Stress in Science has a simple formula: Stress = Pressure/ Resilience
Pressure denotes an external stimulus such as targets, exams, failure, too many deadlines etc. Resilience is the ability to endure this pressure. However, if the resilience in ignored,
Stress= pressure. Hence, one can say that stress is the lack of resilience in terms of capabilities, positive perceptions or resources when the pressure or demand of a certain kind rises for an individual/ a group. There are external and internal factors which cause stress. External factors are usually triggers from our environment which could be a constant nag of neighbors, chaotic work place, career beginning, city hit by a natural calamity, certain change in policies by government which is unfair to businesses (we all have waited and seen those long queues during demonetization), etc. Major internal factors causing stress are more or less related to one’s own personality. These could be one’s own negative thought cycle pattern, hormonal disturbances, addiction to substances, childhood trauma, long term rough experiences in life which conceived a negative frame of mind, irregular sleep cycle, diet and fitness regime, etc.
It is no more a news that the stress caused affects the body. However, delving deeper into the theory of it would make us stressed to stress. In one of the Ted Talks by Madhumita Murgia on how stress affects our brain, she has given a detailed correlation. It all starts from hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis, a series of interaction between the endocrine gland in the brain and on the kidney which controls our body’s response to stress. Whenever our brain is signaled about a stressful situation, the HPA axis is instantly activated and a hormone called cortisol is released which prepares our body for a reaction. This is necessary for us as human beings so that we can run away from a prey, an attack or situation of such sort. But high levels of cortisol over long periods of time can make life turn upside down. For instance, such levels can increase the activity level and number of neural connections in the amygdala (which is a brain’s fear center). With the rising cortisol levels, the electric signals in the hippocampus (part of the brain associated with learning, memory retention and stress control) deteriorate. This hippocampus also inhibits the activity of the HPA axis, so when it weakens, so does one’s ability to control stress. As suggested by Madhumita Murgia and various other psychologists, cortisol can literally cause the brain to shrink in size. Too much of it results in loss of synaptic connection between neurons and the shrinking of the prefrontal cortex (part of the brain that regulates the behaviors like concentration, decision-making, judgment and social interaction.) This also means that stress can make it harder for one to learn and remember things and make a way for more serious mental problems like depression and eventually Alzheimer’s disease. The effects of stress have the ability to filter down all the way to brain’s DNA. This could affect the genetic codes and hence generations. As it is said, to deal with an enemy one needs to get the right weapons, use them wisely and strategize well. Taking this a step ahead,
Based on the environment that we are exposed to and the frequency of it, following are the types of stress:
- Acute Stress
- Chronic Stress
Acute Stress: It is a stress which is triggered by our external demands and situations which have relatively shorter impact on the psyche and body. This could also come in the form of an enthralling experience, competitive environment or in situations where our animal instincts are important. The individual is aware of this stress and has the capability to regain a rational thought process.
Chronic Stress: This stress is again due to a psychological pressure on the mind and takes vicious form over a prolonged period as the individual finds himself to be incapable to break free and gets trapped believing that this pressure is his reality. More or less stress is accepted as a part of life.
Acute and Chronic stress are different not only in terms of their exposure frequency but also in terms of their severity. This can be further explained through examples as below:
In case of an acute stress, there are certain situations in personal life such as misunderstanding arising with the spouse, kids in the family facing trouble and professionally such as the tension arising in the finale of a competition, unpredictable short-term crisis such as financial, health related or social for which the individual or the group decides to put their heads together and look for a solution.
Whereas, chronic stress can be due to series of certain unresolved issues or because of the lack of visibility for a solution such as end of an important relationship, trauma in the family, consistent pressure from the colleagues/clients/Managers, lack of supportive work environment with high output demands, suppressing oneself and succumbing to the external negative forces.
William Pare and his co-authors in the book, Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, mention about a study conducted on male and female rats (Wistar Kyoto (WKY)) which concluded that females are more vulnerable to chronic stress as compared to males and hence are more susceptible to depression due to avoidance of coping with it. Many studies have found that the stress found in Women is affected by certain aspects such as relationships, family issues and social disturbance whereas stress found in men is dominated by financial issues, work pressure and insecurity. It is more likely for women to acknowledge stress and report it than for men. Women choose to be more expressive and vocal about it as opposed to men who choose to bottle up their emotions until a tipping point is reached. One cannot deter the societal influence from a long time that has dictated such behavior in both men and women. Stress has been labeled as some kind of a disability which can cause serious damage to one’s personal and professional image. Hence it becomes more difficult for a male to pause and say “It is beyond my capacity” or “I don’t have the answer or ability to face it”.
