by Colin Rae
“APRIL is the cruellest month…” – so begins T.S. Eliot’s acclaimed poem “The Waste Land”. As April is upon us, I want to take a look at what’s coming up and a topic that affects us all: stress.
Start as you mean to go on
This is no April Fool: stress now ranks amongst today’s most significant health risks. It can increase your chance of heart disease, for example, or make it harder to control diabetes. There are economic risks as well: recent studies estimate that stress-related illnesses and absences cost businesses billions. Now, I’m not about to start listing stress cures; what works for me may be the last thing you need. One thing is certain: stress is nothing to fool around with.
April 7: World Health Day
The mention of diabetes ties in neatly with another April health topic: World Health Day. This year, it’s about beating diabetes, a disease that affects some 350 million people worldwide. In addition to highlighting better ways to manage type 1 diabetes, the cause of which is unknown, much of the focus will naturally be on type 2 – a largely preventable condition that, like stress, involves changing habits if you want to beat it. There’s also type 3 diabetes, a term that has been used to describe the difficulties experienced by those who care for people with diabetes.
Stress and diabetes are of course very different conditions, but I see certain parallels. You can break down stress into three types as well: type 1 is the stress that can “just happen” due to circumstance; type 2 is the stress I make for myself; and type 3 is what the people around me are going through when I’m stressed. Type 3 could probably also be termed “second-hand stress”. It automatically makes me think of “second-hand smoke” and I’m sure that’s the point. These days smoking in the office is all but unthinkable, and most smokers feel highly uncomfortable whenever what they’re doing is adversely affecting the well-being of those around them. But I for one wasn’t aware to what extent my cloud of stress could drift over and infect my co-workers.
The pressure is (mostly) mine
Looking at things objectively, I must be generating at least some of my stress myself (type 2). I think this has to do with expecting life to be stressful and acting based on that assumption, so I end up putting myself under pressure. I’m someone who can thrive on stress and am able to channel that particular kind of energy into being productive. I’d even say that I’m occasionally “happier” when stressed; in other words, I am sometimes at my most productive when under stress. But whether the stress is good or bad, I still have to be mindful of how my behaviour affects others.
A problem shared is a problem doubled
Let’s say the person at the desk next to you is having a computer problem. Typical responses to this frustration can include audible reactions like smacking the desk or swearing, or visual ones like getting up and walking around in agitation. Regardless of the response, it’s something you notice; it calls your attention to it and intrudes on what you’re trying to do. Depending on your level of empathy, you may find yourself internalising someone else’s frustration – type 3 stress.
But it doesn’t have to be so obtrusive; second-hand stress can be a lot more subtle. For example, I’m a chronic sigher. I don’t know where I picked this up from, but I sigh a lot. And I don’t even know I’m doing it. The real kicker is that I do it even when I’m not stressed or upset about something. But every time I sigh, I’m giving those around me little alternative other than to assume something’s wrong. (A co-worker actually took me aside once and asked what could possibly be happening in my life to cause me such obvious distress.) Whether I’m personally feeling stress or not, the point is I am passing it on to others. And far from lightening the load, this actually multiplies the stress in the office, doing no one any favours.
Combat the cruelty
April has been Stress Awareness Month since 1992. (That’s in the United States; on the other side of the pond, there’s Stress Awareness Day every November. I’ll leave you to decide whether we have less stress in the UK or we’re just paying less attention to it.) So as April and Stress Awareness Month begin, I’d ask you to take some time to consider how stress affects you. How do you respond to it? Do you tend to bark or bite your fist, whinge or walk away, swear or even just sigh? Join me in being mindful of your stress and how this may be affecting others.