We all know what stress is. It is something that everyone experiences at least some of the time. It is accepted as just part of the modern world. In fact, stress has little to do with the modern world at all – we just process it differently nowadays and it can seem more concentrated. Understanding what stress really is gives clues to how to reduce or handle it. I am going to confine my discussion to the business world, but the ideas apply anywhere.
In the Old Days, it was easy. There were one or two stressful times each day: when the mail arrived, bringing possible bad news. Once they were out of the way, the rest of the day could proceed calmly. Then someone invented the telephone and later the fax. So, stress inducing communications could arrive at any time. At least one could leave the office at lunchtime or at the end of the day. And then someone invented the mobile phone. And email. So now, stressful events can occur anywhere at any time, which is why there is the perception that we live in a more stressful world. Scot Adams recently postulated the idea of the Law of Conservation of Stress, which puts this in context. What we really need to know is what is the root cause of stress …
A while ago, I wrote about how a change in my career many years ago meant that I had to develop a new way to organize my life, as I was showing all the signs of being under stress. My office was a mess – totally out of control. I just did not know what to do from one minute to the next, being totally driven by events as they happened. There is the clue: the word “control”.
My theory of stress is simple: it is a manifestation of lack of control. The less control you have over a situation, the more stressful you perceive it as being.
To test this, I turned to the UK National Health Service. They have an excellent, authoritative website where I found a list of possible sources of stress:
- Money worries [Not enough means that you cannot make choices; too much and you are likely to have unwanted attention.]
- Job issues [Does anyone really know that their job will be there tomorrow or have confidence that they know what their boss will demand next.]
- Relationships [Other people are intrinsically unpredictable.]
- Bereavement [The ultimate loss of control.]
- Family problems [Again, other people are intrinsically unpredictable and if they are close to you, the stress is greater.]
- Moving house [Tell me about it! I am in the process of that right now and I have no clue what is going on and a total sense of not being in control.]
My case rests.
I do not have a solution to stress, just a small hint to reducing it. If you can take/keep control of a situation, take that opportunity. Develop ways of operating in your life that, at least, make you feel like you are in control. Try not to become a controlling person, as this just shifts the stress to other people, which is ultimately unhelpful.
I would be very interested to hear, by comment or email, if you can cite a source/cause of stress that is not related to lack of control.