, or requires additional skills and support to do a good job, they may feel pressurised and blame it on too much stress. Of course, life can feel very stressful under these circumstances, but the reality is that it is the lack of ability that's at the root of the problem. Anyone who has acquired a new, relatively difficult skill will know what we are talking about: 'before', the work that required the skill was overwhelming and incomprehensible; 'after', it all seems like a piece of cake.
As we said at the beginning, one person's stress could be another's excitement. Let's go back to our scenario: you could be someone who thrives on people rushing up to your desk and demanding things of you - you love juggling lots of projects, people and deadlines.
You might be someone to whom criticism from the boss is water off a duck's back: you take it as helpful feedback and are happy to work out a strategy for improving things.
On the other hand, you, who cope so well with people, might be someone who goes into a complete panic when the printer conks out. That might be when you feel completely out of control, and that's what will tip you over the edge.
Which means that there can never be one way of effectively dealing with pressure since no two people are affected by stresses in the same way. And, of course, depending upon what else is going on in your life, what feels manageable one day, may feel overwhelming the next.
Fortunately, there are things you can do that help you manage the pressure without getting the sack or alienating your colleagues, family and friends. They also don't require you to quit your job and live in silent retreat on a remote island (a recurrent fantasy of those who feel under the cosh most of the time!).
Now, let's say you know the causes of unmanageable stress and can see them coming at you from afar, but it actually feels as though there's nothing you can do about it. You may even cry in despair, "But I'm already doing everything I can! What more can I do?"
What do you do when you think you are doing all that you can? Doing more won't work: that just creates more pressure and stress and accelerates the point of total burn out. Doing less won't work either: the time created by doing less simply gives you more time to worry about the things you aren't doing! There's only one option left, and that's to do things differently.
"What do you mean, do things differently? I've tried everything I can think of and nothing works!"
Well, we look at the things you haven't thought of, because when people are in the middle of overwhelm they are usually unable to see what else they could do.
Do a 'Stress Audit'
By identifying what stresses overwhelm you, what happens to you and where breakpoint (or points) is, you look at prevention as well as cure.
Choose a different way to behave
When you're watching your pot spew boiling liquid all over everything (including yourself), it's really hard to see just what you could do differently. The situation may feel so fraught that it's impossible to see much of anything clearly and you'll do what you've always done in a crisis. That's because, when under pressure, the human mind and body is programmed to revert to type.
Now, many people assume that if they change their behaviour, they'll create more stress than they have already. Not so. Yes, if you try to change everything and become a different person, you'll feel more stressed. Trying to make big changes usually results in failure and disappointment. Small, easy-to-do changes, and creating lots of small wins are what's wanted: they'll bolster your confidence so you'll want to practise even more.
Understand the link between Communication and Stress
Communication log-jams, unresolved conflict, avoidance of uncomfortable situations and pretending things are all right when they aren't, will cause stress. Therefore, anything that improves communication or clears the air will reduce pressure. Given that we have to communicate at work all the time, there are always opportunities to improve our interpersonal skills.
Set Appropriate Boundaries
When people do descend on your desk, it's perfectly acceptable to tell each person how willing you are to help, but that you can't get to their work till tomorrow (or three o'clock or next week, etc.). Every time they insist it has to be done today, you show lots of empathy and understanding and willingness, but you still won't be able to get to their work till tomorrow.
Boundaries are one of the key ways to make clear to others just how far you're willing to go and what your limits are.
Practise the Art of Saying "No"
Along with boundaries, it's important to look at whether you are an easy 'mark', where people will come to you for that little extra because you won't refuse. There are an infinite number of ways to say 'No' without ever having to use the word. For instance, pre-empting a raid on your time is a great ploy: "I know what you're going to ask me and you've caught me at the worst time to be of help to anyone."
Lower your Standards
What? Lower my standards? That doesn't feel like good advice. However, by setting 'perfectionistic' standards that are so high, they are impossible to reach, many people create unnecessary pressure for themselves. By lowering your standards, you can create far more 'wins' for yourself, and 'wins' make us all feel great.
Ask for Support
Along with too high standards, many people are also reluctant to ask for support: they don't want to appear weak and vulnerable. Keeping problems and difficulties to yourself and trying to cope on your own is foolish. Asking for support is not a sign of weakness - it is actually a sign of intelligence. It gets you out of a hole and it gives other people an opportunity to help out.
Not stop in terms of collapse; but stop for a few minutes and get yourself out of the situation: take a loo break, make a cup of tea, walk around the block, phone a friend. When we can't see the woods for the trees, it's time to step out and take a break. It won't solve the whole problem, but it will give you some much-needed breathing space.
Find the Humour
Believe it or not, most situations do have their humorous side. Being able to see it may be difficult, but taking things too seriously is guaranteed to compound already existing stress.
Give yourself a Treat
Look for opportunities to reward yourself for such milestones as it's Wednesday, the Tube was on time, the Tube was late, it's raining for the sixth day in a row, the sun just came out, you found a parking space and so on. Too often we feel as though we only deserve 'rewards' when we've done something over and above. Treats make you feel good; feeling good helps lower stress.
These are just a few of the ways to prevent or alleviate pressure. It's unlikely that any of us can get rid of or avoid all harmful stress. But there are certainly enough coping mechanisms at our disposal to make life a whole lot easier and a happier experience.
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