How Great Companies Minimize Employee Stress

How do truly outstanding companies minimize their employees’ stress? What programs do they implement that appear to make it easier to join the company, fit in well within the organization, grow and prosper as an employee?  In their book, Best Practices in Talent Management: How the World’s Leading Corporations Manage, Develop, and Retain Top Talent, Goldsmith and Carter provide a wealth of examples of on-boarding and talent retention programs that facilitate difficult transitions, demystify the process of change, and contribute greatly to reducing tension and work stress.

The book is the Stresshacker Recommended selection for this week.

[amtap book:isbn=0470499613]

Among the case studies highlighted as best practices:

Avon Products: Clear Objectives = Clearer Execution. This case illustrates the practical implications of defining objectives around “executing on the what” as well as “differentiating on the how.” In other words, simple, well-executed practices communicated through an executive coaching model.

Bank of America: A truly exceptional executive on-boarding program. The B of A’s new hire turnover rate of approximately 12% compares to estimates as high as 40% turnover in large corporations. On-boarding reduces the stress of being new to a large company because it is a socialization process rather than just an orientation program.

Corning Corporation: Making use of the collective wisdom of internal experts rather than relying solely on external consultants. Corning seeks to grow “innovation leaders” through a well-designed 5-step development process.

Ecolab: Employees are successfully integrated into the organization’s corporate culture and values. Values include spirit, pride, determination, commitment, passion, and integrity.

General Electric: To high-stress jobs, GE applies a process of sorting (separating necessary from unnecessary items), setting in order (arranging items in sequence of use), shining (maintaining the work area), standardizing (ensuring consistent application of sorting, setting in order, and standardizing), and sustaining (maintaining and improving the previous four steps).

Kaiser Permanente Colorado Region: A practical approach for addressing the not-uncommon problem of an organization that was too reliant on hiring new people without seeking to develop the people who were already there.

Microsoft: A judicious application of research conducted by the Corporate
Leadership Council (CLC) to real-world problems in the organization. Employee development is organized around five key areas: senior leadership commitment to developing people, managers continuing engagement in the process, promotion of open interpersonal contact among employees throughout the organization, communication of development plans with clear goals, and targeting of on-the-job work experiences to build skills and competency.

Past: Regret. Present: Stress. Future: Worry!

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
–William Blake: Auguries of Innocence

Wasting time and time management, hourly wage, multitasking, deadlines, bank accounts, financial investments, insurance and retirement planning are all facets of the same way of thinking about time. They signify a linear understanding of time: present becomes past and present anticipates the future. The passing of time is conceptualized as the inexorable ticking of the clock, the falling away of calendar pages, the steady progression of weeks, years, centuries.

The Linear Time Trap

HaroldLloyd_Time Our focus on the passing of time has behavioral consequences, in that our choices and preoccupations reflect its linearity. We think of the past with either longing or regret, we are concerned for our individual and collective future, and we seek to squeeze every second of the present time (at the expense of sleep, relaxation, vacations, the view, smelling the roses) in securing a safer and (it is only hoped) more peaceful (and more relaxed) future. It is a quest that never ends, so long as there is a future ahead of us.

How are we managing linear time? Many have observed that many people seem unable to adequately make sense of their past or fulfill their plans and hopes for the future. The missed opportunities or perceived failures of the past, the demands of what appears as a shrinking present, and the worries and uncertainties of the future can manifest emotionally as guilt, regret, stress, anxiety, and unfulfilled expectations. Behaviorally, they may result in often futile attempts to “manage time” (understood simply as ways to cram more activities into our day), attempts to forget about the passing of time (with various pleasure enhancing products and activities), and earnest pursuits of that one thing (or two, or ten) that will insure and ensure a safe future.

The Endless Chase After the Future

Thinking of time in a linear fashion, we can reflect upon the past as well as make plans for the future. The only true reality is the present time and that’s where anything that is going to happen happens, just before it becomes part of the past. It would seem that a focus on the present is our best choice. In reality, however, it is the endless preparation for the future that consumes the majority of most people’s lives. Most human activities are undertaken to help make a better future, rather than as ends in themselves.

