Are You a Stress Victim or Stress Master?

January 14th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Stress is a truly unpleasant, potentially harmful, and decidedly unavoidable part of life in the business world; it just comes with the territory of climbing the corporate ladder. Yet, whether stress interferes with or facilitates your efforts in that climb depends on how well you understand it, your attitude toward it, and the tools you have at your disposal to master the stress.

This segment of Prime Business Alert! will focus on the first two contributors to your reaction to stress: your understanding and attitude. Despite its ever-presence in business life and the seemingly ubiquitous stress-management programs offered by so many companies, few business people have a thorough sense of what stress is, how it impacts them physically, psychologically, socially, and in their work efforts, and what they can actually do to ensure that it helps rather than hurts their professional and personal lives.

What is Stress?

Stress is a psychological, emotional, or physical reaction to internal or external demands that are placed on people. Our stress reaction has been hard wired into us for as long as we have been humans to help us survive. Back when we were cavepeople, the increased heart rate, blood flow, and adrenaline gave us the strength to battle or run from (fight-or-flight response) hostile tribes and wild animals, and stay alive during periods of natural disaster and famine. The reality is, though, that we rarely face such stress-inducing hardships anymore. Because we aren’t attacked by saber-toothed tigers very often these days, the stress we experience in modern times is due more to our perceptions of the experiences we have than the experiences themselves.

Nonetheless, stress still does threaten us at a psychological, social, and performance level.

Despite what many think, stress is actually an important and highly adaptive (to a point) response to the challenges that we face every day. Stress helps us respond physically by giving us more energy and endurance when confronted with the often exhausting schedules that businesspeople must keep. Stress also sharpens our thinking and focus for the intellectual demands we face in the business world.

The demands we face and the stress we feel are usually quite manageable. But when the demands grow and they begin to exceed our capabilities and resources to deal with them effectively, then the stress becomes debilitating. Think of the demands that you face in the business world. Internal demands can include the perceptions you hold about your abilities, the goals and expectations you have, and the worries and fears you feel. External demands can consist of time pressure, financial concerns, work conflict, and excessive workloads.

Stress in Perspective

Stress has become so woven into the fabric of the corporate world that many people have lost sight of what it is and what it is not. Stress is a normal part of any environment that is driven by high goals and expectations and, as I noted above, it is usually more helpful than harmful. A mistake that many people make is they confuse hard work with stress. There are two things about hard work that can cause this confusion: hard work is hard and it’s work. And I think that many business people like to talk about how stressed they are because it makes them feel heroic when, in fact, what they are doing is just the job they signed on for.

Stress goes beyond normal life and hard work when you no longer have the ability to manage it effectively. We all have a threshold we reach when stress turns harmful. When we cross that line, several red flags occur:

  • We feel psychologically overwhelmed and emotionally vulnerable;
  • The quality of our work declines;
  • Our health deteriorates;
  • We lose our enjoyment and motivation in our work;
  • Our general quality of life decreases.

When you can check off each of those five items, then you can state with confidence (or trepidation) that you are experiencing debilitating stress.

Causes of Stress

The causes of harmful stress at work are myriad. At the same time, there are some causes that I have found most evident in the workplace:

  • Psychological: perfectionism, fear of failure, lack of control, and poor time management and organizational skills.
  • Personal: poor physical health, financial problems, and non-work issues (e.g., bad marriage).
  • Work-related: job insecurity; insufficient knowledge, skills, and resources; and personality conflicts.

Symptoms of Stress

When you’ve crossed that line past hard work, the stress will cause you to experience a wide variety of symptoms. Because of the direct attack on your mind and body that harmful stress places on you, your stress will manifest itself in a variety of ways:

  • Physical: frequent illness due to immune system failure; physical complaints, including headaches and stomach aches; sleeping problems, either insomnia or frequent waking; and changes in appetite, either loss of or increased appetite.
  • Cognitive: lost confidence, excessive negativity or self-criticism, unrealistic expectations.
  • Emotional: moodiness, sadness, anger, or inappropriate or excessive expression of emotions.
  • Social: withdrawal or conflict.
  • Performance: loss of motivation, performance anxiety, lack of enjoyment, and decline in productivity.

Types of Stress

Stress can either facilitate or interfere with your work performance based partly on a fundamental distinction in how you perceive the demands placed on you. Specifically, do you interpret the stress as being a threat or a challenge?

Threat stress is usually connected to self-esteem. The demands threaten your sense of competence and value personally and professionally. The demands are not only uncomfortable – all stress is to some degree – but also burdensome. The stress is persistent and often overwhelming. You also feel that you have little control over the stress. And it ultimately leads to either physical or psychological breakdown.

In contrast, challenge stress is seen as affirming your self-esteem; your perception of your ability to handle the stress is actually validating of your competence and value. The stress inspires and motivates you to see the demands as challenges to overcome rather than threats to avoid. Not surprisingly, this mindset reinforces your belief that you have control over the demands and actually energizes you to confront the demands directly. Ultimately, challenge stress raises the level of your “game,” enabling you to be more productive.

