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Understanding And Managing Work-Related Stress

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What is Stress?

According to the Organizational Behavior textbook, it is an individual’s “adaptive response to a situation that is perceived as challenging or threatening to the person’s wellbeing” (p.198). Stress is a feeling that is created when we react to particular events, the body's way of rising to a challenge and preparing to meet a tough situation with focus, strength, stamina, and heightened alertness. The events that provoke stress are called stressors, and they cover a whole range of situations, everything from outright physical danger to making a class presentation or taking a semester's worth of your toughest subject.

The Stress Response

The human body responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones that speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting our muscles on alert. Pupils dilate to improve vision. The liver releases some of its stored glucose to increase the body's energy. And sweat is produced to cool the body. All of these physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment. This natural reaction is known as the stress response. Working properly, the body's stress response enhances a person's ability to perform well under pressure. But the stress response can also cause problems when it overreacts or fails to turn off and reset itself properly.

The stress response (also called the “fight or flight” response) is critical during emergency situations, such as when a driver has to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. It can also be activated in a milder form at a time when the pressure is on but there is no actual danger - like stepping up to take the foul shot that could win the game, getting ready to go to a big dance, or sitting down for a final exam. A little of this stress can help keep you on your toes, ready to rise to a challenge, and afterwards, the nervous system quickly returns to its normal state, standing by to respond again when needed.

The Stress Experience

Stress, however, does not always happen in response to things that are immediate or that are over quickly. Ongoing or long-term events, like coping with a divorce or moving to a new neighborhood or school, can cause stress too. Long-term stressful situations can produce a lasting, low-level stress that is hard on people. The nervous system senses continued pressure and may remain slightly activated and continue to pump out extra stress hormones over an extended period. This can wear out the body's reserves, leave a person feeling depleted or overwhelmed, and weaken the body's immune system, among other problems.

People who are experiencing stress overload may notice some of the following signs:

• anxiety or panic attacks

• a feeling of being constantly pressured, hassled, and hurried

• irritability and moodiness

• physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, or even chest pain

• allergic reactions, such as eczema or asthma

• problems sleeping

• drinking too much, smoking, overeating, or doing drugs

• sadness or depression

Everyone experiences stress a little differently. Some people become angry and act out their stress or take it out on others. Some people internalize it and develop eating disorders or substance abuse problems. And some people who have a chronic illness may find that the symptoms of their illness flare up under an overload of stress.

The Stress Process

One of the earliest theories about the stress process is that of the American physiologist Walter B. Cannon known as the Fight or Flight Response (1932). His work showed that when a person (or an animal) experiences a shock or perceives a threat, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive. These hormones help us to run faster and fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. They increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss if we are damaged. All of this significantly improves our ability to survive threatening events.

The General Adaptation Syndrome provides another description of the stress process. Developed by Hans Selye (1907-1982), an Austrian-born physician who immigrated to Canada in 1939, this theory represents a three-stage reaction to stress (see Figure 1 below). Selye selected the term adaptation to focus on stress as a physical reaction that stimulates defense from a threatening situation.

The Alarm Stage is the start-up stage which defines the first reaction to the stressor. There is over-acting of the sympathetic nervous system wherein adrenaline and cortisol increase and blood flows away from the brain to the muscles. As a result, the brain moderates the flow of information, slowing or closing down the nonessential body functions. The whole body starts preparing itself to fight against the reason of stress. The fear, excitement or pressure is evident on the sufferer's face. If the cause of the stress is removed, the body will go back to normal.

If the cause for the stress is not removed, GAS describes a second stage called Resistance or Adaptation. This is the body’s response to long term protection. It secretes further hormones that increase blood sugar levels to sustain energy and raise blood pressure. The adrenal cortex (outer covering) produces hormones called corticosteroids for this resistance reaction.

In this stage, the body keeps making continuous efforts to cope with stress and if it continues for a prolonged period of time without periods of relaxation and rest to counterbalance the stress response, the person starts to feel run-down and exhausted, becomes irritated, over-reacts to minor situations and gets mentally and physically weak. Psychological, physical and behavioral changes are also clearly visible.

In the Exhaustion Stage, the body has run out of its reserve of body energy and immunity. This stage is further divided into two phases. There is an Initial Phase where mental, physical and emotional



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