While there are clear benefits to thinking of time in a strictly linear manner, with an emphasis on what is yet to happen, this approach is not devoid of problems.  For many, the present is burned quickly by and becomes little more than planning for the future, which, in reality, never exists.

Is There Another Way to Think About Time?

The linear perception of time appears to be more of a Western cultural phenomenon. Larger portions of humanity perceive time as polychronic. Contrary to linear time, a polychronic view of time sees it as more fluid and not as rigid or precise, allowing for plans to be changed more easily and without much trouble. Schedules and timetables are not as important, and lateness is more acceptable. Many actions are performed at the same time, and completion of tasks is more important than preset schedules.

A polychronic perception of time is more prevalent in Latin American, Native
American, and Middle Eastern cultures, as well as in Asian cultures that view time as circular. Nature itself appears to keep a circular rhythm of time, with the return of day after night, warmth after cold, growth after fallowness, in a repeating cycle that seems to know no beginning and no end.

It is not unusual for Westerners accustomed to linear time to feel psychologically stressed when coming in contact with a culture that follows polychronic time. It seems more chaotic, disorganized, and far less predictable. Even leaving aside the fact that these cultures tend to have fewer problems with time-induced stress and anxiety disorders, the alternative of what is now being called “slow” time has an almost magic appeal. Minimalist approaches to life, slow food movements, flexible work time… perhaps an end to the slavery of the clock is near. Happy Labor Day!

People Who Lie Under Stress And How to Tell If They Are

tborig17pe People who make public statements are generally expected to tell the truth, and most of the time that’s the case. Severe stress, however, can override ethical obligations. People in public positions, such as CEOs, political figures, athletes, entertainers who are under media or legal scrutiny may and do lie about facts and circumstances. How to tell if and when someone is not telling the truth? Conducted by a team of researchers at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, a detailed analysis of over 29,000 public statements by CEOs made between 2003 and 2007 which turned out to be false or deceptive sheds some light on the process.

Results of the study show that, in general, public figures who are not telling the truth use more references to general knowledge (“as you know”), fewer non-extreme positive emotions words (great, good), and fewer references to ethical values and value creation.  Deceivers use significantly fewer self-references (“I believe,” “I think”), preferring to use more third person plural and impersonal pronouns (“it is believed,” “many people think”), fewer extreme negative emotions words (terrible, disastrous), more extreme positive emotions words (fantastic, terrific), fewer certainty words (“to be specific,” “as a matter of fact”), and fewer hesitations.

This and earlier studies on the language of deception suggest that the use of “I” statements implies an individual’s taking ownership of a statement, whereas covert liars try to dissociate themselves from their words by using general attributions (everyone, everybody, anyone, nobody). Dissociation is also evidenced by a greater use of group references rather than self-references, as for example in saying “we, as a company, believe…” Not surprisingly, liars are less forthcoming with their own opinion than truth-tellers and refer to themselves less often in their stories. In extreme cases, people using deceptive statements may choose to omit references to themselves entirely.

The Liar Unmasked

Behind the words chosen by public figures to deceive their audience, say the researchers, are severe stress, a cognitive effort to misrepresent the facts, an attempt to control the audience’s perception of the liar, and a desire to distance themselves from the situation.

The severe stress experienced by deceivers is a consequence of the guilt they feel and the anxiety of being caught in their deceptive act. The high stress level is manifested not only in their negative comments but also in their negative emotional state, which they may or may not be able to hide from the audience. Because of their guilty feelings and their desire to dissociate themselves from the lie, deceivers are also likely to use general terms and not to refer explicitly to themselves. As a result of this dissociation, their statements are often short, indirect, and evasive.

