Managing Stress: How to Cope With Change
Whenever we experience change in our lives, we experience physical and psychological responses that we know collectively as stress. Sometimes the changes we experience affect our physical lives. Other changes may be primarily psychological and require a paradigm shift.
We experience change all the time. We grow older, we change jobs, we gain experience. We enjoy gains, we suffer losses. Change is all around us - sometimes threatening, sometimes exciting, always present. If you try to ignore change, you will likely be knocked off balance. If you get angry at change, you could make things worse. Thinking about "the good old days" won't make them return. Strangely enough, these are the "good old days" that many of us will look back on.
Change creates stress. It affects the way we think and behave. While we cannot always prevent or control the changes we experience, we can control how we respond to those changes. We can learn to manage stress and change. We can control what is controllable.
A paradigm is a model. It's a way of looking at the world and trying to make sense of it. It's our own individual way to explain "the way things are." Paradigms tend to get entrenched. Once we establish a paradigm, we tend to hold onto it as long as possible. After a while, the explanation for "the way things are" becomes a moral imperative for "how things ought to be." Some paradigms are very individualized. A great many are shared by members of a family, workgroups, ethnic groups, and society as a whole. What are some of your personal paradigms?
Most of us won't admit it openly, but nearly everyone, at some time, assumes that the way things are is the way they'll always be.
- When your kids are in diapers, it's hard to imagine a time when they'll use the bathroom on their own.
- When you get a new car, you don't often think about when you plan to trade it in.
- When you've been in a job for a while, it's easy to think you'll always be there.
Think about some of the changes that we've all experienced over the past ten years:
- More than half of all U.S companies were merged, acquired, or otherwise restructured.
- Nearly a million organizations filed for bankruptcy.
- The World Trade Towers were destroyed.
- The Blackberry and other communications/computing devices have extended the boundaries of the workplace.
Remember what it was like before computers, PDAs, the Internet, etc.? Now put yourself in the place of a 14 year old, who has always known about computers, Game-Boys, X-Boxes and other electronic toys. How are your paradigms different?
Your father may have given you some advice when you were growing up regarding how to act on a job, and what you could expect from your employer. Would his advice be valid today?
Paradigms help us to know who are the good guys and the bad guys, and how to tell them apart. Many of the bad guys of 20 years ago are now good guys - and vice versa. Some of today's good guys and bad guys are people we might not even have heard of a few years ago.
- Millions of Americans now earn their living in occupations that did not exist 30 years ago.
- More millions of jobs have disappeared as a result of technology shifts.
These days, it's not enough to be trained or skilled in a specific area. With the pace of change as fast as it is, what you know may be obsolete in five years or less. What's as important as learning is - learning how to learn. What jobs will be created in the next 10-20 years? Will you be ready to do any of them?
Creating new paradigms is hard work and most people tend to resist doing it. Even people who are in the "idea business" often find it hard to do. Scientist and writer Arthur C. Clarke said two things that explain the difficulty of paradigm shifts:
- "Technology, when sufficiently advanced beyond the experience of the observer, is indistinguishable from magic."
- "The universe is not stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."
Which all beings us back to the issue of stress. Stress is what we feel physically and mentally when we undergo any kind of change in our lives. The more change, the more stress we feel. The more rapid the change, the more stress we experience. Stress is necessary. In small amounts, it's what keeps us going. If you have no stress at all, you're probably dead, but persistently high levels of stress can weaken the body.
- Stress affects how we think, feel, and behave.
- The chemical changes in the body which are a result of stress create what is called the "Fight-Flight" syndrome.
- Everyone has a characteristic response to stress that will fall under one of the categories of "Fight" or "Flight." We are all capable of either, but we will tend to choose one over the other most of the time.
- The General Adaptation Syndrome is a description of how our bodies react to stress under different conditions.
- When we perceive what we consider to be a dangerous or stressful situation, we set off a chemical cascade inside, which causes our bodies to get ready for action. This is known as the Alarm Phase.
- Once the danger has passed, the stress response subsides, and we go back to normal. This is called the Recovery Phase.
- If we are confronted by many dangers in close succession, we don't go into recovery. Instead, we go into a Resistance Phase, which is less intense than the Alarm Phase, and allows us to stay in action for as long as necessary.
- But we all have limits. If the stressors continue long enough, we eventually run out of energy to maintain our level of action. When this happens, we experience Exhaustion.
- Once we become exhausted, it takes much longer to return to "baseline." We may be out of commission for several hours, days, or even weeks.
- The body's stress response leads to increased heart rate and respiration. Blood pressure increases. Skin temperature at the extremities decreases. Perspiration increases. Our bodies go into "Action Mode."
So where does stress come from? Stress comes from things we do, as well as the things that go on around us. We control some of these things, but others "just happen." Even things we consider "good" for us cause stress, such as getting married or going on vacation.
