Organisational Change Management Volume 2

23. Stress

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Introduction

. Stress is defined as

"...a psychological response to any change, whether good or bad, that alerts the adaptive flight-or-fight response in the brain and the body..."

Herbert Benson as quoted by Bronwyn Fryer, 2006

. With increasing pressure to perform in the work environment, stress is an intrinsic part of work and a critical element of achievement. Increasing pressure is coming from such factors as intensified competition, rapid market changes and an unending stream of bad news on natural disasters, terrorism and the state of the economy, etc combined with apparent helplessness at being unable to influence these activities

. Stress can cause people to act out of character. For example, some make selfish choices, use sexist language , make superficial judgments, etc.

. When people are under pressure or stress, their strengths can turn into the dark sides of their personalities that can cause derailing behaviours. They can become too extreme, eg
"...- from authentic and calculated to impulsive and manipulative
    - independent and challenging to loyal and conforming
    - naive, trusting and forgiving to suspicious, argumentative and shrewd
    - tolerant, flexible, undemanding to hard-working, scrupulous and controlling
    - tactical, detailed focus to strategic, unfocused and expansive
    - appropriate and modest to dramatic, flirtatious and noisy
    - peaceful and relaxed to volatile, passionate and emotional
    - humble, constrained and self-depreciating to forceful, arrogant and demanding...
"
Ben Hogan as quoted by AFRBoss, 2015a

Some specific examples

- boldness can become narcissistic (News Corporation ‐ Rupert Murdoch)

- detailed-oriented and hardworking can become demanding and micro-managing (former Australian PM, Kevin Rudd)

There can be a fine line between boldness and bullying, healthy scepticism and suspicion. Need to be aware that sometimes positive character traits  too intensified and thus less helpful when the individual is stressed.
In some situations, qualities, such as boldness and imagination, become extreme, undesirable, anti-social traits under pressure. Generally leaders score high on boldness, mischievousness, helpfulness and imagination. On the other hand, if they become too extreme in any one trait when under pressure or stress, it backfires. For example, if they are bold, they may become extremely domineering.

. Stress can be linked to anxiety and fear. Too much fear/anxiety/stress can disrupt our ability to make logical decisions and over-estimate risks. On the other hand, small amounts of stress can enhance performance. There is evidence to suggest that efficiency increases when stress increases, but only up to a point; after that, performance decreases dramatically

. It is interesting to note that our brains (especially the amygdala) are designed to act first and to think later; with far more connections leading from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex than in the other direction. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain most responsible for planning and reasoning. This may be one reason why it is difficult to exert conscious control and logic over our fear. In other words, because

"...our brains are wired to feel before they think and indeed to feel at lightning-fast speed, our amygdala will often make mistakes..."

Robert Winston (2002)

eg mistaking a stick for a snake

"...emotion paves the road for conscious thought for one very good reason: if it didn't, we'd all have been bitten by snakes long ago..."

Robert Winston (2002)

. The question is: When does stress help and when does it hurt?

"...Studies show that the way we respond to stress depends upon the type of stress and whenever we feel able to control it. Short-term controlled stress......can actually boost the production of the body's own infection-fighting cells. Similarly, long-term controlled stress can result in increased production of the relaxant chemicals such as endorphins and enkephalins. This might explain why, when engaged in a period a high stress, we often fall ill after the pressure has eased off, rather than during it......most damaging kind of stress is the stress we feel we cannot control......various types of uncontrollable stress can cause most damage to the immune system...... help them to improve the response of their immune system. This is a possible reason why activities like group therapy and relaxation techniques may have beneficial effects......the more we feel we can control stress, the better placed our immune system to cope with its effects..."

Robert Winston, 2003

Furthermore, the duration of the stress is important. It is suggested that we have evolved to handle acute stress, ie facing danger of seconds or minutes but not chronic stress, ie under pressure for hours, days, weeks, etc. In modern society, chronic stress is more prevalent and we are not designed to handle it.

"...Stress causes the body to produce a real nasty set of hormones......glucocorticoids. They are good for short-term response to trauma and strain, but they aren't supposed to hang around for long. Certain types of stress can cause these hormones to overstay their welcome, and if they do, real damage occurs to the body, including your brain. The webbing between brain cells that holds your most precious memories can become disconnected. The brain can stop giving birth to new neurons. Stress hormones seem to have a particular liking for the cells in the hippocampus, and that's a problem because the hippocampus is deeply involved in many aspects of human learning. The result? Stressed people don't do math very well. They don't process language very efficiently, and they have poorer memories, both short- and long-term......one study even showed that adults with chronic high stress levels performed 50 percent worse on certain cognitive tests than adults without stress..."

John Medina as quoted by Diane Coutu, 2008

Remember: the brain is less interested in reality, and more in survival. Thus it will change the perception of reality to "survive".

. Eustress is defined as good stress which gives us energy and motivates us to strive and produce. The benefits of eustress are clear thinking, focus and creative insight. It has 3 indicators (engagement, forgiveness and good behaviours)

. On the other hand, too much negative stress (distress) can cause "burn-out"and suppresses the immune system which can increase the vulnerability of some people to diseases and illness, including depression, heart condition, diabetes, cancer, etc. Some symptoms of negative stress include

- anxiety

- increased aggression

- feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to cope

- lower work performance

- increased sick days

- fatigue

- depression

- sleeping difficulties

- cognitive difficulties, such as reduced ability to concentrate or make decisions

- headaches

- heart palpitations

- gastrointestinal upsets, such as diarrhoea or constipation

It has been claimed (Samantha Keen, 2007) that reactions to stress need to be managed, before they become more dangerous risk factors for cancer and heart disease than either cigarette smoking or high cholesterol foods

. When most people talk about stress, they are referring to the negative type that can be caused by activities at work, in the home and/or world events ‐ anything which contributes to making us feel helpless

 

. When exposed to excessively long periods of the fight-or-flight response, our system becomes flooded with hormones, such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. This causes blood pressure to rise and the heart rate and brain activity to increase, which produces effects that are very deleterious over time.

