More on stress

May 1, 1998

More on Stress

By Richard Komarniski

May-June 1998

Last month, we discussed stress as a part of our lives, both at home and on the job. We discussed different types of stress, how different types of individuals deal with stress, and a few ways to cope with stress in our lives. In the following article, we will look at sources of stress, signs of stress, and provide techniques that can be used to reduce stress or at least manage stress that occurs whether at home or in your job.

Stress can adversely affect your health, including both your mental and physical well being. One way to cope with stress is to be in good physical condition. To be prepared to deal with stress, it helps to be physically fit. A good diet, obtaining adequate rest, and regular exercise are proven methods for coping with stress. A recent Stanford University study found that those who engaged in regular exercise experienced a 30 percent reduction in levels of stress, anxiety and depression. The Stanford University study confirms my own experiences.

Early in my career I was involved in an incident in which an aircraft under my responsibility was declared a total loss due to a maintenance-related accident. Fortunately, no one was hurt or killed, but I had to deal with a phenomenal amount of stress over what seemed to be a long period of time.

During this period, I was extremely fortunate to be living a short walk away from a swimming pool that I used to swim laps in every day. Looking back I realize how lucky I was to have access to that pool and its use as a tool to relieve the stress that I was facing. Exercise is one of mother nature's treatments for stress and tension. Focus your energy in a long swim, walk, run, bike ride, or hard workout and you will feel better (perhaps with a lot of sweat) and be better equipped to handle the stresses you face.

A more subtle form of stress which can be encountered especially in the work place is politics at work. I have worked in an environment for a short period where there was not very much to do. The employees became bored and some started to play "mind games" with their co-workers. Idle minds and hands may be capable of creating more stress than we can imagine. I would rather be part of an organization that is struggling with all the stress and problems of growth than to be a part of an organization where we had too much idle time on our hands.

Sources of Stress
Stress can be created from many different sources. Understanding where stress can come from, in all of its different forms can be extremely helpful to developing approaches to cope with stress. A very significant source of stress is significant life events that require substantial readjustment. Much has been written about how life changing events or significant challenges in our lives can create overwhelming stresses. If not properly managed, the stress that is created can result in additional life changing events. It is not too difficult to look at these life events and the results that can occur as we would look at the chain of events in an accident or incident. Many of the human factors issues effecting us as professional aviation technicians, which we have discussed over the past months, also are very applicable in our personal lives. A few of these life events which can create significant stress are identified below.
• Family changes — Marriage, divorce or separation, pregnancy or a new child, death in the family, friction with spouse or children, spouse starting or ending a job or career, children leaving (or returning) home.
• Work — Unemployment, uncertainty about job future, change in work assignment, friction with supervisor, incompatibility with co-workers, anticipating retirement.
• Personal — Change in living conditions, legal problems, sexual difficulties, personal injury or illness, death of a close friend, beginning or ending of romantic relationships.
• Financial — Major change in financial status, inability to meet ongoing expenses.

If you spend a great deal of time worrying about how to deal with these problems you are probably under a significant amount of stress.

Early Signs of Stress
Understanding the signs of stress can give us an early warning that stress is working on us and give us a chance to implement stress reduction or stress coping techniques. Knowing these early warning signs can be extremely important in our ability to head off the adverse consequences of stress, before stress can do more damage to our bodies and our minds. The following is a few early warning signs.
• Body systems begin to malfunction as energy reserves are drained
• Disruptions occur in eating patterns, sleep habits, and sexual activity
• Errors in judgment occur more frequently
• Generalized anxiety, poor concentration, and memory loss become noticeable
• Personality changes, including increased irritability, begin to surface
• Frequently severe headaches are experienced
• Stomach distress, including ulcers, occurs
• Sweaty or cold hands
• Breathing difficulties are experienced during the day or at night

Failure to see these early warning signs of the effects of stress can lead to more serious problems. For example, recent scientific studies have shown that prolonged stress can compromise your immune systems, leaving them more susceptible to such contagious diseases as colds and the flu and less able to fight more serious illnesses like cancer. Be aware of the early signs of stress and be prepared to take steps to reduce or eliminate the sources of this stress.

Techniques to Reduce or Eliminate Stress
There are many techniques you can use to reduce stress or to eliminate the source of stress. Some of these techniques are easy, some are hard. Different techniques work for different people. Learn to use some of these techniques and find something that works for you. Implement it in your personal and work life and you will be on your way to reducing the stress you must face or at least managing this stress and the negative impact it can have on you.
• Make a "to do list" for tomorrow. Sort through your work, reorder your priorities, and make a list on paper so you do not have to constantly remember everything you must do.
• Take deep cleansing breaths when you feel tension or when you are being overwhelmed.
• Travel light. If you do not have to work at home, leave the briefcase at work.
• Help someone who cannot help you in return.
• Learn to leave stress at the office.
• Clean up you work area.
• Take on some hobbies which you enjoy and provide personal satisfaction, but be careful about taking on hobbies that can create another source of stress.
• Develop better time management skills by reading articles and books on time management or attending a seminar or two.
• Dream and then set personal goals with realistic steps to turn these dreams into reality.
• Go with change rather than against it. Accept change and you will be able to make positive influences in the process.
• To deal with stress when demands seem overwhelming, break problems into smaller pieces — these demands often become easier to confront and solve.
• Exercise helps some people and keeping fit makes you more stress proof. Invest 30 minutes in vigorous physical exercise three to five times per week (assuming you have your doctor's approval).
• Take advantage of the various workshops and information that is available through institutions, colleges, and hospitals. Even talking with friends and colleagues can help.
• If a problem seems insurmountable, get some additional help. One of the best places to start may be with a reputable therapist, including a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, general practitioner, or nurse with special training in the field.
• Many theologians have long believed that prayer, or other types of meditative breaks, can have astounding therapeutic effects.
• Smile more. Laugh. Laughter is a proven stress-coping mechanism.
• If job factors are creating stress, do something about them. Talk with your supervisor or someone in your organization who can be helpful. Do not let the situation drift on and on.
• Set aside regularly scheduled free time for relaxation. This is an easy and proven stress reduction strategy.
• Count your blessings daily. Make thankfulness a habit.
• Learn to communicate better, thus helping to reduce interpersonal conflict and maintaining a positive mental attitude. Effective communications enhances conflict resolution.
• Forgive. Grudges are too heavy to carry around.
Establish and maintain a balance between work, family, and recreation. Your family will appreciate this and it will minimize the effects of stress.

Finally, when you are thinking about how to respond to a stressful situation, ask yourself, "How much control do I have?" To cope with stress that we have no control over, the best plan is to identify the source, put the situation into perspective, determine what is the worst that is likely to happen, and then set a game plan to deal with the inevitable. Pray and use your energy to bounce back. If we have control over the situation with proper planning and communication, we can probably prevent the negative effects of stress completely. Tomorrow promises to be an even more complex world than today. Although many things can be done to reduce the effects of stress and to relieve the discomfort it causes, some stress is inevitable. Learning to prevent or reduce stress is much better than having to come up with a cure for all of the negative effects stress can produce.