Each of us experiences various levels of stress on a daily basis; it happens that we have to manage stress at work, for issues that arise when managing and developing a business, or for personal situations that sometimes overwhelm us. Stress is one of those things that, if not addressed, tends to cause further problems. It can affect sleep, decreasing our performance; if we don’t find a way to manage the stress, the situation can worsen.
Just observing how bad stress is would be too banal and simplistic an approach. In fact, our relationship with stress is much more complex: the point is not just knowing how to overcome it; it is also about knowing how to understand and manage stress, using it to become more productive.
How to manage stress
According to psychologist Walter Cannon, creator of the concept known as the “fight or flight” reaction, the primary function of stress would be to enable survival. Often, stress is a useful reaction to challenges or threats: it makes us mentally and physically ready to face them. It affects our brain at a chemical level, raising the level of attention, intensifying cognitive activity and increasing sensory abilities.
But in other circumstances, where it has no practical purpose or persists longer than necessary, it can be harmful and have negative consequences. Stress, ultimately, is the way we react to stressors: challenges – real or only perceived – to facing needs – real or only perceived. Stress factors, called “stressors”, can have an internal or external origin:
External stressors: these are environmental or work changes, new or difficult tasks to perform, events totally beyond our control, such as deadlines, a storm, or bills to pay.
Internal stressors: usually these are thoughts or behaviors; poor sleep or eating, or feelings of anger or anxiety. However, not all types of stress are created equal. A distinction must be made between acute and chronic stress.
Acute stress gives us “superpowers”
We all know this type of stress. It is what makes us awake and reactive in the moment of the challenges or emotions of the day. It can help us in the presence of an actual threat that has real consequences (for example, an important deadline).
If you are a serial procrastinator, for example, there is a good chance that you will only be able to give your best in the presence of a significant level of acute stress; therefore, normally, close to a deadline. Looking at things in this light, deadlines and deadlines would only be a positive stressor, useful for increasing productivity. However, episodic or frequent acute stress, which is very common in chaotic lives, can over-excite the mind, which is confusing, counterproductive, and can lead to a nervous breakdown.