A cognitive effort is necessary to misrepresent the facts because fabricating a “good” lie is inherently difficult. Especially when a liar has little or no opportunity to prepare or rehearse, his or her verbal statements are likely to lack specific detail and include more general terms. Thus, a liar may sound implausible, vague and non-immediate, telling a story that avoids mentioning any personal experiences.

roger-clemens-congress The attempt to control the audience’s perception of the liars themselves induces them to avoid making any statements that are self-incriminating. As a result, the content of deceptive statements is tightly controlled so that listeners would not easily perceive it to be a lie. To achieve this deception, deceptive statements contain more general, non-specific language, fewer self-references, short statements with little detail, and more irrelevant information as a substitute for information that the deceiver does not want to provide. For example, a liar will speak with greater caution, using a greater number of unique words to restate the same information. In contrast, truth-tellers often just repeat the information they have provided, using the exact same words.

The attempt to control may also lead to a very smooth speech when a narrative is prepared and rehearsed in advance, whereas truth-tellers often forget (or adapt) what they have said previously. In contrast to the cognitive effort perspective, the attempted control implies that the deceiver’s well-prepared answers are likely to contain fewer hesitations, more specific statements, and a reduced number of general claims.

In their desire to distance themselves from the situation, liars often appear to lack conviction because they feel uncomfortable when they lie, or because they have not personally experienced the supposed claims. This implies that liars use more general terms, fewer self-references, and shorter answers.

Something Needs to Be Done About Hostility!

Ginetto at Stresshacker.com Hostility is stressful, both ways. To giver and receiver alike, hostility metes out its toxic charge of badness. Far from being a true relief for frustration, pent-up anger, or unexpressed emotion, a sudden explosion of hostility merely releases a burst of energy and briefly discharges some muscle tension. Beyond these ephemeral effects, it is hard to find a good justification for hostility in everyday situations. So why is it so prevalent?

Two reasons account for hostility’s “popularity.” The first is the genetically programmed aggression instinct, which, in its proper setting and situation, can be useful (in a competitive physical sport like football), or downright vital (in combat situations, to fight off an aggressor, or in other situations of danger when a calm and relaxed demeanor would be clearly out of place). We can be aggressive and hostile by design, but we are also given a brain that helps mitigate the limbic system’s rage of emotions, and the amygdala’s watchfulness against aggressors, real or perceived as they may be.

The second reason for the pervasive presence of hostility is a misfiring of the very structures of the brain that are supposed to help us regulate it. Poor regulation of negative emotions can unleash hostility. Notoriously so, antisocial personalities have little to no self-regulation of hostility and most of the times this lands them in jail. Many more individuals, though, fall short of law-breaking hostility but still exhibit plenty of it in everyday situations (behind the wheel of their car, while waiting in line, with customer service people, with their spouses, children, friends) to make life more stressful for themselves and for anyone they come in contact with.

Steve Slater on Stresshacker.com At the other end of the spectrum, hostility, while present as a natural emotion, can be sublimated into a more productive and less threatening display of displeasure with someone or a situation.  Well-regulated hostility and aggressive instinct become assertiveness, standing up for one’s right, engaging in an passionate discussion. It can also sublimate into artistic pursuit, an all-out workout at the gym, or humor. A recent example of the latter was portrayed by JetBlue flight attendant Jeff Slater. Justifiably enraged by an unjustifiably aggressive passenger, Mr. Slater regulated down his hostility, expressed himself aloud on the plane’s PA system, grabbed a couple of beers, activated the emergency slide, slid down to the tarmac, ran for his car and drove home.

Hostility and (Bad) Health

Negative emotional states, such as anger and hostility, when they persist over time and become chronic, can negatively impact health. The risk to health comes through a number of mechanisms, including engaging in high-risk behavior (verbally provoking, physically attacking others), loss of social support (no one wants to be with a chronically hostile individual), and social isolation.

Chronic negative emotions also induce a semi-permanent activation of the stress reaction and cause sustained systemic inflammation, both of which increase the risk of disease. Research on hostility and aggressive personality has clearly established a link between these emotional states and heart disease, heart attacks, and cardiac-related mortality. Hostility not only contributes to a higher incidence and increased severity of heart disease, but is also related to symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including insulin resistance.

What Can Be Done?

