Coaching Insights: Stretched or Stressed

Vermeer_1662_Art_of_painting Whether work demands stress or simply stretch is a subjective assessment and is often a matter of degree or accumulation. Subjectively, what may be stressful for one individual may be stimulating or productive in another.

I’ve been an air traffic controller at Kennedy International Airport for 20 years. Most people would call this job high-stress, but I thrive on it. You either love this type of job or you quit, or you never get into it in the first place. You’d think I was the type of kid who loved excitement or always took chances. I wasn’t. I could never be a firefighter and go into a burning house. That would be stressful. It’s just not in my makeup. (…) While we’re working, we’re “in the zone.” We work for two hours and then take a break. It’s mandatory. I don’t care how good someone is, after directing busy traffic for awhile, you need to decompress. At the end of those two hours, you know you’ve done a good job if the planes assigned to you were within the limits. I like that instant feedback.
Stephen Abraham

Degrees of stress or its accumulation also matter in determining stress vs. stretch. One may be able to manage stressful situations quite well at work (where specific motivation, competencies, skills and experience may come into play) but not in other aspects of life such as relationships, parenting, nutrition, fitness (where different skills may be required).

One way to determine whether work demands constitute simple stretch or even stimulating arousal that leads to more productive results, or instead cross over into the harmful stress category is by assessing balance. See a simple how-to after the jump. Read more

Research News: Can Stress Kill?

Waterhouse_1888_LadyShalott_Tate Copenhagen – Researchers assessed the effect of psychological stress on total and cause-specific mortality among men and women. Danish participants in the Copenhagen City Heart Study were asked two questions on stress intensity and frequency in 1981 and were followed in a nationwide for twenty-three years. The results show that men with high stress had higher mortality. This finding was most pronounced for deaths due to respiratory diseases, accidents, and suicide. High stress was related to a significantly higher risk of heart disease mortality for younger men. In general, the effects of stress were most pronounced among younger and healthier men. No associations were found between stress and mortality among women.

American Journal of Epidemiology. 2008;168(5):481-491.

History of Stress: Then and Now

Turner_RomaModerna The stress response, which occurs when we are threatened or when we perceive a threat, has a long history in human development.

In its evolution, prehistoric and historic humans have experienced significant environmental stressors. These stressor influenced our genetic development.

The principle of natural selection favored individuals who efficiently conserved energy, endured dehydration, successfully fought potentially lethal agents, anticipated their adversaries, minimized exposure to danger and prevented tissue strain and damage. How do we handle these genetically selected traits today? See it after the jump. Read more

Stress Software: You Survived Monday Morning?

vanGogh_1889_StarryNight_MOMANY Is There a Better Time of Day to Have a Heart Attack? This question was asked by Dr. David J. Lefer of the Department of Surgery, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta in a study published this February. (1)

According to Dr. Lefer, it is widely accepted that the time of the day, the day of the week, and the season of the year influence the risk of a cardiovascular episode.

For example, heart attacks occur more frequently early on Monday mornings, especially during the fall and winter months. Recent research confirms that there is also “a significant contribution of intrinsic mechanisms mediating temporal dependence of cardiovascular physiology and pathophysiology,” medspeak for “the time of day and day of the week matters a lot, no matter where you are.”

Dr. Lefer cites the example of travelers who appear to retain time-of-day oscillations if they have a sudden cardiac episode, in such a way that the peak incidence is equivalent to the early hours of the morning in their time zone of origin.

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Stresshack #5: The Being and Doing of Stress

Seurat_1884_DimancheJatte Getting things done is important. In most organizations, from the family unit to the corporation and the nation, performance is often and sometimes exclusively evaluated on its basis.

But the doing of important and not so important tasks needs to be in sync with our unique and private way of being in the world. The more in sync with who we really are, the more what we do with our time and resources will feel rewarding and more deeply fulfilling.

A leader of others needs to be able to be genuinely true to self.  Research findings show that the best leaders in business, academia and politics are not significantly different from what they do. In fact, who they truly are and what they do appear to be one and the same.

One of the most significant sources of stress is when being and doing are not synchronized. When the individual feels (and is often not able to articulate) that what it is being done is at odds with what would “feel right” to do according to one’s authentic way of being, trouble often results.

A typical example is that of the overachiever or compulsive striver whose activities do not harmonize with values and private lifestyle. Eventually, this disharmony between being and doing creates high stress (allostatic load), whose consequences are (among others) ineffective personal and interpersonal leadership behaviors.

The Compound Interest of Stress

Wood_1930_AmericanGothic What makes chronic stress potentially lethal is its duration and the constant accumulation of its effects. Stress upon stress grows like compound interest on a loan. When only the minimum payment is made, the balance continues to grow and can never be fully repaid.

