Stress is an avoidable side effect of working - or playing – in a competitive arena. At its best, it can exhilarate and energise. But at its worst, stress crushes and drains. And it isn't always caused by a major event like a cup final or company restructure – it can simply be the result of the daily grind, hassles and monotony of work getting on top of you.
Surviving and even thriving in stressful environments is all about mental toughness. One of the four pillars that form the foundation of mental toughness is the ability to keep your head under stress.
Stress takes two forms: acute and chronic. The former is characterised by bouts of stress interspersed with periods of calm, whereas in the latter the bouts run into one another: you get home from work and are unable to switch off from the things that are frustrating you. You may even lie awake at night worrying. This form of stress is not good for you if it occurs over prolonged periods. It wears down your immune system, making you susceptible to infections.
Acute stress, on the other hand, is not all bad. In fact, it can help you focus on priorities and mobilise the resources required to perform. However, excessive levels distract you from the task in hand and result in impaired performance.
Staying on top of stress requires three steps: recognising when you're stressed: identifying the sources and developing suitable coping strategies. Unconscious sources of pressure – things you take for granted such as regular driving to the office in heavy traffic – are potentially dangerous because you do nothing to alleviate them. Over time, they slowly deplete your resources of energy.
Then there are the minor pressures you are conscious of, perhaps in the form of hitting regular deadlines. And finally there are the more major sources of pressure such as delivering important presentations, negotiating crucial deals or competing for a particularly big piece of business. These are the sources you are acutely aware of and demand your focus. They may keep you awake at night, but at least you are conscious of them and thus in a position to deal with them in a constructive manner.
Take a few moments to reflect on how you normally respond to pressure. Does it damage or aid your performance? Consider the examples of giving an important presentation or being interviewed for a promotion. You may look forward to these events because you excel at them, or because of the pressure you get from the adrenaline rush. On the other hand, they may fill you with dread.
Which leads me to the crucial message about stress: most of it is self imposed. How you think about pressure determines whether you are stressed by it.
The basic choice you have is between seeing it as positive in terms of providing an opportunity or negative in that it poses a threat, resulting in stress and anxiety. The realisation that you have a choice is the first step to controlling stress. The second is recognising the effect stress has on you – and learning to control these effects.
Spot the signs
The stress response can be broken down into three major types of symptom: mental – such as doubt, worry, poor memory, frustration, confusion and panic; physical – including muscle tension, pounding heart, sickness, butterflies and sweaty palms; and behavioural, for example fidgeting, pacing, becoming quiet and withdrawn, short-tempered, drinking excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol, and disturbed sleep.
Everybody experiences stress – even top performers. The difference is, they have found strategies to control these symptoms and harness their stress to help them perform better.
Mental symptoms are most effectively controlled by relaxation. A common approach is meditation, which typically involves concentrating on breathing and using a mantra or keyword spoken silently on each exhalation. This technique is based on the principle of distracting you from negative thoughts by focusing instead on the mantra.
Physical symptoms, on the other hand, often respond well to progressive muscular relaxation (PMR). As with meditation, PMR can be used to generate a deeply relaxed state if performed over 15-20 minutes or a version lasting a few seconds will help to relax or loosen up certain muscle groups as required. It generally involves tensing and relaxing various muscle groups and progressing through the body in a structured manner.
In terms of behavioural symptoms, the key is to recognise how your behaviour changes when you are stressed. Work through your behavioural changes and identify those that are unhelpful. For example, if you drink an excessive amount of alcohol during periods of stress and this exacerbates your sleeping problem, then arrange other activities, such as sport or the theatre after work to avoid going to the pub.
Symptom-focused strategies can prove invaluable at those moments when stress threatens to overpower you. However, controlling symptoms is really only effective in the short term because you never actually tackle the source of stress in your personality and attitudes.
I won't pretend that turning negative thinking into positive is easy. And for some people who have a natural tendency to look on the dark side it can be a major challenge. The starting point is the realisation that you have a choice about the way you think.
The input of a respected and trusted individual who can support you in developing other ways of viewing the world may also be helpful. Indeed, my research on mental toughness highlights 'seeking support when you need it' as a key attribute. This will require you to view asking for help as a strength rather than a weakness.
The most effective means of tackling stress, of course, is to address the source of the pressure. It is often the most difficult of the coping strategies to implement, however, which is why many people never consider it until there is no alternative. Situations that cause stress are typically associated with uncertainty and lack of control.
More specific factors include role uncertainty, interpersonal conflict, unrealistic performance targets, poor communication and lack of time
A key reason why people fail to attempt situation-focused strategies for relieving stress is that they assume they have no control over the situation.
That assumption is wrong. For example, don't assume that your manager will respond badly to feedback about how disempowered they make you feel – they may be thankful that you have given them a means of forging a better relationship with you. And do not assume that unrealistic performance targets are non-negotiable – indeed, the goal-setter may assume they must be realistic because you haven't challenged them.
Being assertive in such circumstances is not the same as being aggressive or awkward. People who act assertively can often deal with situations in a relaxed or composed manner, avoiding misunderstandings and preventing themselves from being persuaded to act against their better judgement.
Presenting some possible solutions rather than just the problem is often very helpful. At all times, respond in a non-aggressive, reasonable and self-assured fashion. This will give you the best chance of satisfying your need to address the source of the pressure in a constructive way.