Taking a page from Mr. Slater’s playbook, humor is one of the highest levels of sublimation that can be achieved in down-regulating aggression and hostility. Other forms of self-regulation of hostility (which incidentally are also ways of dealing with stressful situations in general) can be listed as follows:

  • Anticipation (the ability to anticipate the consequences of hostility and evaluate alternative responses)
  • Affiliation (turning to others for help and support, initiating a dialogue instead of a confrontation)
  • Altruism (taking into account the needs of others, and being able to contain rather than meet their aggression head on)
  • Humor (finding the amusing and the ironic in the situation)
  • Self-assertion (expressing feelings and thoughts directly and openly, but without resorting to verbal or physical violence)
  • Self-observation (reflecting on one’s own reactions and regulating them appropriately, before the explosion occurs)
  • Sublimation (channeling negative feelings into positive behaviors, i.e. taking it out on gym equipment, a good run, a distracting activity)
  • Suppression (intentionally avoiding catastrophic, negative and pessimistic thoughts that can lead to aggression).

Marriage Reduces Level of Stress Hormones

Venice at Stresshacker.com It is a well-established fact that being married can improve health outcomes. Now, new research findings get more specific and suggest that a long–term bond between two people can also reduce the production of hormones associated with stress. This is according to Dr. Dario Maestripieri, Professor in Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago and lead researcher, who published the results of the study in the August 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Stress.

To measure the effects of a committed relationship on stress levels, Dr. Maestripieri and his team monitored changes in salivary concentrations of testosterone and cortisol in response to a mild psychosocial stressor (a set of computerized decision-making tests) on a sample of over 500 participants. The aim of the study was to investigate any gender differences in hormonal responses to psychosocial stress; the relationship between pre-test hormone levels and stress-induced hormonal changes; and any possible sources of same-gender variation in pre-test hormone levels as compared to hormonal responses in a larger human subject population. 

The results show that males had higher concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol than females both before and after the test. After the stress-test was administered, cortisol level increased in both sexes but the increase was larger in females than in males. Single males without a stable romantic partner had higher testosterone level than males with stable partners, and both males and females without a partner showed a greater cortisol response to the test than married individuals with or without children.

It would appear from the test results of this study that married individuals, when faced with a new stressor, respond with a lower production of stress hormones. This can have two major benefits: it can permit a more deliberate response to the stressor (as the system is not overloaded with a debilitating and hormone-filled stress reaction), and it can, over time, reduce the accumulation of allostatic load on the organism—two good things that help married people confront challenges in more supportive, less stressful, and more effective ways.

Women’s Heavy Burden of Stress-Gets Heavier

Lake Wanaka at Stresshacker.comThe most recent survey of stress in America indicates that women continue to bear the heavier burden of stress, particularly due to financial concerns and worries over their family’s health and family responsibilities. Women consistently report more physical and emotional stress than men, and are more likely to lack the willpower to make changes recommended by health care providers, the survey results also show. What is causing this unhealthy gender bias? Allostasis, or more precisely allostatic load, is the key to understanding gender differences in stress. Let’s first understand allostasis, its benefits, and potential dangers.

Allostasis: Too Much of a Good Thing

Allostasis defines the processes that attempt to maintain the body’s internal stability in the face of physical or psychological challenges. Physiological and behavioral changes are initiated automatically during the stress reaction to external environmental and developmental threats, such as danger, conflict, financial worries, interpersonal difficulties, family and job demands, and other life stressors. Allostasis as a process is a very good thing and aids in survival and coping. It can work well at restoring the body’s equilibrium and ensure an adequate response to the threat. However, allostatic processes can cause physical and psychological damage when they extend beyond their intended short-term activation. This prolonged state of activation creates a burden on the system, known as the allostatic load.

Four factors can contribute to the formation of a heavy allostatic load:

  1. Repeated physical or psychological challenges (e.g., prolonged financial stress, a stressful job, multiple and conflicting demands of time and resources, a serious illness, childhood trauma, adult abuse or violence)
  2. Inability to adapt to these repeated challenges (the feeling of being at the end of one’s rope)
  3. Inability to produce an adequate response to the stressor (such as the phenomenon of learned helplessness, depression or anxiety)
  4. Inability to end the stress reaction even after the stressor has been removed (chronic stress)

Allostatic load accumulates over time. The continuation of multiple small changes in physiological and psychological functioning (which are meant to be only short-term), due to a persisting state of alert against perceived threats (the classic stress syndrome), creates the potential for illness.