Humans respond to stressors such as physical or perceived danger, an infection, or a crowded and noisy environment, by initiating a complex biopsychosocial adaptation and coping response. This response is initiated by the sympathetic nervous system and leads to release of excitatory stress hormones (the catecholamines) and glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex (the well-known adrenaline rush).

The objective is to engage with the situation, resolve it and return to the status quo. This process of regaining stability through change and adaptation is called allostasis. The arousal and mobilization of biopsychic resources is intended to be temporary and is shut off when the challenge has passed.

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5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Stress

Goya_1828_ExecutionPioHill Stress is often defined as entirely harmful. Nary a moment goes by without someone reminding us that “stress is bad for you!” The fact is, stress is good, in at least five different ways.

1: Stress is a survival mechanism of the human species  

We cannot function well without at least some amount of stress, which alerts us to the fact that something or someone requires our attention. Anxiety is not turned off or on by a rocker switch. Stress produces its effects along a continuum. At appropriate levels, it keeps people engaged in their world.

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Business of Stress: Organizational Change

Kandinsky_YellowRedBlue In the turbulence created by organizational change, there is a virtual certainty that employees and managers will come under significant stress and strain.

Putting operating processes in place for people to carry out their work together may prevent or at least mitigate unhealthy levels of stress. These processes can act as safeguard that will allow the task to be achieved in a way that is as efficient and as effective as possible.

Both participation in all of the processes of the work group and the development of a collaborative approach are at the heart of effective group work. Because of the tradition of autocratic leadership, neither participation nor collaboration are natural or automatic processes. Both require some learning and practice.

Glaser, R., & Glaser, C. Team effectiveness profile. King of Prussia, PA: Organizational Design and Development, Inc.

Without appropriate operating processes in place, it is not uncommon to experience negative outcomes in the functioning of a team:

  1. Pressures and priorities can push people into silo mentality and away from the team.
  2. Individual stress can rise to unhealthy levels.
  3. There is a tendency to focus more on the task than on people processes.
  4. Tensions, conflict, and stress can lead to insufficient focus on task accomplishment.
  5. Increases in stress and mistrust can occur if a coercive leadership style is overused in an attempt to correct imbalances.
What team changes are needed to better manage change?

Putting in place sound team operating processes can act like a lubricant, enabling healthy team functioning to resume. High levels of trust within a team are the bedrock for coping with conflict.

Typical trust-building areas that the leader must promote and the  team needs to address by discussing and agreeing include:

  1. Frequency, timing and agenda of meetings.
  2. Problem-solving and decision-making methodologies.
  3. Ground rules.
  4. Procedures for dealing with conflict when it occurs.
  5. Reward mechanisms for individuals contributing to team goals.
  6. Type and style of the review process.

Stresshack #4: Cognitive Stress Management

INTERVIEWER: You mentioned that you feel that you can never feel safe again. How strongly do you feel this?
VICTIM: I know that for a fact. I will never ever feel safe again.
INTERVIEWER: OK. On a scale of 0–100, how sure are you of that?
VICTIM: Oh, very sure. I’d say about a 90.

This psychopathological response to highly stressful situations is enabled by two core cognitions: the maladaptive appraisals of the stressor and its aftermath, and disturbances in autobiographical memory that involve impaired retrieval and strong associative memory.

There is ample research evidence that people who suffer from acute and chronic stress exaggerate both the probability of future negative events occurring and the adverse effects of these events. Other research shows that acute stress triggers a cognitive bias for events related to physical harm, negative bodily sensations, and concerns about social relationships.

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Stress Software: How Fear and Exercise Are the Same

Dali_1951_RaphaelesqueHeadExploding When it comes to stress, exercise and sheer terror are one and the same.

An adaptive and vitally important characteristic of the nervous system is its ability to increase arterial pressure almost instantaneously. This can take place in times of good stress (exercise, getting out of the way of an incoming bus), but also in times of bad stress (loss, grief, calamity, adversity, job strain).

During dangerous situations (real or perceived as they may be), arterial pressure rises to as high as twice its normal value within a few seconds. This spontaneous alarm reaction triggers a dramatic increase of arterial pressure that can immediately supply blood to any or all muscles of the body needed to respond. This translates into an enormously increased ability to fight against or to flee from the cause of danger.

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Business of Stress: CHD At Work

PointLobosLExp Researchers have substantially defined the specific characteristics of stressful occupations and have examined whether they promote the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), which is the progressive and often fatal hardening of the blood vessels that surround the heart.

