“Stress in health and disease is medically, sociologically, and philosophically the most meaningful subject for humanity that I can think of” (Selye)
Stress has never been more pertinent in a world still reeling from the aftershocks of a global pandemic. Understanding the mechanisms and coping strategies for stress becomes beneficial, and research suggests that younger individuals and females tend to utilise palliative strategies as coping mechanisms.
Additionally, it is crucial to consider the effects of cultural background, education, and personal experiences on coping strategies. This guide aims to dissect the science behind stress and offer actionable tips for managing it effectively.
Understanding the mechanisms of stress
Stress arises as a response to neutral stimuli known as stressors. They may be external (e.g., significant life changes, work deadlines) or internal (e.g., negative thoughts, unrealistic expectations) factors which challenge the body’s homeostasis (balance).
The stress response
When stressors affect the body, it triggers various psychological and physiological processes. The body assesses the perceived threat and then determines and activates the appropriate biological and behavioural responses to neutralise the stressors. People collectively refer to this process as the stress response.
Role of the limbic system
The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in vital functions such as behavioural and emotional regulation, memory, learning, and motivation. It is important to note that while the limbic system plays a crucial role in these functions, other brain structures, like the prefrontal cortex, are also involved.
Components of the ANS
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) regulates involuntary bodily functions and is critical in stress response. It comprises several subsystems, each with a specific role:
- Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): Involved in ‘Fight or Flight’ responses.
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS): The ‘Rest and Digest’ system.
- Enteric Nervous System: Important for gastrointestinal function, sometimes considered part of the ANS.
This structure allows the ANS to control breathing, heart rate, and digestion.
Acute vs. chronic stress
Short-term (or acute) stress responses are produced by the Fight or Flight response, whereas long-term (or chronic) stress is regulated by the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) system.
Exploring stress response theories
The endocrinologist Hans Selye was the first to popularise “stress,” defining the phenomenon as “a nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it”.
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), a concept initially introduced by Hans Selye in 1936, serves as a foundational framework in stress research. It outlines a triphasic physiological process consisting of the Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion phases.
- Alarm Phase: The body’s initial reaction to a stressor activates physiological responses like increased heart rate.
- Resistance Phase: The body sustains heightened but manageable physiological reactions during this phase.
- Exhaustion Phase: Occurs if the stressor persists, leading to fatigue and increased susceptibility to illness.
While the GAS model has been a cornerstone in understanding stress, contemporary research, including insights from a 2023 Healthline study, continues to refine and expand upon this framework, extending its applications into fields like sports science.
Transactional model of stress and coping
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) subsequently proposed the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping, describing the psychological component of stress response as a process of Appraisal, Response, and Adaptation.
The Cognitive-Mediational Theory (1991) further elaborates that a dual phase of cognitive appraisal influences an individual’s stress response, suggesting individual differences as a differential component of stress response.
Appraisal in stress response
Primary appraisal is the process whereby the stressor’s significance is determined, followed by secondary appraisal, whereby the individual assesses the options/ability for coping with the stressor.
Understanding coping mechanisms
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) differentiate between two types of coping responses. According to the stress control online programme in Ireland, Emotion-focused coping occurs when an individual deems the cause of stress outside their control. Therefore, coping responses focus on controlling the emotional response.
On the other hand, problem-focused coping focuses on the source of the stress, aiming to neutralise the direct cause. Problem-focused strategies are considered the most effective overall as they deal with the root cause of the issue.
Efficacy of coping strategies
Emotion-focused coping strategies are often less beneficial in emotional health outcomes, with emotion-focused coping (or palliative coping) often linked with maladaptive (unhealthy) approaches such as substance misuse and emotion suppression.
However, it is worth mentioning that the effectiveness of coping strategies can be context-dependent and may vary from person to person. To build resilience against stress, consider our guide on how to be resilient to workplace stress.
Healthy emotion-focused strategies
However, healthy emotion-focused strategies such as journaling or meditation can be helpful where neutralising the direct source of the stress is beyond an individual’s control.
Demographics and coping
Most younger individuals and females use soothing strategies as coping mechanisms. Additionally, it is crucial to consider the effects of cultural background, education, and personal experiences on the types of coping strategies used.
Assessing the impact of stress
The stress response is a complex evolutionary system that maintains the body’s homeostasis and promotes adaptation. In the short term, stress responses may result in positive outcomes such as increased performance and motivation. This type of response is called eustress (Quick et al., 1997).
The Yerkes-Dodson Law
Research suggests that after a certain point, the positive effects of stress reverse. Excessive, prolonged stress will result in diminished performance over time. This effect is known as the ‘Yerkes-Dodson Law’ (1908), often represented as an inverted U-shaped curve.