Approach to Stress

You should think about stress much as you would the thermometer and thermostat in your home. You know when the temperature in your house is comfortable and when it gets too hot. In the latter case, you adjust the thermostat to a more comfortable level. The same applies to your stress level. You know when your stress is at a comfortable level. You also need to recognize when your stress level is too high. When that happens, you need to adjust your stress thermostat, that is, reduce the demands that are causing the stress or increase your resources to mitigate those demands; in both cases, your stress lessens.

You have three choices in how you perceive your ability to respond to the stress you experience:

  • Stress victim: suffer from stress, controlled by the stress, quality of work deteriorates, depression and/or anxiety is evident, escape motivation.
  • Stress manager: respond to stress, but most often reactively so there is little sense of control, get by, hang on, ultimate breakdown.
  • Stress master: positive attitude toward stress, prepare for stress proactively, feel in control of stress, accept stress, thrive on stress, know when to say when.

Your goal, of course, is to become a stress master. In the next issue of Prime Business Alert!, I’ll introduce you to the specific attitudes and strategies you need to become a stress master.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see some of his television interviews.)

Articles written by
Tags: , , , , , ,
Categories: Education, Life, Science | Comments (6) | Home

Bookmark and Share

6 Responses to “Are You a Stress Victim or Stress Master?”

  1. Brian |

    Good article, Dr. Taylor.

    Some stress is an important part of our lives as it can keep us sharp and motivated. Our response to it is key, though. As you pointed out, there are physiological responses to perceived threats, most notably a release of adrenaline. Once in a while, this can be a good thing. When it becomes chronic, it’s a problem.

    The results of a chronic state can lead to anxiety (again, once in a while, we all have a little, and it isn’t a problem), panic disorder, and even clinical depression. I suffered panic attacks and depression until about 2 years ago, going all the way back to when I was probably 8 or 9.

    I got in a program that I’d heard about and was taught behavioral modification techniques. Medication can be a wonderful help, but it won’t cure panic/anxiety disorder nor depression.

    The really sad thing about panic/anxiety disorder is that it is learned behavior, self-inflicted torture. The best way that I know of to beat it is to learn and practice other behaviors. It isn’t easy, nor does it happen overnight, but it is doable. After getting about halfway through a 4 month program, I was panic-free. But, it has to be worked on EVERY day, several times a day.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Excellent and thought-provoking. Stress is a bit like many other things — a little is good to keep you going and functioning well; a lot can be very negative, if not deadly.

    Stress is a problem for everyone, not just those in business. Anyone pressured to perform (internally or externally) under conditions of insufficient time (probably the most common problem), demanding superiors and colleagues/friends, unrealistic expectations, or lack of ability will suffer from stress. It applies to academics, athletes, stay-at-home parents, children, soldiers — everyone, really.

    I’ve often thought about the difference between stress and intense fear. They both deal with fight-or-flight and self-defense mechanisms, and both involve adrenalin. Adrenalin, however, may be the difference between the influences of stress and fear (to the extent they are distinguishable). In a combat situation, for example, when it’s obvious that your life is directly threatened, it’s been my experience that you go into a kind of auto-pilot — you do what you’re trained to do, with an intense focus that in my experience doesn’t exist under any other conditions.

    I’ve seen it many times, both in my own reactions and those of other combat pilots — after a hot, dangerous action, you do the job well, to include flying your aircraft very effectively until you’re back on the ground. Then you sit in the cockpit with your hands shaking, your knees too weak to move, and growing nausea. Some vomit as soon as they leave the aircraft. I know that most of that is a reaction to exessive adrenalin, but it’s interesting that it doesn’t take hold until the whole mission is over, even when there’s a long flight back to base under non-threatening conditions. Then, maybe, that’s when it transforms into normal stress. I knew of a case of a combat pilot who was more than once forced to lay on his bunk in a fetal position, in intense pain and feeling like there was a cannon ball in his stomach (not saying who that was, of course!).

  3. drjim |

    @Tom: Interesting perspective, particularly that of a combat pilot where the job is life or death, much like the cavepeople from whom the fight-or-flight response evolved.

  4. Tom Carter |

    The analogy with “cavepeople” is good. When your life is at stake, you can either fight or run. When you can’t run, either because that’s not what you’re supposed to do or it isn’t possible, then literally nothing becomes more important than doing whatever you have to do to prevail and get yourself, and often others, out of harm’s way. I’ve never experienced that kind of intense focus in any other situation, nor have I experienced the kind of stress it subsequently induces in any other case.

  5. Anonymous |

    The only thing in my life where I have ever experienced that primitive feeling is tournament karate fighting, as mano a mano as one can get in civilized society. And that pales in comparison to being a combat pilot. I truly can’t imagine what it is like. You and others like you are an amazing breed!

  6. Foundation of Stress Mastery | Geo436 |

    […] I work with businesspeople, my goal is to help them become “stress masters.” That certainly has a very different — and more empowering — ring to it, doesn’t […]

Leave a Comment

(To avoid spam, comments with three or more links will be held for moderation and approval.)


Recent Posts





Creative Commons License;   

The work on Opinion Forum   
is licensed under a   
Creative Commons Attribution   
3.0 Unported License

Support Military Families 

   Political Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

Listed in LS Blogs the Blog Directory and Blog Search Engine  

Demand Media

Copyright 2024 Opinion Forum