Stressed out? Don't worry, it's all in the mind

Taken from a lecture on stress management, given by Stephen Palmer, the honorary professor of psychology at London's City University
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The Independent Online

In myexperience, I would say that some of the biggest causes of stress started in the late Eighties, early Nineties. Downsizing and delayering, in other words, shedding staff with the remaining staff having to do more work. New technology was supposed to help us. In fact, more was expected of us and, of course, we probably had fewer colleagues to help us do the jobs we were working on.

In myexperience, I would say that some of the biggest causes of stress started in the late Eighties, early Nineties. Downsizing and delayering, in other words, shedding staff with the remaining staff having to do more work. New technology was supposed to help us. In fact, more was expected of us and, of course, we probably had fewer colleagues to help us do the jobs we were working on.

Once upon a time, we would have had secretaries and clerical officers to deal with post, the in-tray etc, but now we are expected to do this ourselves. To add to our work, the average person in the UK is receiving just under 40 e-mails a day. It is no wonder that many employees are feeling overwhelmed. In an attempt to cope with our workload, we are working the longest hours in the EU, yet the average French employee is over 20 per cent more productive than we are.

Let's look at a simple model of stress. When you actually talk to people about stress, they tend to have a very simplistic model of stress in their minds. We refer to this as the stimulus/response or engineering model of stress. Something out there in the environment causes stress, and the result is strain - in other words, the symptoms. In fact, this is an outdated model of stress. Now I'd like to ask you all, what is wrong with this model of stress?

Yes, you've guessed correctly. Some kind of mediation occurs between the stressor out there and how the individual responds. The missing link is that we cognitively appraise the situation. Many people might think that this cognitive approach to stress is a very modern concept, but let's consider the ancient philosophers. Two millennia ago, Epictetus observed: "People are disturbed not by things but by the views which they take of them." Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations that "Everything is what your opinion makes it, and that opinion lies with yourself." In more recent times Shakespeare noted in Hamlet, "Why, then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." In fact the more modern cognitive view of stress is quite old, and predates some of the theories from the last century.

I wish to challenge statements such as, "My boss makes me angry" or "My children make me feel guilty." If we take a cognitively mediated model of stress, it means that it's not so much "out there" that causes stress, but our appraisal or perceptions of an event.

The clients I see who are suffering from stress have a number of beliefs such as, "My partner makes me feel depressed," "Connex South-east makes me furious," "Deadlines make me very anxious," "The tube gives me panic attacks."

As a psychologist, I help clients to consider situations from a different perspective. Let's look at the last one: "The tube gives me panic attacks." Now, technically speaking, if travelling on the tube causes panic attacks, then everybody travelling on the tube would have panic attacks, but this is patently not true. You may be crammed in like sardines, but very few people will actually be experiencing panic attacks. To be accurate, people may get panicky about travelling on the tube, but the tube train does not in itself induce panic attacks. This is a very important aspect of both the more modern and also the old cognitive philosophy.

However, let's get real! There is plenty of research that shows that traumatic events such as assault, near-death incidents or earthquakes will be stressful for the majority of people. Yet most stress scenarios in the average workplace are not life-threatening, although many of us appraise a problem, such as not reaching a deadline, as stressful, thereby triggering the old fight-or-flight stress response. The mental attitude we take into the workplace is often as important as the problems that arise. Both issues need addressing. A challenge for the 21st century!

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