Detrimental effects of chronic stress
Chronic stress is linked with detrimental psychological and physiological outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, muscular pain and fatigue. It is also linked to employee health issues such as anxiety and depression – as noted in a 2023 study published in PMC.
Stress during the COVID-19 pandemic
Moreover, chronic stressors such as the COVID-19 pandemic have strained coping resources for individuals, leading to increased stress reactivity and negative emotional responses. A 2023 study expands on this, highlighting the pandemic’s long-term psychological impact, including heightened work-related stress and anxiety levels.
Long-term implications of stress
Heightened and prolonged stress reactivity can have severe long-term implications for health, resulting in dysregulation of the physiological stress response system. Heavy workloads tend to be responsible for most cases of sustained long-term stress.
It contributes to mental and physical health issues, exacerbating the adverse effects of stress. According to a recent study, diseases linked to stress and inflammation include cardiovascular dysfunctions, diabetes, and cancer.
The 9 ways to manage stress in a post-pandemic workplace
The impact of stress on overall health is significant – and therefore, understanding stress and developing adaptive coping strategies are central to well-being. Our employee wellness programs help employees sustain positive physical and emotional well-being through professional counselling services.
Below are 9 helpful tips to combat mental stress in a post-pandemic workplace, some of which are based on Irish research on stress management techniques:
Get enough quality sleep
Sleep significantly impacts work-related stress, mood, and emotional resilience. Lack of sleep can exacerbate employee stress and impair cognitive function. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. Establish a bedtime routine and avoid caffeine and electronics before bed to improve sleep quality.
Disconnect from technology and screens
Allocate ‘power-down’ periods. Try reading a book before bed or breathing exercises in the morning before checking your email. Excessive screen time, especially before bed, can interfere with sleep quality and increase stress levels. Designate specific times to unplug and engage in activities that do not involve screens to help your mind relax.
Eat a balanced diet
Healthy nutritional choices can enhance concentration, mood, and memory. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains can help regulate mood and energy levels. Avoid excessive sugar and caffeine, leading to mood swings and energy crashes.
Practise yoga and meditation
Proven to modulate the effects of stress through regulating breathing, improving mood, and lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Incorporating yoga and meditation into your daily routine can offer long-term benefits for managing work-related stress. Even just a few minutes a day can make a difference.
Deep breathing communicates with the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which controls our relaxation response to calm signals to the ANS. Deep breathing is shown to:
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce heart rate
- Decrease stress
- Centre our mental focus
- Improve sleep quality
- Boost energy
- Fortify our self-awareness
Practising deep breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 technique can be done anywhere and offer immediate stress relief.
Regular exercise is a powerful, natural mood booster and an effective way of reducing stress by releasing chemical endorphins in the brain. Exercise does not have to be strenuous to be effective. Even moderate exercise, like a 30-minute walk, can relieve immediate and long-term work-related stress.
Reach out to friends and family
The stress-buffering hypothesis suggests that interpersonal relationships positively influence the effects of chronic stress and crisis. Interacting with others boosts emotional intelligence and decreases feelings of depression.
Do not underestimate the power of a good conversation with a friend or family member. Sometimes, talking through your stressors can offer a new perspective and make them seem more manageable.
If you find it challenging to manage various sources of stress, consider contacting professional support through our employee assistance programme.
Take time in nature
Studies have shown that walking in the woods can help decrease extreme pressure and increase deep-sleep duration, boost mental health, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stress. Nature has a calming effect on the mind. Spending quality time in a local park can offer stress relief benefits if you cannot get to a natural setting.
Focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Mindfulness techniques can be incorporated into your daily life and do not require special equipment or locations. Simple practices like mindful eating or mindful walking can make a significant difference in reducing stress.
For more in-depth guidance on practising mindfulness, check out our article on mindfulness in the workplace.
Navigating stress management in the new normal
Stress is an intricate web of biological, psychological, and social factors. As we adapt to the new normal of a post-pandemic workplace, understanding and managing stress becomes a cornerstone for individual and collective well-being.
The strategies outlined in this guide offer a holistic approach to mitigating stress, fostering resilience, and promoting a healthier work environment. It is not just about surviving – it is about thriving in the face of challenges that life and work inevitably bring.
To better manage stress in a post-pandemic world, consider signing up for our well-being platform and benefit from a range of tailored tools and quality resources.
- Quick, J. C., Quick, J. D., Nelson, D. L., & Hurrell Jr, J. J. (1997). Preventive stress management in organisations. American Psychological Association.
- Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer.
- Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. Oxford University Press.
- Cohen, S., Underwood, L. G., & Gottlieb, B. H. (Eds.). (2000). Social support measurement and intervention: A guide for health and social scientists. Oxford University Press.