An Egg in a vice

Shouldn’t every individual focus on improving how they relate to pressure overall and not just at work?

Recently I published a short article titled “5 short things everyone should know about Burnout” and got two questions in return that I am answering in one article each. Last week I answered the question “Do we tend to blame stress on the workplace regardless of what is going on in our private lives?”. If you haven’t read that article yet I highly recommend that you do so, as it is closely connected to this one. The second great question I got was:

Question two: Shouldn’t every individual focus on improving how they relate to pressure overall and not just at work?

In context of the question answered in the previous article, refered to above, I have understood this question to have two meanings:

  • Shouldn’t individuals themselves work on how they handle stress on their own?
  • Doesn’t the responsibility to handle stress lie with the individual to do it themselves, rather than with the employer?

The answer two both of these questions are “No”.

In short: A vast amount of research has shown that social support affects physical and mental health in a positive way. When experiencing long term stress both a person’s physical and mental health will be negatively affected. Hence, asking for help and support is beneficial for an individual’s health. Therefore, an employee asking for support, when in stress, will benefit the company more than the employee who doesn’t.

Let’s look at this in a bit more detail.

In stress research they talk about coping skills and resilience to stress when they talk about how people “relate to pressure”. Firstly let me clarify what is meant by “coping”. Coping is any conscious effort to change how you view the situation and behave in it, that helps you master, reduce or tolerate the stressful situation. It is a process, not an outcome.

How resilient one is to stress is controlled by hormones and therefore not necessarily anything that can be affected without medication. On the other hand, how one copes with stress is something that can be improved, but perhaps not to a level that it is enough for every situation. Hence the possibility of improving how one “relates to pressure” is limited.

“With social support your body will
react less to stressful situations”

A person who is anxious, depressed, emotional, interpersonal sensitive or pessimistic will be less able to cope with stress and pressure. A person that is optimistic, has a purpose in life, uses positive reinterpretation and experience growth will fare better and social support is important. As stress can cause you to be anxious, depressed, emotional, sensitive and pessimistic, it follows that one is less able to cope when stressed.

Research has also shown that low social support in stressful situations are associated with heightened stress reactivity such as increased blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels (a stress hormone). With social support, your body will react less to stressful situations.

Asking for help and getting support in stressful situations is therefore a sensible thing to do as it will help you cope better as your bodily response will be lower and you might get help to positively reinterpret the situation.

“Choose the person who will give you
the kind of support you need”

Even if the “thing” you are stressed about is something at work, you don’t always have to talk to someone at work. Initially, it can be a partner, friend, parent, or a mental health professional that is a good person to talk to. However, try to choose the person who will give you the kind of support you need at the moment: Do you need emotional support, a different outlook on the situation, or practical tips on what you can do to resolve it?

Once you feel that you have gotten some perspective on the situation and/or feel emotionally better prepared to handle it, you might also turn to someone at work for help.

Coping and resilience is crucial when you are in a stressful situation. Assuming that you choose the right time to do so, working on improving one’s coping skills can be a good thing. These kinds of skills are usually learnt in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, CBT.

CBT is scientifically proven to be effective and safe for most people and can be learnt in many different ways. I would highly recommend that you take help of a therapist to find what method that works for you and to make sure you practice your skills in a safe environment.

CBT works by you getting to know yourself well enough to know:

  • what kind of situation(s) that usually causes you stress;
  • how you respond to to the situation(s);
  • what you can do to manage the situation by way of acting and/or thinking; and, if possible
  • why this situation causes you stress.

This will help you cope better in stressful situations. It will also help you better prepare for foreseen stressful events which will help make them less stressful to you.

“Meeting at 5 am anyone?”

I know, for example, that if I have a meeting the next day at a location I haven’t visited before, I will be stressed. I also know this most of the time I wake up very early on such days and can’t go back to sleep.

To cope with this I avoid caffeine the day before the meeting and, if at all possible, I go to bed an hour earlier in the evening. If I have time and possibility to do so, I might even go there a few days before to make sure I know where I am going. I am also a great fan of Google maps street view.

I know this kind of situation causes me stress as I don’t like being late, and I am afraid I will arrive late.

Seeing it summarised like this, the source of and solution to this stress issue might seem obvious. However without CBT under the guidance of a therapist I am not sure I would have reached the right conclusion. The reason for the stress might just as well have been a fear of meeting unknown people, fear of forgetting to bring the meeting material etc.

On various medical information websites it is recommended that if you are feeling overwhelmed, you feel that you can’t cope, have suicidal thoughts or use drugs and/or alcohol to help you cope in a stressful situation, you should talk to a qualified mental health care provider.

I would say, regardless of how they put it: If you feel like the situation is too much for you, then it is too much for you, and you should ask for help. Research has shown that this is a healthier approach than trying to improve how you relate to the pressure you are under on your own while you are in a stressed situation.

More articles

Sources

  • Folkman S, Lazarus RS. An Analysis of Coping in a Middle-Aged Community Sample.1 Journal of Health and Social Behavior 1980 Vol. 21, No. 3. DOI: 10.2307**/**2136617
  • Ozbay, F, Johnson D.C, Dimoulas E, Morgan CA, Charney D, Southwick S. Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007 May; 4(5). PMCID: PMC2921311
  • Smith BW, Zautra AJ. Vulnerability and Resilience in Women With Arthritis: Test of a Two-Factor Model. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2008, Vol. 76, No. 5. DOI: 10.1037**/**0022-006X.76.5.799
  • Satterfield J. Coping With Stress: How to Survive in a Fast-paced World. Minding the Body: Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Reduction.2 University of California Television (UCTV) 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BbHW3H_xmo

  1. Despite this article being published in 1980, and research on stress has made great progress since, their definition of “coping” still stands. ↩︎

  2. Please note that CBT should not be undertaken without guidance form a therapist in the beginning as it is not suitable for everyone. ↩︎