In 2012 it was estimated that work related stress cost the UK economy over 6 billion. In addition to that, further billions are spent on stress related disease through the NHS and further working days are lost to non work related stress. But other than a generalised "stressed out" feeling, what is "STRESS"?
What is "stress"?
In layman's terms stress could be defined as a perceived inability to cope with perceived demands. In simpler terms it's perhaps our inability to cope with what life throws our way, and in that respect we can all be susceptible to stress at various times in our life. We all have our limits!
From an evolutionary standpoint though stress is a basic human function. It is an alarm response dating back to a time where our choice was to stand and fight or run away from either a perceived or very real threat. This is called the "fight or flight response" which causes our body to get ready for immediate physical activity.
Arguably, We have no control over this reaction as it's controlled by our body's involuntary nervous system. Once our body detects a cause of stress this triggers a "sympathetic response"; our eyes open wider with enlarged pupils, our breathing speeds up, our body hair stands up, muscles tense and we start to sweat as our heart pumps faster to deliver increased oxygen and glucose around the body to both brain and skeletal muscles. In the meantime, the body shuts down less required functions like digestion, urinary and reproduction (unless you are Jason Statham in Crash!).
Once the cause of the stress has been dealt with everything slowly returns to normal and all is well again. No harm done. Perfectly normal bodily function.
The problems come when we are in a continuous or repetitive state of stress, placing long term strain on the body's systems, especially the heart. These in turn may be further damaged by unhealthy copeing strategies (coming soon, along with some healthier options in Part 2).
So, given that we don't have to compete with dinosaurs, big cats or even the neighbours dog for food and shelter anymore, what causes modern day stress?
Causes of stress
In 2002 BUPA classified the causes of stress into the 5 categories below. I have made a note against each one as to whether they are likely to affect you and/or your client at some time.
1) Internal - pain, memories, ideas, thwarted ambition, poor self-image. ~ May affect you and/or your client.
2) External - animate objects such as spiders, snakes, mice. The world at large, politicians (especially UKIP ones), conservatory salesmen, late trains. ~ May affect you and/or your client.
3) Personal - partner, extended family, financial matters. ~ May affect you and/or your client.
4) Occupational - boss, colleagues, commuting, excessive workloads. ~ May affect you and/or your client.
5) Personality - Type A. ~ May affect you and/or your client.
See what I did there? Yep, we are ALL susceptible to all these types of stress at some point in our lives. Some people hide it better than others. Some genuinely cope better, but by virtue of the fact we are all human and all experiencing this thing called "life" we wil all be affected to some extent.
Hang on, who is this "Type A" personality?
Someone who falls into a Type A persona may be described as being highly competitive and achievement focused. They will often have a constant sense of urgency about them and will feel guilty for taking time off or even slowing down. They will normally be ambitious and driven and may have explosive speech patterns with quick motor movements. There has been a correlation found between measures of Type A behavouor and predictability of coronary heart disease.
Type As may:
- work long, hard hours perceiving a constant deadline pressure (often self imposed).
- take work home with them.
- find it difficult to relax and switch off (often giving the excuse that they enjoy their work so they don't need to).
- cut holidays short in favour of working.
- turn everything into a competition, not only with others but with themselves (must beat the PB today!).
- get easily frustrated with work.
- get irritable when peers and subordinates don't live up to their own standards.
- feel misunderstood by others.
Type Bs are the opposite of Type As and tend to "go with the flow" a bit more.
So in this articles we have looked at what stress is, where it comes from and what causes it. In next week's article we'll look a bit more into the damaging effects it has on the body and more importantly what we can do about it!