 

When under stress, the heart rate, sugar release and other action-orientated functions are stimulated, ie more adrenaline is produced, your blood pressure rises, your production of cortisone increases and your anxiety peaks. This alters the immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes. This helps explain why chronic stress is slow to heal and puts you at a greater risk from auto immune-related conditions.

 

How to handle negative stress

 

· To manage stress requires the use of relaxation techniques that will reduce your heart rate, relax muscles and soothe your anxiety. It is impossible to be relaxed and stressed at the same time. These techniques include meditation, prayer, chanting and singing, tai chi, yoga, aromatherapy, massage, music, deep breathing, positive attitude, time management and associating with supportive people, etc. These methods can all lead to physical and mental rejuvenation by treating and preventing heart disease, high blood pressure, headaches and auto immune diseases like arthritis, etc plus emotional disturbances, such as anxiety.

There is some evidence that colouring in pictures helps people relax. The act of colouring can change brain behaviour and help people achieve calm and balance. Tests showing
"...patients with "beta" brain wave frequencies - the time associated with physical or mental stress - can be switched to the more restful and positive "alpha" brainwave frequencies by colouring pictures..."
Peter Ker, 2015
This is similar to listening to music or watching your favourite TV program, ie you are not concentrating or focusing too much. It is a great way to de-stress and to clear your mind when you are distracted or need clarity
In mid-2015, one of the bestselling books on Amazon was Secret Garden (an adult's colouring book)
It has been described as a mindful, creative activity with no element of competition or failure.
It is estimated that our brain's current shape is around 150 million years old and operates as such. On the other hand, during the last few decades we have our work environment getting busier and technology changing the way we work, ie 24/7.
Research is showing a relationship between the number of thoughts in your head and how happy you are, ie the more thoughts that are in your head, the less happy you are; regardless of what those thoughts are. So by reducing your thoughts you are improving your happiness

. Strategies to manage stress include relaxation techniques which induce a physical state of deep rest that counters the harmful effects of the flight-or-fight response. Studies have shown that this relaxation technique releases, in the brain, small amounts of nitric oxide, which is linked with the production of neurotransmitters such as endorphins and dopamine - which in turn enhance feelings of well-being. As the brain quiets down, another phenomenon, called "calm commotion", kicks in and instigates a focused increase in activity, in the area of the brain associated with attention, space-time concepts and decision-making. As a result, people often experience a sudden creative insight in which the solution to the problem becomes apparent. This is a momentary phenomenon. Afterwards, there is a state of sustained, improved performance. In other words,

"...bringing the brain to the height of activity and then suddenly moving it into a passive, a slack state, it's possible to stimulate much higher neurological performance than otherwise would be the case. Over time, subjects who learned to do this as a matter of course performed at consistently higher levels..."

 

Herbert Benson as quoted by Bronwyn Fryer, 2006

 

· Exercise - our bodies are built for walking up to 20 km per day, ie designed for mobility, not sitting at desk behind a computer.  Physical activity also  clears the brain & reduce anxiety by increasing serotonin & dopamine (calming neurotransmitters)

 

· Aerobic exercises reduce anxiety by increasing serotonin & dopamine, the calming neurotransmitters

 

Some remedial steps while under significant stress are

 

. Concentrate intensely on solving the problem until you feel productivity is falling and you are starting to get stressed, ie unpleasant feelings of anxiety, fearfulness, anger or boredom, procrastination, headache, a knot in the stomach, sweaty palms, etc

. Take the appropriate break as part of relaxation response, such as doing some exercise, working on your favourite hobby, sleeping on it, etc. Any of these things may bring about the mental rearrangement that is the foundation for new insights, solutions and creativity. In other words,

"...the key is to stop analysing, surrender control, and completely detach yourself from the stress-producing thoughts..."

Herbert Benson as quoted by Bronwyn Fryer, 2006

. Gain a sudden insight to provide the actual breakout. This is experienced when the sense of well-being and relaxation brings with it an unexpected insight for a higher level of performance

. Return to the new normal state in which the sense of self-confidence continues

. Achieve "right"work/life balance which includes enough sleep and freeing yourself from stressful situations

. More approaches on handling stress

i) use beta blocker tablets. These tablets keep the heartrate steady, remove stage fright and keep you in control. They stop shaking, blushing, etc. It calms the classic flight-or-flight response (adrenaline release) which can cause a range of symptoms, such as butterflies in the stomach, nausea, rapid pulse, sweating and trembling hands. Furthermore, they can enhance thinking and problem solving. On the other hand, these tablets can impair memory and become addictive.

ii) an alternative to beta blockers is

- relax at least once a day by meditation, yoga, listening to music, etc

- exercise moderately for around 90 minutes a week

- eat simple fresh food

- find a friend who you can discuss personal issues

(sources: Bronwyn Fryer, 2006; Robert Winston, 2002 & 2003; Diane Coutu, 2008; Jill Margo, 2010)

 

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