Specifically, the question of whether high job strain can be used to predict job stress-related CHD is worth asking in this era of constant communication and information flow.

What constitutes high job strain?

Although many subjective and environmental factors can determine the level of strain in any one individual, the accepted common-sense definition is circumstances of high demand and correspondingly few opportunities to control outcomes. 

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Stress Software: The Play on Memory

Dali_1931_PersistenceMemoryStress can interfere with the functioning of memory by either augmenting the impact and persistence of the recollection of an event, or by diminishing both. There are stressful situations in which we are unable to retrieve information that we have learned and thus should be readily available for recollection. This would be the case in a situation that carries enough stress to literally drain the blood supply from those regions of the brain that handle memory retrieval.

In contrast, we are also familiar with how well we seem to remember  certain embarrassing, shameful, or frightening events from the past, which is an example of how stress can enhance our memory. This is the case in situations that carry such a strong power of emotional penetration that they burrow the deepest furrows in our memory circuits, often never to be forgotten and always readily recollected.

Finally, there are situations of chronic stress or stress associated with psychiatric disorders that are characterized by persistent hypo- (lower than normal) or hyperamnesia.

When Stress Attacks

Interaction with a stressor of sufficient strength that meets and surpasses the individual’s threshold of resistance leads to a cascade of neuroendocrine stress responses, which are in fact designed to attempt an adaptation (response) to the demands of the situation.

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Stresshack #3: Livingstone, The Lion and Me

 Livingstone_LionRIn going round the end of the hill I saw a lion sitting on a piece of rock about thirty yards off with a little bush in front of him. I took a good aim at him through the bush and fired both barrels into it. The men called out. “He is shot, he is shot.” Others cried, “He has been shot by another man too, let us go to him.” I saw the lion’s tail erected in anger and turning to the people said, “Stop a little till I load again.” When in the act of ramming down the bullets I heard a shout and looking half round I saw the lion in the act of springing upon me. He caught me by the shoulder and we both came to the ground together. Growling horribly he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first gripe of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror though I was quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe: they see the operation but do not feel the knife. This placidity is probably produced in all animals killed by the carnivora and if so is a merciful provision of Creator for lessening the pain of death. As he had one paw on the back of my head I turned round to relieve myself of the weight and saw his eyes directed to Mebalwe who was aiming at him from a distance of ten or fifteen yards. His gun which was a flint one missed fire in both barrels. The animal immediately left me to attack him and bit his thigh. Another man whose life I had saved after he had been tossed by a buffalo attempted to spear the lion upon which he turned from Mebalwe and seized this fresh foe by the shoulder. At that moment the bullets the beast had received took effect and he fell down dead.

David Livingstone (1857). Missionary Travels (pp. 11-12). London: EW Cole.

Scottish explorer Livingstone, in his journey to discover the sources of the Nile, reported what is now known as stress-induced analgesia. Under conditions of extreme stress or in the adaptation to an extreme environmental challenge, an individual’s normal reaction to pain—reflex withdrawal, escape, rest, and recuperation—could be disadvantageous. In a dire emergency, these reactions to pain are automatically suppressed in favor of more useful behaviors. It turns out that we have a piece of software, the analgesia system, that automatically activates in these circumstances, with rather remarkable effects.

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Stress Attacks!


Good stress motivates and mobilizes to action. Bad stress, of the pathological kind, ambushes and attacks with vicious relentlessness. Its favorite areas of attack are self-esteem, self-assessment and analytical abilities as they relate to past experiences, present situations, and expected outcomes. When stress strikes, the past can become a repository of bad precedents, the present a bleak landscape of dangers, and the future a (seemingly) real possibility of annihilation. Sounds exaggerated? Yes,  when stress is at manageable levels. However, in the presence of a real or perceived grave stressor, one’s abilities to cope with or respond to the challenging situation can become severely impaired, leading to three possible outcomes: flight or running away from the stressor, fight or direct confrontation, or the glacial paralysis of freeze.

Can we prepare for a stressor of significance, e.g. a major financial loss, with any degree of success?  If so, what needs to happen before the stressor occurs? What mental/physical preparation can one make?

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Stress Software: Of Mice and Men


Animals, and particularly rodents that are routinely used in   observations and experiments, tell us a lot of what we know about our own psychology. Rodents? How can a mouse or a rat know the first thing about what motivates and directs human reactions and behaviors? As a matter of fact, no rodent has yet provided any evidence of self-awareness or consciousness of the elevated kind, the sense of self that we attribute to ourselves and that is often used to explain why we do the things we do. And that is the very reason why rodents make such reliable exemplars of human psychology.

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