Most commonly observed effects of stress on communication are anger, irritability, insecurity, mood swings and the lack of interest to communicate. The communication that happens is also highly influenced by emotional instability and mood swings. Stress tends to invoke the feelings of anxiety even in small arguments or some light confrontation. This would further lead to vociferous yelling at one moment, regret at another moment which would add to the anxiety and hence the vicious cycle continues. To add to this, if left ignored or escaped through diversions, it could lead to depression, insomnia, addiction to substances, psychosomatic ailments, withdrawal to even worse situations for the individual and the closed ones.
It would be a little unfair to state any profession as stressful since it is the work-environment that can and cannot cause stress. Considering the same, some of the major stressed environment are found in sectors which are more socially engaging or demanding such Media (PR and Journalism), Healthcare, IT (unpaid extra hours at job) and Social work. In a Professional environment, examples of most commonly studied acute stress are as follows:
- A scuffle between two employees due to some verbal conflicts.
- While adapting to a new city (boarding on 7:00 am local train), new work environment with new set of people.
- Being loaded by too many deadlines for a particular week.
- Failing to deliver expected results to client on a certain project.
- New competitors introduced in the existing team.
Some examples of chronic stress are as follows:
- Continuous lack of work-life balance causing trouble in relationships at personal level.
- Too much demand of work and continuous competition with lesser appreciation.
- Limited nurturing of an individual’s career or lesser visibility for growth.
- Culture of ‘all work and less play’.
- Most of all, lack of space for conversations related to stress, inadequate concern and support from the superiors/colleagues, lesser initiatives or inculcation of stress management within the employee welfare policies.
For any problem to be countered, we need to do the root cause analysis. Hence organizations need to have an internal study on their processes and employees to understand the cause of stress, how it is affecting and in what extent has it penetrated within the organization. As it is said that prevention is better than cure, we can focus on carving some preventive steps that could be taken in this direction.
Some of the strategies that could help prevent stressful conversations between people are as follows:
- Effective ways for team bonding through interactive sessions, team building outings, empathy building activities and seminars/ activities outlining the importance of identification and communication of stress: While all such activities have not been alien to any organization, there needs to be high frequency of such activities inviting the top level management to the bottom level. More forums should be set up where the exchange of concerns can be carried out. This will help not just in retaining the employees but will also make them feel connected and one with the organization.
- More appreciation could be given to employees not just based on their output (tangible) but also on an employee’s intangible values of hard work, punctuality, dedication, etc. An employee appreciation week could be rolled out.
- Employing fitness trainers/ dance trainers to motivate employees to engage in physical activities. Company needs to move past the desktop set ups which invites isolation.
- Individuals can also be rewarded with freebies and days off with their family based on their efficiency just to take a back seat for a day or two. This will drive the work with healthy competition and give a fair chance to earn day off. Besides, there must be careful designing and planning for shift workers since their personal and social life goes for a toss.
- While many such plans can be outlined, the major importance point would be how these things are looked at in a board room beyond the numbers and rankings. Hence these approaches should flow from the top level to the bottom level bodies that are at the ground. Special dedicated HR policies should be made focusing on these aspects which would lead to building committees or forums where an employee feels utmost safe to speak and can come up with solution or at least measures to approach towards a solution.
The Johari window:
- I vent out my emotions and only then am I able to find strength to fight out the situation.
- Unable to avoid constant thoughts about the problem.
- Resort to right people for guidance.
- Resort to some spiritual reading with a hope that I would be able to find answers at the right time.
- I get scared and panicked easily.
- Irritable behavior and easily provoked by people.
- Crying and anger keep on juggling in moods.
- Stress easily visible on face.
- Easily fall in the trap of past rough experiences.
- Negative self-talk and self-pity.
- Need external support/boost to think positively.
- Past experiences also drive sometimes to rebel and rise.
Johari window analysis on communication during stress:
- High frequency of thoughts and speaking without thinking.
- Avoiding talking to people and participating.
- Try to portray a dominating behavior.
- Arrogant and disinterested speech.
- Domineering in non-verbal communication.
- Try to be internally defensive while being externally arrogant.
- Avoiding talking to people to avoid confrontations.
- Kind and considerate gestures.
- Genuine listener and conversationalist.
- Majority of the times positive in communication and patient.
- Patient listener and active participator in conversations.
- Make the conversations lighter by light jokes and good anecdotes.
- Genuine interest of learning drives me to talk to people.
- Comfortable around people who seem to be positive and considerate.
- Try to make small conversations where it doesn’t match my interest level.