Watch Your Health

You should take stress seriously. The negative effects of stress can have a serious impact on your health, causing direct – and potentially fatal – damage to your body.

Beware of Damaging Behaviour

When under pressure, some people are more likely to drink heavily or smoke as a way of getting immediate chemical relief from stress. Others may have so much work to do that they fail to exercise or eat properly. They may cut down on sleep, or worry so much that they sleep badly. In the effort to keep up with daily work pressures, some people don’t see the doctor when they need to.

Look after Your Heart

If stress is intense, and stress hormones are not “used up” by physical activity, a raised heart rate and high blood pressure can damage the arteries. When the body heals this damage, the artery walls scar and thicken, restricting the flow of blood around the body. Stress hormones then accelerate the heart to increase the blood supply to the muscles, but the blood vessels supplying the heart muscles with oxygen may have become too narrow to meet the heart’s demand. If this happens to you, you may, at best, experience chest pains or, at worst, suffer a heart attack.

Think Smart

Prevention is better than cure. The key to avoiding serious problems is to seek help before your stress reaches a level where it has become unmanageable.

If you suspect that you are prone to stress-related illness, are experiencing persistent unhappiness, or if you are in any doubt about the state of your health, you should seek appropriate medical advice immediately.

Understand the Stress–Illness Connection


Take stress seriously – it can damage your health

Stress can impair the immune system, which explains why we are more prone to infections (including colds and flu) when we are stressed. It may exacerbate symptoms in diseases that have an autoimmune component, such as rheumatoid arthritis. It also seems to promote headaches and irritable bowel syndrome, and it is now suggested that there may be links between stress and cancer. The link between stress and heart disease is well established, and if the fight-or-flight response is triggered in someone with a damaged heart the effects could be lethal. Stress is also associated with some mental health problems, especially anxiety and acute depression.

Take Regular Exercise

Whatever level of stress you are experiencing in your daily life, regular exercise should form an important part of your lifestyle. Physical activity can help by:

  • Reducing your physiological reaction to stress by eliminating the stress hormones from your system.

  • Improving your circulation, strengthening your heart, and increasing the blood supply to it, directly reducing your vulnerability to heart disease.

Take up an activity that you enjoy – that way you are more likely to keep it up. Take up running or, if you were keen on tennis when you were at school, join your local tennis club. If you’re not keen on sports, start walking part of the distance to work every day or enrol in a yoga course. Start off slowly, gradually increasing the amount of time and effort you put in.

Stress and Performance

In many work situations, our stress responses can cause our performance to suffer. The best tactic is to adopt a calm, rational, controlled, and sensitive approach when dealing with difficult problems at work.

Positive Pressure

Stress can cause us to respond to situations aggressively, which can harm our social relationships, or to become passive and withdrawn, in which case we may fail to assert our rights when we should. However, the pressures and demands that may cause stress can sometimes be positive in their effect. For example, an athlete may flood his body with fight-or-flight adrenalin to power an explosive performance. Deadlines, and the pressure that they create, can push unmotivated people into action.

Case Study: Coaching for Success

Manuel had just given a presentation to the board, seeking authorization for a new project. He’d been nervous beforehand – these were important people and he’d been worrying about how they’d react. He’d lost his way during the presentation several times, and had struggled to explain some of the key ideas. Worse still, the questions asked gave him the impression that people hadn’t really understood what he was saying. After the presentation, his manager arranged for coaching on presentation skills and stress management. Manuel’s next presentation went much better.

  • The importance of the event and the expertise of people’s questions increased the pressure on Manuel to a level where it had harmed his performance.

  • His anxieties and worries distracted him during the presentation, and each time he made a mistake he became even more distracted.

  • The coaching Manuel’s manager had arranged for him made him feel much more confident about the situation, and by using relaxation techniques he was able to calm his nerves and focus during the follow-up presentation.

The “Inverted U”

The relationship between pressure and performance is very well summarized in one of the oldest and most important ideas in stress management – the “inverted-U” curve that results from plotting the pressure put on an individual against his performance of a specific task or series of tasks.

This graph shows the close relationship between pressure and personal performance.

Find the Optimum Level

The graph shows that when there is very little pressure on us to carry out a task, however important it may be, there isn’t a great deal of incentive for us to focus energy and attention on it, especially when there may be other, more urgent or more interesting, tasks competing for attention. As pressure on us increases, we enter the “area of best performance”. Here, we are able to focus on the task and perform well – there is enough pressure to focus our attention but not so much that it actually disrupts our performance. However, as pressure increases further, there will be a dramatic decline in performance. The reasons behind this are complex – gaining an understanding of them will enable you to perform well under pressure.

The Concept of Flow

When you are operating under the level of pressure that suits you and are in your “area of best performance”, you are usually able to concentrate and focus all of your attention on the important task at hand. When you are operating in this “area of best performance” without distraction, you are able to enter what Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “a state of flow”, where you feel “completely involved in the activity for its own sake. . . Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” You perform at your best “in the zone”.

  • You are completely absorbed in what you are doing.

  • You are sufficiently motivated by what you are doing to resist competing temptations and diversions.

  • You are not so stressed that anxieties and distractions interfere with your clear thinking about the task.

  • You are able to focus all your efforts, resources, and abilities on the task at hand.

This is an intensely creative, efficient, and satisfying state of mind. It is the state of mind in which, for example, the best speeches are made and the most impressive athletic or artistic performances are delivered.

Avoid Mental Overload

Although our brains have great processing power, we cannot be conscious of more than a few thoughts at any one time. Our “attentional capacity” is limited. When we’re experiencing too much pressure or there’s just too much to think about, we become uncomfortably stressed. Distractions, difficulties, anxieties, and negative thinking begin to crowd our minds, competing for our attention with the performance of the task. Our concentration suffers, and our focus narrows as the brain becomes overloaded. This creates a downward spiral – the more our brains are overloaded, the more our performance can suffer, increasing distraction and damaging performance.

Look for Alternatives

When you are stressed you can start to miss important information, and this can impair your decision-making and creativity. If you find yourself in this situation, using this knowledge can help you to avoid some of the pitfalls. If you feel highly stressed, check that you are not blindly persisting in a single course of action to the exclusion of other, possibly better, ways of proceeding.

Techniques to Practise

You may find that being readily available to others and dealing with constantly changing information, decisions, and activities stops you achieving “flow”.

Periods of flow are vital to sustaining good performance, so try to find a solution that works for you.

  • Let people know that you are setting aside parts of the day as quiet periods when you can work undisturbed.

  • Delegate some of the activities that require the greatest levels of your concentration.

  • Arrange to work from home one or two days a week.

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