Manage Stress Before it Kills You

The key to a long career in IT is in learning how to cope adaptively with stress. Matt Simmons, like many, didn't realise it applies to everyone until he was rushed to hospital with what looked to be a heart attack. It was a salutary experience. He then discovered that there are many effective ways of unwinding, and it pays to be aware of them before you get the warning-shot.

The warning-shot

My heart beat against the wall of my chest. I could feel it pounding, even over my ragged breaths. I felt like I was suffocating, even though I was pulling in twice as much air as usual. I knew I was having a heart attack, and that realization was fuel for the fire which coursed through my veins. I made a decision. I was not going to die here, laying on a bench.

“We need to go to a hospital. Now.”

I made a decision.
I was not going to
die here, laying on
 a bench

The concern written on my friends’ faces told enough for me to know that I looked as bad as I felt, and with their support, I made my way to the car. Shaun drove like a madman to the nearest emergency room. Immediately I was processed and evaluated, then wheeled into a staging area where I had electrodes placed all over my body so that the doctors could read the signals my heart was putting out. Blood was drawn, I was monitored, and cold stethoscopes were used.

It didn’t take long for the results to come back. Less than an hour had passed before the nurse pulled open the curtain and stepped in.

“Mr. Simmons, we’ve determined that you’re not having a heart attack”.

I was stunned. Speechless, really. Every commercial I’d ever seen on television matched all of my symptoms. Every description I’ve seen before and since has matched the sensations I had that night. I had all of the outward signs, but none of the physical attributes of a heart attack. So what had happened?

All in the mind?

The answer, determined my cardiologist, was stress. Sure, it wasn’t an easy diagnosis, or an immediate one. I underwent multiple stress tests, including one where I was injected with radioactive dye so that the three dimensional blood flow around my heart could be monitored by a machine the size of a small room. They tried very, very hard to find something wrong with me, but it was in vain. Structurally, I was fine. Mentally, I was stressed beyond the breaking point.

How is it that something that only exists in the indefinite recesses of a few hundred million neurons in my brain could wreak havoc and incapacitate my body in such a complete manner?

Stress management

It’s because my stress management up to that point was nonexistent. My coping method  would be to shove stress out of the way. Move past it, compress it into a little bottle and ignore it. That night, it refused to be ignored and it fought back. I should consider myself fortunate. The stress attack that night, and the tests that followed it, served as a warning. My mechanisms for dealing with stress were badly out of kilter, and unchecked, it could get worse. Much worse.

To investigate how bad it can get, lets examine how stress works.

Humans, like all animals, have a fight or flight reflex, keenly evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Originally designed to protect us from physical threats, this instinct is now triggered by psychological threats as well. Anyone who has accidentally erased an entire directory’s worth of important files can attest to this.

In addition to pure fight-or-flight stress, day to day situations apply mental strain and tax our body’s resources. Work is a large source of stress, since many times we perceive our professional (and by extension, financial) statuses to be at risk. In addition, our personal lives and relationships are frequently a major cause of stress.

Stress is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. We’re designed to be able to handle a certain amount of it. In fact, we require stress to operate at peak performance. Many highly dynamic people will tell you that stress provides them the fuel they need to accomplish their goals. Not everyone functions like that, though.

Stress has three phases on the body.

  • The general phase, sometimes called the “alarm phase”, is the initial response to the stress. Flight or fight. Some muscles tense, others loosen, and adrenaline enters the blood stream. In short-term stress, this phase passes quickly and our bodies return to normal.
  • In longer-term stress, our body invokes coping mechanisms, and we start to adapt to the stress. This resistance phase taxes our body’s physical and mental reserves, and the longer it goes, the more stretched out and weary we feel.
  • The final phase is when our body is exhausted, and gives up fighting the stress. We’re no longer able to resist whatever is causing our stress, and we stop being able to deal with it. The final stage is where we experience burnout. We’re far past our peak performance and well into misery. Personally, when I get to this phase, I get irritable and hard to deal with. I snap at otherwise normal requests, I’m sullen, and generally not nice to be around. You probably know how you feel when you get to this phase, and I’m sure you don’t like it any more than I do when it happens to me.

Extended periods of stress
can do a lot more than strain
personal relationships

Extended periods of stress can do a lot more than strain personal relationships. It increases blood pressure, and over time, high blood pressure damages walls in blood vessels. When the walls heal, scar tissue is left, and these stresses cause blockages similar to cholesterol build-up. This is a very bad thing, because it can eventually cause a real heart attack. Fortunately, even the hard chargers and workaholics among us can lower their stress levels and live healthier (and longer) lives.

James Manktelow, author of “Manage Stress”, advocates starting and maintaining a stress diary. A spreadsheet would be ideal for this: in the first column, rank your stress from one, being the least stressful, to ten, being the most stressful. Record what the stress was in the next column, and beside it, enter how the stress made you feel. Make a column for the number of times you feel that particular stress, and increase the number each time you experience it. In the far right column, record how you deal with that stress.

Sort your stress diary by the number of times you have experienced each situation, and make a note of the top entry. This line represents your most frequent source of stress, and gives you a target to focus
on when removing stress from your life.

After recording your most frequent stressor, sort your diary by how stressful you rated each situation. When complete, the top entry will be that stressor which causes you the greatest trauma. Elimination
of its source will also provide you the single greatest relief.

You should make it a priority to eliminate these two top sources of stress from your life. They cause the majority of damage to your health, and by eliminating them you will improve your overall stress level and well-being. Take action and use one of these three methods of dealing with them:

  • Action oriented – Confront the root source head on. If your stress is work related, deal with it directly. Discuss the problem with your supervisor, explain how you feel, and be honest about it. Ultimately, if your employer is unable or unwilling to improve your conditions, leave. Your health is too precious to squander for a job that – in all likelihood – you don’t like anyway.
  • Emotion oriented – Attempt to change how you feel about the source of the stress. Personal relationships cause a lot of stress, but lots of problems can be effectively dealt with by trying to change how you feel about the problem, rather than changing the problem itself. Examine it from a different perspective, try to understand the underlying causes and tolerate their effects. Attempt to be flexible in your outlook.
  • Acceptance oriented – When all else fails, and you can’t change the problem or how you feel, accept the source of the stress. Focus on surviving by building buffers between yourself and the source of the stress. Cope any way you can until you can improve the situation.

Stress is powerful, for good or ill, and effectively managing it is key to maintaining a healthy life. If you are having problems with stress in your own life, please contact a local stress counsellor or the human resources department of your company. Help is available for people who need it. You are able to defend yourself against the stresses of life. You only have to make the first step.