What Happens to the Body During Allostasis

During the normal stress response and the body’s process of allostasis, the stress hormones serum dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine are secreted into the blood stream. The immune system and neurological responses are activated, along with muscular, cardiovascular and pulmonary system. Alongside these physical reactions, psychological changes take place in response to anxious, fearful, hostile or aggressive states produced by the stressor. Behavioral changes also occur in trying to cope with the stressor, sometimes consisting of alcohol abuse and other substances,  working too many hours, or exercising compulsively. Sleep disturbances, depression and other psychological symptoms are usually the first evidence of an increasing allostatic load.

At the physiological level, allostatic load can cause atrophy of the hippocampus and structural changes in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, resulting in a more or less severe impairment in spatial learning and memory. Certain tell-tale physical responses are also indicative of a heavier allostatic load: higher blood pressure, changes in waist-hip ratio, higher serum high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and cholesterol, and glycosylated hemoglobin levels.

These psychophysical changes, though helpful in the short run, can cause damage. This damage is the cost of maintaining an allostatic state longer than is optimal for health. Numerous studies of allostasis show the risk of stress-induced illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, and immune/auto-immune disorders.

What about the effects of allostatic load on women?  Details after the jump.

Read more

Stress and Burnout Endanger Clergy Health

26741243chsma

Members of the clergy are more likely to suffer from stress-related illnesses such as obesity, arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and depression than most Americans. These are the first published results of the continuing survey of 1,726 ministers, which began in 2007 and is being conducted in North Carolina by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke University. Researchers Proeschold-Bell and LeGrand report that the obesity rate among clergy aged 35–64 years is nearly 40%, or over 10% higher than among the local population.

A similar survey by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and cited by the New York Times) reported 69% of its ministers as being overweight, 64% as having high blood pressure, and 13% as taking prescription antidepressants. Similarly, a 2005 survey of Presbyterian clergy had reported that occupational stress and burnout played a factor in 4 times as many ministers leaving the profession during the first five years of ministry, as compared with the 1970s.

What Is Occupational Burnout?

According to its most widely accepted definition, occupational burnout includes:

  1. Emotional exhaustion, which can result in diminished interest in work, fatigue, and detachment.
  2. Depersonalization, or the defensive distancing from the surrounding world, which can result in diminished contact with coworkers and the public, withdrawal of psychological investment, self-absorption, and negative attitude toward others.
  3. Dissatisfaction, or the perception of unsatisfactory personal accomplishment, which can result in feelings of failure, fatalism, diminished competence, and incapacity to respond to further environmental demands.

There are several theories that have been proposed to explain the genesis and development of occupational burnout. Read about them after the jump, with some suggested remedies and a summary of the most recent research.

Read more

Oil Spill Causing Stress Symptoms in Gulf Coast

More than a third [of the Gulf residents surveyed] report children with new rashes or breathing problems, or who are nervous, fearful or “very sad” since the spill began. And even though the gusher of oil has been stanched, almost a quarter of residents still fear that they will have to move.

These are some of the findings of the first major survey of Gulf Coast residents conducted since the BP oil well was successfully capped. The survey, conducted from July 19 to 25 by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, suggests that the spill’s effects have not been contained along with the oil itself. The NYTimes article is at After Spill, Broad Anxiety Among Gulf Resident, Survey Finds – NYTimes.com.

All of the above, plus other reported symptoms such as a persistent and overwhelming level of anxiety, a substantial level of psychological stress, concerns about children’s mental health, more insecurity, and mysterious rashes that can become infected, point to a widespread stress reaction to the oil spill and to its economic and environmental consequences.

