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When Stress Matters Most, What Do You Do?

NeuschwansteinStress is the physiopsychological reaction to a challenge or a threat. It is particularly acute when the stressful event triggers the perception that one’s available resources are insufficient or poorly matched to successfully face it. Take for example our job, a purposeful activity that we engage in as a means of livelihood. On the job, our resources (finances, physical and mental abilities, time, image, and self-concept) are allocated and expended to adequately meet its demands, which carries great potential for stress. Being able to pay attention to warning signs of trouble, of which stress is certainly one of the most prominent, may make a difference in our ability to respond quickly and effectively.

Stress on the job is of the same kind as the threat of a saber-toothed tiger—not the same, but of the same kind. Should we ever find ourselves face to face with the feline, our body would instantly spring into full mobilization mode. The heart rate would go up, respiration would increase in depth and frequency, muscles would tense and pupils dilate, the stomach would contract, and adrenaline and other excitatory hormones would flood into the bloodstream. We would be faced with three possible choices: fight, flight or freeze.

When face to face with a job challenge of a serious nature (loss of a major client, a sudden promotion, the loss of the job itself, a major breakthrough), we are alerted to a threat and our body instantly springs into full mobilization mode, with the same biological changes as when in a close encounter with the wild cat. The threat or challenge may be very different, with linoleum under our feet instead of savanna grasses, but the body doesn’t care—a threat is a threat. We are faced with the same three possible choices: fight, flight or freeze.

Even when we know we are not going to suffer physical harm, the body can’t help but to prepare for the worst. Our chances of being killed by wildlife or to compete with the tiger for our lunch are abysmally small. The last saber-toothed tiger became extinct sometime between the Oligocene and the Pleistocene epoch. Yet, we humans continue to be instinctively and instantly mobilized when we perceive a threat of any kind. Which is a good thing.

The usefulness of stress throughout or history is undeniable. Many more of our ancestors would have been killed had they not perceived the appearance of predators as a possible threat. A great many probably did get killed when they chose the option to freeze. Others, owing to inadequate weapons, got killed while exercising their option to fight. And still others were not fast enough to take full advantage of the opportunity to flee. To be sure, one hundred percent of those who saw no threat in the approaching tiger and lingered to consider the size of her teeth, or in other words, those who felt no stress in the situation, were swiftly eliminated from the genetic pool by a process of natural selection.

Fast forward to the present, and General Motor and Chrysler executives must have felt pretty safe from the saber-toothed tigers of competition and market change, because up until the last minute they felt no real stress from their falling sales (except for SUVs) and dwindling customer base (except for SUV buyers). How many people lost their job in the current recession and never saw it coming? Or saw it coming and froze? Or didn’t flee soon enough, or did not fight for change? Stress told Ford executives to come up with a plan, a better plan as it turns out. One wishes that GM and Chrysler executives had felt a little bit more stressed out, a bit more mobilized into action, less complacent and relaxed. Stress is a bright amber light on the dashboard of our life that simply says, something requires our attention—NOW. More often than not, the light is right.