The sum total of life events over a defined period can give you a pretty accurate measure of whether your stress can threaten your health. One measure that has been around for awhile is the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale. You can get a copy of it and measure your risk. If you like, I'll be glad to send you a link to the instrument. Just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll get it right out to you.
There is a school of thought that says that some of us just cause our own stresses. People who have a so-called Type A Personality have certain characteristics that are believed to make them more vulnerable to stress. What does a Type A personality look like? It's a temperament marked by excessive competitiveness and ambition, an obsession with accomplishing tasks quickly, and a strong need for personal control in nearly every aspect of life.
If you think you might be hard-wired to bring stress on yourself, you might be able to tell by taking a Type A Personality Test. There are several you can find on the Internet, and if you like, I can send you a link to one I think is a good one. Just request it from me by email.
When a company undergoes changes, such as new machinery and processes, reorganization, new hires, merger or downsizing, it gets people's attention. It's unsettling, but not always a thoroughly bad thing. It can lead to self-examination and motivation to stretch beyond the usual boundaries.
You can use such changes to create a "starting over" point for yourself, as a motivating event to help you grow. You can begin by setting some goals for yourself - specific, measurable, and attainable. Don't spread yourself too thin or try to go in too many directions at once. Just be sure you have a sense of purpose in both your professional and your personal life.
Here are some other stress management tips you might be able to use:
- Your attitude is one of the few things in this world that is totally under your control. While you may not have a lot of control over what happens around you, you are totally in charge of how you respond to it.
- You can choose to brood over what you've lost or over what might go wrong. You can worry yourself sick. Or you can search out opportunities, embrace the challenge, and live with optimism.
- You don't need The Reader's Digest to tell you that laughter is the best medicine. You've known it instinctively all along. A sense of humor keeps things in perspective. It's a sign of maturity to be able to poke fun at yourself or the situation you're in. It's also therapeutic. A good cry is OK every now and then, but a good laugh is a superior emotional release and more fun than shedding tears. Overall, your life and work will be more pleasurable and fulfilling to you when you can laugh.
Join the crowd. You are not the only one going through changes. Change happens in business and nearly every aspect of your life, and it's been going on for years. It happens to millions of people all the time.
One way of coping with stress is to focus your attention away from the areas of your life that are undergoing rapid and uncontrollable change to those which are more stable and under your control. You can learn to create or enlarge your stability zones.
Stability zones are those areas of your life that can be depended upon to remain fairly constant, or which undergo only gradual changes over time. These stability zones include:
- Possessions, such as heirlooms, collections, or desktop objects. In others words - your stuff.
- Habitat - your living/working space.
- People - the relationships in your life.
- Behavior, which includes rituals, habits and routines that remain fairly stable over time.
Organizational changes threaten to destabilize many areas of life. We change familiar routines, we separate from familiar coworkers and meet new ones, we lose touch with a familiar work environment and have to get used to a new one, and we even have to adjust to new technology in such fundamental areas as keeping a schedule, taking phone messages, etc.
It's very common for the changes you experience to affect your personal and professional goals. Changes in your life and work will usually cause you to question, or perhaps change, your assumptions about fundamental aspects of your life.
And that brings us back to the issue of paradigm shifts. In order to change your behavior, you have to first change your assumptions about the way things are, and figure out how those changed assumptions will impact reality. Every paradigm - or model - has certain underlying assumptions.
Here's an example: Suppose your goal is to own your own home. Your assumptions might include that you and your spouse will continue to be a two-income household and that interest rates will stay low. There are uncontrollable events that could make your assumptions invalid - you could get laid off, or interest rates could go up. These events would necessarily affect your ability to achieve your goal.
Managing stress is a personal journey. Think about this: A great many people, even Type A people, don't get sick from their stresses because they are taking steps to manage the stress in their lives, and not letting stress affect them negatively. Perhaps they exercise regularly, watch their weight, listen to classical music . . . There are a great many techniques for lowering or managing stress. Here are just a few examples:
- Transcendental Meditation (or its generic equivalent) has been shown to be effective in reducing blood pressure, increasing energy, and inducing an overall feeling of well-being in its practitioners.
- Progressive relaxation isolates different muscle groups and alternately tenses and relaxes them. After practice for several weeks, you can learn how to control these different muscle groups at will.
- Autogenic training is a form of self-hypnosis that enables you to control some of the autonomic processes in your body and put them into their relaxation mode, rather than the stress mode.
- Massage. What can you say about massage? It just makes you feel good all over, and releases a lot of the muscle tension we build up over time.
- Cardio exercise has been demonstrated to help people increase the strength of their heart, lower blood pressure and resting pulse rate, and lose weight. You can't go wrong with that!
Pick one you like and use it!
Stress affects us physically and psychologically, and is generally a result of changes we experience in our lives. We can't control everything in our environment, but we can control how we respond to those experiences. Learning how to manage our paradigms and assumptions, taking care of ourselves physically, practicing one or more stress relieving techniques, and developing a personal support system with people we love and trust can all help with making sure that stress doesn't bring us down.