Of Mel Gibson, Narcissus and Stress

mel-gibson-oksanaA sad pattern seems to be emerging: as Mel Gibson becomes distressed, some self-medication ensues, allegedly alcohol. The medication, instead of solving the problem, appears to merely loosen Mel’s inhibitions and he unleashes a now painfully public tirade laced with profanity, discrimination, and sexism. In many quarters, his behavior has been described as the epitome of narcissism. But is this really his problem? Let’s consider the story of Echo and Narcissus.

In the vicinity of Mt. Olympus, about 2,500 years ago, the sylvan nymph Echo fell in love with Narcissus. Narcissus was an uncommonly handsome and incredibly vain man who would live on beyond Greek mythology and become the eponym of self-centeredness. He rejected Echo’s love with such callousness and contempt that she died of a broken heart. Apollo, angered by Narcissus’ vanity and cruelty, cursed him to die without ever knowing human love. Not too long afterwards, as a thirsty Narcissus went to a pool of clear water and knelt beside it to drink, he saw his face reflected on the surface of the water and fell in love with it. Unable to reach the image in the water, Narcissus continued to stare at it forgetting everything else, and eventually died beside the pool.

From ancient tale to modern problem, the term narcissism today describes a mental disorder that is characterized by an excessive positive self-evaluation and near-total lack of consideration for others. As a personality type, a narcissist is prone to a grandiose evaluations of self, a constant preoccupation with success and power, an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and an exploitative approach to others. A narcissistic personality shows an enduring pattern of personal adjustment characterized by grandiosity, need for attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy. Individuals with this disorder believe that they are special and are excessively envious of others while being preoccupied with their own achievement and power.

Freud believed narcissism originated in childhood, making it particularly difficult to treat in adults. There is much controversy as to the core problem in narcissism. Some believe it may be primarily an emotional problem; others view it as a cognitive deficit, i.e. the narcissist’s inability to construct an accurate view of self. A third school of thought theorizes that a narcissist is cursed with an ‘‘empty’’ sense of self; yet another group argues that the narcissist may have a ‘‘disorganized’’ self.

The problem that originates all these theories as to the origin of narcissism is produced by the lack of accurate measurements of its impact and severity. Narcissistic people do not admit their problems when asked. When diagnosed, they are very reluctant to cooperate with the treating therapist. In fact, they are widely considered by clinicians as among the most intractable of mental health patients.

In the most recent large-scale research, Russ, Bradley, Shedler, and Westen (2006) have produced evidence that a clinical distinction may be made between grandiose narcissism, characterized by genuinely inflated views of self and a need-gratifying approach toward other people and relationships, and fragile narcissism, characterized by explicit grandiosity paired with feelings of inadequacy or self-loathing.

So where can we place Mr. Gibson along the continuum from normal self-evaluation to narcissism?  If there is narcissism in his personality, would it be the grandiose, or rather the fragile type? Without falling into the trap of long-distance diagnosis, a few comments can be made on his reported behavior. First, if there is self-medication with alcohol as has been reported, the something that is being medicated hurts, perhaps deeply, at the emotional level. Relationship problems, as they have been reported to exist, invariably cause emotional reactivity and chronic sympathetic arousal, i.e. chronic stress. The combination of stress and the disinhibiting effects of self-medication can produce a state of mind that exacerbates any feelings of entitlement, lack of empathy for others and an exploitative approach to problem-solving (a condition popularly known as an amygdala hijack).

It would seem that there is a match with Mr. Gibson’s recently broadcast telephone rants.

What Would You Do?

777 Cockpit at Stresshacker.comThe airliner, heavy with fuel and filled with passengers, is climbing toward its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, having taken off less than twenty minutes earlier and more than one hour behind schedule. The captain and the second officer are completing their post-takeoff routines and anticipating a smooth ride; the weather forecast is for clear skies ahead and relatively little turbulence. The steady muffled roar of the four jet engines envelops the aircraft.

In the cockpit, a large amber light begins flashing on the upper center quadrant of the dashboard. After a few seconds, the light goes off. An automatic correction has taken place, initiated by the onboard navigation computers. Other lights flash briefly and then go off. To the uninitiated eye, seemingly at random.

Suddenly a bright red warning light flashes in the section of the dashboard that groups all engine functions. The cockpit crew appears to pay scant attention to it. The red flashing continues. If you were the pilot of the aircraft, what would you do?

