Understanding what causes stress and how to handle it

Ask yourself (and maybe someone close to you) the following questions to get a better understanding of what causes it and how to handle it

Rebecca SchalmStress afflicts us all and is a common precursor to mental distress. While there is plenty of good advice about how to manage stress, I don’t think we spend enough time talking about how to anticipate, and avoid, it. It starts with self-awareness.

What is your stress profile?

How each of us responds to stress varies. To get a better understanding of what causes you stress and how you handle it, ask yourself (and maybe someone close to you) these questions:

  1. How resilient are you, really? In our culture it is very on-trend to be ‘resilient’. The reality is, resilience is a continuum and we are all different. You probably know someone who flies off the handle at the smallest thing, and someone who never seems to break a sweat regardless of how difficult things become. Where do you fall on that continuum? In order to manage yourself effectively, you need to have a good grasp on who you really are and how sensitive you are to stress.
  2. What causes you undue stress? We each have our own stress triggers, those things where we can actually feel our temperature rise. For example, it makes me crazy to be late or to keep someone waiting. My car dealership was expecting me at nine a.m. this morning to drop off my car for service. I clock-watched during my entire 12-minute drive. My husband, on the other hand, has a more fluid appreciation of time and does not experience distress at being late for something as unimportant as a car service drop-off time. He has other things that make him crazy. The point is, we are all different. What are those things that cause you a disproportional level of stress?
  3. How do you respond when faced with acute stress? We all respond to acute stress – stress that exceeds our capacity to maintain our equilibrium – differently. Some of us run around with our hair on fire. Others get intensely quiet and withdrawn. Some of us try to take control of everything around us. Others create mayhem and chaos. It can be difficult to face how we react under pressure because it exposes a weakness. Not knowing creates a blind spot, which can turn into a career derailer. Acute stress reactions can lead to behaviours that strain our relationships and risk our hard-earned reputations.

Using self-awareness to avoid distress

Self-awareness gives us the information we need to help manage ourselves and design our lives. When we know what causes us a high level of stress, and how we respond to it, we are able to develop strategies to avoid it.

  1. Monitor resilience. One of my clients, an extremely high-performing professional, knows she has a naturally low tolerance for stress. In order to perform, she needs a lot of high-quality sleep. She is acutely aware of her internal state and is vigilant in making sure she does what it takes to maintain her resilience. Understanding your own innate level of resilience can help you do the same.
  2. Avoid situations that cause undue stress. We all deal effectively with a wide range of stressors every day. That doesn’t mean we need to put ourselves in situations we know will stretch our resilience to its limit. For example, if you are someone who needs quiet and privacy to function well, having a desk in the middle of a busy, open-office environment surrounded by socialites is probably not going to turn out well, for either yourself or others. Understanding what triggers your stress response will help you make good career and life choices.
  3. Respond to early stress reactions. When you know how you react under pressure, you can watch for early signs that you are moving into distress mode. This gives you the opportunity to respond intentionally and constructively – get away from it, get out in front of it, ask for help to get through it. That can make the difference between surviving a situation, and thriving.

Good mental health is something we should all strive for. Understanding who we are under stress can help.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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