Got Stress? Managing in Tough Times

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.
October, 2008

It’s an understatement to say that we’ve seen stressful times lately.  Recent headlines employ terms such as financial crisis; fragile economy; record foreclosures; bank collapses; nervous investors.  Dr. Donald Ratajczak, consulting economist for asset management firm Morgan Keegan, goes so far as to ascribe the name “panic” to our current economic climate.  With Wall Street pendulum swings, the highest unemployment rate since mid-2003 and regular waves of uncertainty, it’s no wonder that many of us are experiencing periods of stress and worry beyond our usual level. 

We hear a lot about it, but what exactly is stress?  Simply put, stress is the body’s response to change.  Therefore, stress is something we experience daily, often without noticing.  Accomplished, successful people train their minds and bodies to ignore it.  We’re often proud of how much we can bear without flinching.  But be aware: stress has an impact on us, both physically and attitudinally, whether we know it or not. 

What exactly happens to us when we’re under stress?  It all starts in the brain, which controls the entire workings of our bodies, including our emotions. Messages from the brain travel between nerve cells with help from chemicals called neurotransmitters. When we feel threatened, the body’s natural defensive mechanisms go into action, releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which are designed to help us cope with immediate physical threat.  When continually produced in response to chronic stress, however, they become what we can think of as the “unhappy chemicals.”  Think about your own reaction to stress…how does it appear for you?  Edginess, irritability, and lack of motivation are common themes. 

Bear in mind that our brains have existed in roughly the same state as they were when the first humans roamed the earth.  Our distant ancestors faced (we assume) stressors such as the need to find food and their wish to avoid becoming something else’s food.  The brain’s “fight or flight” response was just what they needed to escape danger.  They were not concerned (we assume) with market fluctuations, corporate failures or shrinking retirement accounts, as we are today.  The good news for them was that their stressors were specific and concrete; when vanquished, our distant ancestors could relax and bask in the “happy chemicals” produced by their brains.  But when stressors are chronic or vague, we may not have this sort of relief.  Does hearing about a good Wall Street day ease our concern about our bank failing or our company being acquired?  Not really, not for long, not right now.

Isn’t there always stress in our lives?  Yes, and a certain amount is even facilitative….many, if not most, of us perform better under moderate pressure.  But each of us has a limit beyond which stress becomes toxic to us and results in lowered resilience, which will, if continued, eventually lower performance, lower physical resistance to disease and set the stage for “derailing” behaviors to surface. 

Noted stress researcher Dr. Janet Kiecolt-Glaser of Ohio State University College of Medicine and her colleagues find that even stress of short duration, puts our bodies on “high alert.”  And here’s the scary part….it often leads to a state of chronic inflammation which increases our sensitivity to allergens and diminishes our body’s ability to respond to infection.  This is where stress becomes more than inconvenient; it becomes deadly.

If stress is a constant in our lives, how can we handle it well, so that we maintain a sense of balance and optimism, even during difficult times?  To do this, we must develop the discipline of training ourselves to become aware of the effect that unwanted change has on our physical and psychological well-being, and help our brain respond to stress in an adaptive way. 

There is no “quick fix” for stress…but we can learn to manage it.  Here are a few suggested action steps:

Find a way to laugh at yourself and/or at something in your situation, no matter how tough it is.  Bear in mind: we are not supporting wholesale denial.  Life may indeed be difficult.  The key is to create a bit of healthy distance from difficulties; at best, this may give you the ability to see additional possibilities and perspectives; at least, you may avoid burnout.

Nourish your body with exercise, sleep, and healthy fluids.  Remember that stress is a full-body experience and it requires full-body interventions.  Ruminating on the couch is the worst thing you can do. 

Believe in something greater than your self.  For some, this involves spiritual or religious pursuits.  For others, this may involve commitment to a community.  Positive psychology expert Dr. Martin Seligman and his colleagues find that this sort of active involvement increases optimism and resilience.

Bottom line, the more change that surrounds and permeates our lives, the more we need to monitor our stress level.  This goes both for ourselves and for those around us, in our companies and in our families.  And the good news is that we can find ways of increasing the “happy chemicals” in our brain…in other words, increase our resilience even during difficult times. 


Patricia Wheeler is the Managing Partner of The Levin Group LLC, a consulting and advisory firm with over 20 years of experience in improving senior team effectiveness, organizational performance, and leadership solutions for CEOs, top executives, and Senior Teams. She spends most of her time working with senior leaders. You can contact Patricia by telephone at 404.377-9408 or by e-mail here.

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