  1. Put a dark cloth over the light. Too much flashing can be distracting and one simply cannot chase after every light. Get busy doing flight path calculations.
  2. Relax. Take a break and go get some coffee from the galley with the copilot. The light may be off by the time you all come back to the cockpit.
  3. Ignore the light. Look at some other part of the dashboard where there are no lights. A lot of lights come and go. It will probably shut itself off, eventually.
  4. Respond to the message that the light is giving. Check engine functions and take the appropriate steps to address the problem.

If you answered 1, 2 or 3, your stress level is probably very high. If you answered 1, your preferred mode of dealing with high stress is by covering it up. If you answered 2, your strategy consists of using various relaxation techniques hoping that stress will take care of itself somehow, without addressing its cause. If you answered 3, your favorite approach consists of denying the existence of high stress, preferring instead to believe that there are plenty of times when you are really not stressed at all.

If you answered 4, you understand that the amber and red lights (representing mild or severe stress reactions) are occurring as an indication that something of importance (a significant stressor) requires your immediate attention. By acknowledging the valuable message that the stress reaction (the cockpit light) is giving you, you begin to address its cause, the stressor (the engine problem). This is the essence of effective stress management: managing the cause of the stress, instead of simply mitigating (or covering up, or denying) the symptoms.

How do you react to the warning signs of stress? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. Check out Stresshacker’s StressWise program: stress coaching, online webinars, and downloads for making sense of stress, and for better stress and stressor management.

Children Are Dangerously Stressed and Their Parents Are…Out to Lunch

One nation, under stress, with sleeplessness and anxiety for all.

US_Flag_Flying_1A nationwide survey about stress has revealed a worrisome disconnect between what parents believe causes stress in their children, or that their children have any stress at all, and what the children themselves consider seriously stressful. Here are some of the most disconcerting findings.

  • Stress and worry about their family’s financial difficulties are having a significant impact on young people, and their parents either don’t know it or don’t believe it.
  • Children are more likely to have experienced difficulty sleeping in the past month than their parents know about.
  • Fewer parents than children believe that children’s stress has increased in the past year.
  • Parents appear to be unaware of the degree to which children report physical symptoms like headaches that are often associated with stress.
  • Children are four times more likely to report having eaten too much or too little in the past month than their parents noticed.

The recent survey, Stress in America by the American Psychological Association, reveals that American children are not getting the attention or the support they need to identify and understand stress or to learn healthy strategies for managing its effects.

The full executive summary of the survey is available from the APA here. It is not an easy or comfortable read.  Over 40% of Americans report that their stress has increased in the last year. The same percentage report that they lay awake at night because of stress. And the same percentage again say they eat too much or eat unhealthy foods because of stress.

When the Doctor Herself Is Stressed


“I could easily blame stress for the many emotional and physical symptoms I experienced from early childhood. Free floating anxiety, feeling unworthy and undeserving of love and happiness, feeling hypersensitive and yet numb to many of my emotions and constantly judging, criticizing and berating myself were just some of the unhealthy defense mechanisms I had learned over the years to cope with stress.”

Thus begins Dr. Lori Leyden-Rubenstein’s compact (a little over 200 pages), concise (13 short chapters) yet comprehensive and insightful book, The Stress Management Handbook: Strategies for Health and Inner Peace.

[amtap book:isbn=0879837942]

Throughout the book, Dr. Leyden-Rubenstein never loses track of her own experiences and refers to them often but judiciously, which creates the right feeling of connection without narrowing her suggestions solely to her own experience. After telling her story, she explains what stress is and how to manage it, including its effects on the body and mental health, all in precise yet easy to understand language. She then offers no fewer than 35 strategies for relieving stress, ranging from physical to psychological, and from concrete to spiritual.

Another great book worth having and definitely worth reading and practicing. It gets this week’s Stresshacker Recommended badge.

Is Stress Entertainment?

Avatar at Stresshacker.com The rep is that stress is to be avoided. The reality is otherwise. Stress is avidly watched, read, and heard because, contrary to what we think we believe about it, stress is entertaining. Why?

