Asking delegates to consider and write down their own personal definition of stress beginning with the words “For me stress is…” and then reading it out to the group brings home the extraordinary variety of perspectives and demonstrates to managers the dangers of assuming uniformity of thought amongst their staff. Here is a small representative selection from hundreds:
For me stress is being made to feel insignificant
For me stress is trying to please everyone all the time For me stress is a horrible tight feeling in my chest For me stress is having no ‘me time’
For me stress is fear of failure
For me stress is not being me any more
For me stress is when things which are not important seem very important and I lose sight of that which is far more important
Academics and researchers inevitably come up with rather lengthy definitions such as
Stress is a reaction to excessive pressure or demand (real or perceived) which seems difficult or impossible to manage. This carries the clear implication of our choice both of the truth of the cause of the stress and our ability to cope with it. When the heat is on we seldom recognise that we have options of perception, attitude or action.
I prefer to keep my definition short and simple: ‘A feeling of not being in control’.
It may not sit comfortably with all readers, but we cannot properly address this complex subject without accepting that it is largely about how we feel. It is completely understandable that it might be some unpalatable facts or crippling circumstances which are to the fore in our mind and can so easily overwhelm us. To adjust our perceptions and stay in control of our feelings at such times is certainly challenging but it can be achieved and when successful, even partially, we feel great.
3.1 Some myths
It is a common misconception that some level of stress is a good thing but you will find very few academics supporting this view. It is a grey area because of the semantics of the words we use. We all benefit at times from experiencing pressure in our lives, but as long as we feel broadly in control of it, then it is not stress we are experiencing. Pressure can be invaluable in helping us to concentrate and to focus. Some of the physiological consequences of stress can be valuable when they are anticipated. A professional firefighter entering a burning building might be experiencing a thrust of extra physical strength and consciousness, as might a sprinter pushing off the blocks. But they understand this short-lived advantage, feel in control of it and are able to turn it to their advantage.
Some might feel that stress is a form of illness. Perhaps this is not too surprising as we might refer to ‘Richard being off with stress’ and sick notes might unhelpfully include the word when the hard-pressed GP is in a hurry (perhaps stressed!) and has no time to be less sweeping in the diagnosis. The view of some that stress is a sign of mental weakness is far too sweeping and usually untrue and often unfair.
Stress in itself is not an illness but it can readily be the trigger for some physical health problem. There is, however, a notable exception in cases of prolonged burnout which might result in the mental stability of the individual being impaired permanently. Conversely, some of the most relaxed individuals I have met have told me they were only that way as a result of their experience of burnout and their subsequent resolve to change their outlook on life: ‘I’m never going there again’
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