In the ever-demanding world of work you are often warned that “stress kills”.
However, according to Occupational Therapist Lennox Rochester this does not have to be the case.
Rochester recently explored the issue during a lecture on the topic Managing Stress, hosted by the National Council on Substance Abuse, as part of activities to mark Drug Awareness Month, which is observed from January 1 to 31.
Defining stress as “the way the body reacts when faced with a new or challenging situation”, he explained that not all stress was bad.
In fact, he said there were two types of stress: Good stress, which is needed for some parts of your daily performance at work, meeting challenges and playing sport, and bad stress, which is not the stress per se, but it’s the level of stress that results in frustration and failure.
“Consider yourself a vessel, using the metric two litres. When things are poured into you and your capacity has been exceeded you will either leak, over pour or burst,” Rochester said.
He further broke down stress into three levels. There is the optimum level, where stress is moderate and relates to the elements that challenge a person to give of their best. Then, there is the under-stressed level, which pertains to a situation in which a person is unmotivated, and therefore highly likely to be an underperformer and thirdly, there is the notorious over-stressed level, which, if unaddressed, can not only hurt productivity, but also wreak havoc on the body in the long-term, as well as interpersonal relationships.
What causes stress on the job?
Environmental problems, high noise levels, overcrowding, poor lighting and ventilation, poor or unclear job design, low pay, unsocial hours, shift work and lack of adequate rest are just a few of the contributing factors.
These issues can trigger negative reactions from employees and they may exhibit unusual behaviours, such as increased tardiness, low productivity, poor grooming and making hasty decisions.
Special attention should be placed on the early warning signs that your body is over-stressed. These include frequent headaches, excessive belching and/or flatulence, rash, a racing heart and chest pains, diarrhea or constipation, ulcers of the mouth and stomach, loss of appetite or binge eating, weight gain, panic attacks, depression and irritability.
It is against this background that Rochester urged people to educate themselves about the signs and symptoms of stress, as they can potentially lead to serious health issues.
“Possible physical disorders caused by, or exacerbated by stress [are] hypertension, cardio-vascular diseases, migraine or tension headaches, cancer [and] arthritis. The more stressed you are, the more pain you get in your joints, respiratory diseases, ulcers and muscle tension problems.
“Long-term possible emotional disorders caused or exacerbated by stress are panic attacks, adjustment disorders, and behavioural disorders,” Rochester added.
He underscored the importance of seeking professional advice, while responding to a question about whether forgetfulness could be as a result of stress.
“You will pretty much have to explore your life and do an inventory because those same symptoms could be those of another condition as well, and the thing is, if it’s one of the organic diseases [for example Alzheimer’s] that’s coming on, you will be stressed out by the imminence and the fear of how it will impact you,” he said.
The aforementioned factors are general effects, but did you know that stress affects men and women differently?
“Females produce copious amounts of oxytocin, which is related to childbirth and breast feeding et cetera, and when it is combined with estrogen it enhances relaxation, reduces fearfulness, and lowers stress in the female, so she becomes more pro-social and seeks support.
“The male, on the other hand, produces little oxytocin, and testosterone, in Bajan parlance, kills it. What happens is that he is more likely to fight a stressful situation and tends to become more self-centered and socially withdrawn,” Rochester explained.
It is against this background that the therapist urged people to support their partners, friends, or relatives while they are trying to cope with a stressful situation. He also assured those who may be struggling that there was nothing wrong with seeking help.
“The reality is that we should try to use active coping strategies, but sometimes we cannot do that on our own. We sometimes need people to help us negotiate that, but a lot of us also have issues with feeling dependent and underpinning all of that is trust. Some of us build walls which we think are protective, but then they become prisons because they keep us from coming out,” Rochester advised.
He further explained that there were two types of coping strategies: active, which he defined as “either behavioural or psychological responses designed to change the nature of the stressor itself or how one reacts “or avoidant coping strategy in which a person either resorts to alcohol and/or illegal drugs, or becomes reclusive.
“This is unhealthy and can lead to psychological problems,” Rochester warned, while suggesting several ways in which persons could reduce stress levels.
Among them, incorporating exercise into your daily routine; seeking support from family, friends or professionally; taking a much needed vacation; creating and sticking to a relaxation routine; or even engaging in relaxation through yoga and meditation.
He also stressed the importance of getting adequate sleep.
“We don’t pay enough attention to sleep. The central nervous system is repaired when you sleep . . . . Do you know that if you don’t have one good night’s sleep you have a mental health problem the next day? I didn’t say you have a mental illness, but a mental health problem. Your interactions will be affected, you’ll be anxious and irritable and you will not be able to concentrate. If that goes on for a long time, it affects your overall functioning,” Rochester cautioned.
Aside from turning to coping techniques, he emphasized the need to think positively and to take a break from work when we leave the office.
“Very often, we see situations as we are, and not as the situation is, and we frame it in terms of our own experience and that can be problematic. Some of us live in our own heads and that is a problem.
“Stressors in the workplace can affect an individual in the home, social arena and vice versa. The reality is that most of us don’t necessarily put off our work self and certain things we carry forward in our heads and that is something we need to practise,” he said.