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Stress management, healthy leadership and burnout prevention

Stress is everywhere. The topic itself has become rather stressful. Every magazine, whether lifestyle, health or management, features at least one article to help us deal with stress in a better way and, such is the latest fashion, improve our stress resistance.

Building up stress resistance means reducing our stress levels and our general stress vulnerability. Sounds nice, but it is more difficult than buying a bullet-proof vest in the store. The simple fact that the flood of such or similar articles has not decreased shows that the discourse has not yet come to an end and that no one has yet found the magic formula that works for everybody.

A change of perspective can help. If we stop considering stress as something external to us, but as something that is created within and through us. And by changing our perspective on what stress actually is.

The best definition of stress that I have encountered in my studies as a life coach and psychotherapeutic counsellor goes as follows:

“Stress is the subjective perception that our own resources are not enough to cope with a situation.”

This means that not every situation is equally stressful for everybody, and also that every person needs something else (another resource) so that a situation does not become stressful, or to reduce the stress potential of a situation.

Example: I’m in the office, busy with an already packed to-do list, and my boss drops by and without much explanation gives me two more things to do immediately.

Possible reaction: Stress with all its physical and psychological symptoms: palpitations, hypertension, shortness of breath, concentration difficulties, thought blockages, fear of failure, feeling of helplessness and hopelessness and possibly even panic. The reason for this reaction is the fact that I am missing something to cope with this situation. If I had everything I needed, there would not be a stress reaction.

What is missing? Probably time. My program is already full without the two new tasks. From now on I have to hurry which increases the possibility of making mistakes. Despite my best efforts, I may not be able to finish everything today. If my workday has a fixed endpoint because I have to pick up the kids or because I have tickets for the theatre, I have fewer options to extend my time account.

What else is missing? Additional information about the tasks themselves? Do I know all I need to know to handle these tasks? Can I manage them alone, or am I missing something? Do I maybe need data from the accounts department – data I simply don’t have direct access to? If the department is not available, I can’t get the data and the support that I need.

What else? Respect and appreciation? Quite probably. It just doesn’t feel great when my boss so readily ignores and changes my schedule. And … have I had enough sleep, water, food? The importance of our basics, the foundations of our daily life, is often underestimated. If I had all this, this situation would not become stressful, or at least to a significantly lesser degree. I would be much less susceptible to a stress reaction, and would therefore be more stress-resistant.

We all know the common stress symptoms (short breath, hypertension, sweat, narrowed ability to think etc.). These are at least very similar for most people. We sometimes forget that we can work with these symptoms (not against them!) and understand them as “messages from us to us”. The answer lies in our ability to broaden our spectrum of resources (eg if I improved my excel skills, I would not get into a stress situation when dealing with numbers). And in our ability to look at our needs when a situation provokes a stress reaction. Often it’s similar situations that are problematic for us. Finding out which patterns exist and which resources improve our ability to act again means improving our resilience.

The simple questions “What is missing / what do I need right now now?” in a situation affected by stress symptoms lead me to the core of my problem and makes me pro-active again. When I am able to point to and name precisely what is missing, I can deal with it. When I am in situation where there is just too much missing, I know I’m dealing with an impossible situation. No matter what, I will not fully master this situation. However, when I realise that I really only miss one or two things or resources (and time is not always the only one), then I can look for it and seek specific help. Even if it seems so, we do not always have to cope with a task on our own. Most of the time there is help and support, we just have to pro-actively seek and ask for it. I do not have to be able to do everything myself, but I need to know how and where I can get help.

By responding to and meeting our needs and by pragmatically developing our own resources we strengthen our stress resistance, i.e. increased protection and decreased vulnerability. The short questions “What is missing? What do I need right now?” sound simple and they are. But used at the right moment, they release tremendous amounts of energy and put us back in the driving seat.

The author, Fabienne Riener, is working in the field of Human Ressources and as aLife Coach.

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