How stressed are you?

Business psychologist Aidan Kearney explains why getting to grips with stress, and your own triggers, are essential to improving wellbeing and relationships at work

Today is national stress awareness day...

We’ve all felt stressed and can relate to the unpleasant feeling, but how many of us actually understand what stress represents, physically and psychologically?

Do you know where it comes from and its purpose? And most importantly of all, how many of us know how to manage stress when it presents?

Stress is a multi-faceted construct, from physiological triggers such as hunger or thirst, through to an instant stress reaction, and chronic stress. Human beings are a complex machine that functions on reading and interpreting the world around us, and understanding and responding to internal messages. Attention, arousal, drives, perception and stress are all on a continuum of how we make sense of things.

But at the core of it, stress is your body telling you to take action. Think about it from these everyday examples: as the clock approaches lunch-time, think of the physiological messages your body is sending you. The message that we understand and label as hunger is actually a physiological stress response to your body’s need for fuel and energy.

How about the loud bang of a firework? You might expect it on bonfire night, but nevertheless, the heightening of arousal and instant stress response – elevation of cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline levels, a rapid heart rate and accelerated breathing, might seem familiar.

What happens then if we encounter this stimulus when we’re not expecting it; when a firework ignites and explodes unexpectedly. The heightening of our responses, and the jolt that the unexpected stimulus promotes, could be labelled as nervousness or fear.

Thankfully, our sensations and responses to these immediate cues soon pass as our system calms down. But what would it feel like if this sensation and associated physical symptoms presented when you were getting ready for an interview or an exam?

What does it say about our expectations of these types of scenarios that they can promote the same response, internally, as a loud bang does? And is this response helpful? The fight, flight and freeze response is not ideal when we’re trying to recall information, construct our thoughts into cogent answers or present our experience and skill set to a prospective employer.

It’s worth looking at our expectations and beliefs because not all scenarios are as transient as a job interview, exam or even a firework show. Some triggers linger for longer. Our immediate stress responses have developed to help keep us alive. Problems can start to arise; however, if our beliefs and expectations promote this release of stress hormones where the danger is perceived rather than tangible, or where the release of these stress hormones occurs over an extended period of time.

The persistent release of cortisol and adrenaline over a lengthy time-frame is actually damaging to the body, suppressing the immune system, raising the risk of heart disease and digestive problems, not to mention elevated levels of depression and anxiety, and impaired concentration and memory. These symptoms of chronic stress are not ones we would readily choose.

And our workplaces are not immune. Numerous studies show the prevalence and impact of stress on workers and productivity. When you understand the health impacts, it’s not difficult to imagine why the evidence is mounting up.

So, what does this mean for individuals and organisations? I would say it’s not just morally the right thing for us to do to find ways to manage our stress levels, but also to promote supportive and effective workplace cultures which can help to address these issues. It’s also the right thing from a business perspective.

The ability to help people and teams develop and practice stress management techniques is a part of my job that I find really rewarding and fulfilling. Here are some tips to consider:

  1. Develop self-knowledge. Understand how your system responds; and the tell-tale signs you’re feeling stressed?
  2. Identify what sets you off – and what role your beliefs and expectations played?
  3. Behavioural techniques, such as mindfulness and cognitive re-framing can all help, as can the development of reflective practice and acceptance
  4. My top tip would be: if you’re struggling, and if stress is causing you problems, talk to someone. There are people out there with experience and they are willing and able to help
  5. Practice self-compassion – everyone makes mistakes and you can learn from them

This blog was published on 1 November 2017, National Stress Awareness Day. Get in touch with Aidan by email -