Guest Post by occupational stress management professional Pamela Elder.
Stress is an essential and normal response. Before an exam, interview or important meeting, for example, our heart rate and blood pressure go up and the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are released, enabling you to become more focused, alert and efficient. Once the exam, interview or important meeting is over, our bodies should ideally return to normal. However, if we remain stressed and our bodies do not return to normal, it compromises our performance and effectiveness and, in the long term, our health.
Let us look at why stress is part of us in the first place. For this we need to go back a few thousand years, to a time when we had more body hair, slightly fewer clothes and lived in caves.
We can only imagine what life was like then. We would have needed to be very alert and on our guard, as predators took many forms and could be encountered at any time. It was then we developed the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, which is when various physiological changes take place in our body, e.g., the release of adrenaline, to get us ready to either run away from the danger or stay and fight it. This response provided a life-saving strategy for the dangerous situations we encountered, such as being confronted by a sabre-toothed tiger.
Today’s Line Manager might well be your sabre-toothed tiger!
That was then, this is now. We still have this fight-or-flight response mechanism within us, but in modern times it is very rarely needed. The problem is that our bodies have not evolved as quickly as our lifestyles have, which can lead to some serious problems for us as individuals. Think of it as Stone Age physiology dealing with Space Age technology: it means that this response can be triggered off at very inappropriate times, e.g., when driving, dealing with service providers on the phone, clashes with other people or when trying to satisfy a difficult boss or partner. Before, the ‘stressor’ (i.e., the tiger) would confront us, initiating the ‘stress response’ (fight-or-flight) and we would decide to do one or the other to tackle the problem. Then, very quickly, the stressor would be gone and the state of our body would return to normal.
In modern times however, the stressor (e.g., a difficult boss or colleague) lingers, so the stress response persists, meaning that we never quite get back to our normal state. The release of adrenaline and cortisol should ideally be only a temporary measure, to get us out of trouble, but the sustained release of these hormones, particularly cortisol (because it dampens down our immune system) is what causes us so many problems in today’s world. The result is that the very thing that once protected us so faithfully is now harming us. Therefore, we need to learn and put into place some self-protective measures in order to sustain our normal physiological state.
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