Stress, it affects every single one of us whether we like it or not. Stress can stem from a variety of things: work, play, love, family, and the list can go on for miles. Anything that we’re emotionally invested in, directly and even indirectly, has the potential to cause us stress in our lives and often does. You cannot avoid stress. Eventually it will seek you out and hunt you down. So if you can’t avoid stress, you might as well be armed to better deal with it.
Like, are we Talking Good Stress or Bad Stress?
Actually, not all stress is the same. For anyone who has ever played a sport you’re probably familiar with butterflies – and I’m not talking about the animal formerly known as the caterpillar. What I am talking about is that queasy feeling that you get in your stomach right before the big game. However, a small dose of stress, like butterflies, can go a long way. Michael Jordan openly admits to having had butterflies before big games, but that didn’t sop him from performing at amazing levels throughout his career. It may have actually helped fuel him.
A stark contrast to butterflies is aversive stress. This is a serious form of stress that is debilitating, and can significantly hinder our performance. This type of stress manifests itself differently in every single person. In fact, neuroscientists struggle to link a single set of universal physiological responses to aversive stress because every person perceives stimuli differently and therefore reacts differently. Dogs may not frighten me; however dogs may scare the hell out of one of my friends leading to a stressful response. This is the type of stress I want to focus on in this post, aversive stress.
Defining Aversive Stress
University of Washing professor and author of Brain Rules, John Medina, describes this negative form of stress as having three main attributes. 1. There must be an aroused physiological response detectable by an outside party. 2. The stressor must be perceived as aversive, meaning if you had the choice of avoid the situation all together you would. 3. The person must not feel in control of the stressor.
A Stressed Brain is a Useless Brain
In relation to stress there are two key hormones at work in our brains, adrenaline and cortisol. At low levels cortisol helps our brains function optimally by facilitating thought and cognition. In response to a stressor soaring cortisol levels paired with a boost of adrenaline can literally paralyze the brain’s critical abilities. In this stressed state we no longer focus on the task at hand, but instead we shift our focus and attention to the stressor which results in sub par performance of our task. In addition to how we respond, prolonged stressful states can actually negatively affect the way we learn and intake information. Furthermore, stress lowers our body’s ability to fight off illness because our immune systems weaken with our hormonal surges.
Stressors that are perceived as out of our control often do the most damage to our brains and bodies. When we perceive to have little or no control over a situation the hypothetical negative outcomes we tend to focus on are knock out punch. It’s simple. Human beings don’t like the unknown. In relation to stress, human beings hate the unknown, especially when the unknown is almost certain to result in a negative outcome. Our current economy is a prime example. There is no telling how bad our economic situation may continue to get, but because the future is unknown and laced with negativity it gives many people a reason to stress.
On the flip side having too much control leaves us too emotionally (hormonally) invested in things that may not be of actual concern to us. It’s important to learn what you can and cannot control in your life and more importantly accept it; by doing so you can deflect potentially stressful situations and the biological response that accompanies them. This is easier said than done and often requires you to pull away from your emotions in a heightened state to examine your response from a logical stand point.
How we deal with stress has a lot to do with our biology. Some people are just biologically better at dealing with stress than others. In fact, men, on average tend to be better at coping with stress than women. I will note that this does not make men more capable than women, because on average women are much better at perceiving other’s emotional states. It’s a give and take of social intelligence that balances out in the end.
Stress at Work
Whether you’re an entry level employee or an executive, you’re face to face with stress every single day in the work place. Stress has a trickle down effect from the very top of our organizations that can permeate the entire culture of a company. There is and always will be constant pressure to improve and achieve our goals. Sometimes this pressure is enough to cause aversive stress, and for many it does.
Leaders and bosses should be extremely mindful of stress formation and stress reaction amongst their employees. The pressure of constant improvement coupled with negative outbursts from a boss can be disastrous for professionals. Stress, like our emotions, is contagious. If the tone of management has become increasingly negative or perceived as hostile, you can rest assure the quality of work will suffer in the long run unless changes are made.
Bosses should make a conscious effort to focus on how they choose to motivate and communicate with their staff. If you’re in the unfortunate situation of working in a job that causes you great amounts of stress my best advice is to get out. There is no telling the toll that the stress may be taking on your brain and body.