Report on “Coping with Stress” talk given by David Craigie on Wednesday 28 November 2012 at Scott Moncrieff.
business matters is grateful to Scott Moncrieff for hosting this lunchtime talk and providing refreshments.
To listen to recordings of David’s talk and the Q&A session, or to view his PowerPoint presentation, click on the icons at the foot of the page.
David started his talk by thanking both our hosts and business matters for the opportunity to address what is a hugely relevant topic and one which is not given as much “air time” as it really needs.
He referred to a book which he had read in the 1990’s by John Ortberg where a phenomenon was described which is still highly prevalent today – that of “hurry sickness”. David outlined some situations which allow us to self-diagnose whether we suffer from this condition. Imagine the supermarket checkout – David asked us if we were one of those people who, on approaching the queues, start to assess which is the shortest queue and immediately head towards it. Even worse (and he admitted that psychologists are often guilty of this) you start to study the people in the queue and the content of their shopping – all with a view to seeking out those folk (probably men) with takeaway dinners and videos in their basket, on the assumption that they will be intent on heading home as fast as possible and not stopping to chat.
Alternatively, he challenged us to think how we behave when we are driving and approach the traffic lights: do we seek out the lane with the BMW at the front which is going to move off quickly and save us perhaps ten seconds, rather than the lane with the Volvo at its head. (He did apologise to Volvo drivers!)
Having established, by a quick show of hands, that the majority of those present admitted to being afflicted by hurry sickness, David then moved on to outline what the talk would cover:
- What is stress?
- What are the symptoms?
- The causes of stress
- How to manage stress
- Stress Prevention
- Case Study
Defining stress is important. Stress itself is not an illness, rather it is the response we have to external demands and pressures on us which, if not recognized and addressed, can lead to illness.
A sobering statistic is that there were almost half a million cases of work related stress recorded in the year 2011/12. Interestingly, women seem to suffer more than men, although David did suggest that this might be due to the fact that women are more ready to discuss and admit having issues. Stress is no respecter of age but does tend to peak between the mid-30s and mid-50s.
David said that, in the practice that he runs, he had noted an increased number of people coming for stress counselling but also an increased number coming for career advice with the specific stated objective of “finding a job and career which will not burn me out like the last one.” In the current economic climate many are out of work and hence find it difficult to finance getting help with stress while those who are still in work are so busy with huge workloads that they don’t have the time to seek help.
There are four main groups of symptoms which David outlined:
- Mental (or Cognitive)
For each group he listed some of the many ways in which stress may manifest itself. He was at pains to point out that stress is a very individualistic condition which may show itself in vastly different ways in different people. For example, some folk when stressed may eat a lot, some may eat hardly anything. Some may retreat to “hibernation” and sleep for long periods while others may find that they cannot sleep at all and spend much of the night awake and stressed. It is very important, therefore, to deal with each situation as a one off in establishing the individual’s circumstances before seeking to apply treatment principles. Knowing ourselves and watching for symptoms is the best way to prevent stress developing. David highlighted the “start of holiday illness” as one example when we may realise that we are stressed – also if we find ourselves taking a paracetamol for the headache that we know we are going to have later in the day.
The causes of stress are well known, including job roles which are unclear or intrinsically self-conflicting – for example a manager trying to motivate his or her team while carrying through a programme of redundancies. Excessive demands from work can be a source of stress, although this can be ameliorated by having a high level of control over the way in which these demands are timed and delivered. Relationships are key, both in a positive and negative sense. If we have very supportive colleagues then this can lessen the stress we feel. Perhaps we might consider how we could support others in the work environment. High levels of change in our work life often do not help either.
The last factor that David talked about was personality – often forgotten when we consider situations. In the same way that people manifest stress differently, different stressors will affect different people and what causes you to feel pressured and stressed may, in fact, not affect me at all.
So, should we treat the cause of stress or manage the symptoms? The obvious answer would be to eliminate the cause but David suggested that this may not always be possible. We may not have the ability to remove or change the external circumstances which are causing the excessive demands on us. Our option, therefore, would be to manage the symptoms in some way and lessen the negative effects that we experience.
Where we do have the ability to deal with the cause, David listed the following top tips:
- Be aware of the risk factors
- Carry out a “personal risk assessment”
- Assess your symptoms (or ask a friend)
- Take steps to address potential causes
- Remember: good things can be stressful too!
He pointed out that, sometimes, asking your spouse or children can be the most effective way of determining if you are becoming stressed since they are the closest to you and will observe changes in your behaviour that others might not. You have, however, to be prepared to listen.
When it is impossible to remove the cause of stress then David’s top tips for managing the symptoms were:
- Emotional – talk to someone about it
- Physical – diet, exercise, sleep, relaxation
- Psychological – learn techniques
- Behavioural – find healthy outlets
David highlighted one or two strategies that people often use which are actually counter-productive. Probably the chief of these is the use of caffeine to “keep us going”. Caffeine has been shown to aggravate stress symptoms and so should probably best be avoided – which is definitely a disappointment for me!
He suggested that stress is rather like the common cold: it catches us unaware and is very contagious. Those of us living or working with someone who is stressed will often find it affecting us. He emphasised the need for early intervention.
Having dealt with the four main groups of symptoms, David moved on to the topic of how personality can interact with stress and posed a “picture question” (see the slides of his talk). He asked us to suggest what was different about two groups of well known people. Suggestions were made and someone correctly identified that one group were introverts while the other were extroverts. David defined what is meant by these two terms in psychology and it was helpful to understand that the key is how people are energised – introverts from within and extroverts from interactions with others. This explains why some people feel drained after meetings/presentations/networking and need some “me time” to recover while others thrive on these activities and seem perpetually full of energy.
David suggested that, in the same way that society strives to respect race/religion/gender and sexuality, we should also respect and, where possible allow for, personality differences.
He reminded us that stress is, in fact, a biological phenomenon, with measurable and well understood hormonal changes, relating to the sympathetic nervous system and the “fight or flight” reflex we all possess. He encouraged us to listen to our bodies and what they are telling us; checking with our GP to eliminate physical/medical causes and then taking steps to address the symptoms we are observing.
David then presented us with a case study – fictitious but feasibly real – and asked us to suggest strategies for “Andy” – the manager who has a high and difficult workload, a daughter getting married, a house extension half completed, a cold which is preventing him from going to the gym and who has taken to having a nightcap every night “to help him cope”. Those present were able to offer advice and good discussion ensued.
David rounded off his talk by encouraging us all to recognise that stress is all about dealing with real life and that we all have a role to play in helping and encouraging those around us. He highlighted a range of useful links that we could use to find out more:
David then opened the floor for a Q&A time which allowed a range of points to be aired and discussed.
This was a well received and very useful lunchtime.
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