The truth is, stress sells—in movies, books, quiz shows, talent shows, and crime scene dramas. Not always and not for everyone, to be sure, but in vast numbers of book plots, screenplays, TV storylines, in radio plays, and theater plays, stress reigns supreme.

The surface reason is that stressful situations, when they are happening to someone else as in most forms of entertainment, hold our attention. Peaceful, restful, and relaxing situations, when we watch them happening to someone else, generally do not. There is not much fun in reading about someone having a really quiet day when nothing much is happening, but isn’t it great to watch a-thrill-every-second action on the big screen? Indeed, there is a deeper, genetically programmed reason why stress can be fun.

What’s the Fun in Stress?

To understand what’s happening, we must step back and consider the mechanics of stress. When we perceive a threat (a risk, a danger, a challenge), our mind is instantly alerted by the stress reaction that we experience in the body. Most often, this consists of increased heart beat, elevated blood pressure, muscle tension, and a release of excitatory hormones into the blood stream (cortisol, epinephrine, adrenaline), plus a host of other biological changes that very quickly get us ready for action. Now, what is interesting here is that, in addition to mobilizing the body, the excitatory hormones also generate a certain amount of pleasurable sensations. Is this nature’s little joke, or what?

Read more

iPhone, iPad, iBrain: A Multitasker Paradise?

Multitasking at Stresshacker.com Here’s a (very) short history of information explosion: oral poetry; carved tablets; papyrus; illuminated manuscripts; printing press; radio; television; computer; iPhone; iPad. At each turn, the volume and quality of available information grew, first geometrically, then exponentially. Availability has now far exceeded the capacity, and some say the need, of the human brain to receive, decode, and make use of the data. Volume has also created an additional stressor that was unknown until the latter part of the 20th century: information overload.

Today more than ever, we are exposed to a far larger volume of sensory input than our senses and brain can process. Billions of individual bits of information compete for our attention, requiring us to rapidly determine which needs to be processed, remembered, or used for action. Information can be just data (it’s now 7:15pm) but it can also carry an emotional value (it’s later than I thought!). Emotion-laden stimuli have a special advantage in the competition for our limited attention resources because the correct evaluation of an emotional stimulus may be critical in determining whether it represents a threat (oh no, I’ll miss the start of the game!) or a reward (good, I wont’ have to sit through the previews). See this post on the value of emotion as information.

In spite of the enormous amount of valuable and potentially interesting information that can be ours just for the asking (or the thumbing), more than 99% will not be accessed, processed or remembered. The greater part of the remaining 1% that makes it to our eyes and ears will be discarded by the brain as irrelevant and unimportant. So we are left with an almost insignificant sliver of information that manages to be retained and used in some way. Pity, one might say. Thank goodness, says I.

Read more

Stressful Age: Good News/Bad News For Boomers

Tiepolo at Stresshacker.com First the good news. A study based on the 2008 Gallup poll of 340,000 Americans has identified 50 as the age when people begin to feel better about themselves. Prior to that age, people generally feel progressively worse from age 18. The study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Following the sharp reversal at about age 50, most people report better self-satisfaction at increasing levels up to age 85.

Now for the bad news. According to the latest figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among people age 45-54 years has increased at a surprising pace since 2006. Typically, individuals aged ≥80 years have had the highest rates of suicide in the United States. Since 2006, however, rates of suicide among persons aged 45 to 54 years in the United States have been the highest. The majority of suicides in this age group were among white, non-Hispanic males.

The CDC speculates that problems related to mental health (depression), job loss, financial reversal (foreclosure, loss of investment value), or relationships (divorce, bereavement) might be contributing to the rising rates of suicide in this age group. Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs was a frequent precipitant or “facilitating” factor for the suicide.

Brothers, fathers, friends in this age group who may be feeling overwhelmed and have had a recent significant stressor may be at risk. Suicide crisis hotlines (in the United States: 1-800-784-2433 or 1-800-273-8255) are available as a first line of defense. Among the best protective factors is the availability of support from immediate family and close friends.