June 2013
By Heidi Wahl

Image: © Luca Bertolli/ 123rf.com

Heidi Wahl has worked for several years as editor-in-chief and in-house editor for various print and online media outlets. In 2006, she rechristened herself as independent trainer, author and coach. An avid mountain-lover who calls Munich home, she writes extensively on people and health, holds practically-oriented and motivational seminars and gives presentations, including at tekom meetings.



This is a translation of a German article published in 'technische kommunikation', tekom's professional magazine for technical communication and information development. www.tekom.de


Stress - a question of assessment

Stress doesn’t fall from the sky – it’s we who create it for ourselves. Search inside of you and figure out what it is that’s stressing you out and why. And by the way, stress may not be as unhealthy as you think.

Rush-hour traffic on the way to work, 120 unread emails in your inbox, and a headline that needs to be modified immediately – enough to drive you up the wall. It’s just after 9 in the morning and you’re already stressed, looking forward to calling it a day. If you feel this way, you’re not alone: Market research firm GfK carried out a survey and found that almost every second respondent (47.4 per cent) of 30 to 39-year-olds felt they were under constant pressure.

Getting you up in arms or lending you wings

Constant accessibility thanks to email and cell phones, information overdoses, pressure to succeed, and work amounting to 60 or more hours a week all lead to overload, stress symptoms and in a worst-case scenario, burnout. Chronic overload makes your body send out warning signals: Typical stress reactions include concentration lapses, insomnia, unfounded fear or panic, tightness in the chest, and stomach or heart trouble. And the feeling of never being able to switch off – even when on holidays.

There’s nothing about stress per se that’s problematic. It’s not stress itself that troubles Technical Editors and freelancers. For stress doesn’t always stress you out; often, it’s great fun, giving you the right doses of energy and drive, contributing to personal development and lending you wings. Experts differentiate between eustress (pleasant and positive) and distress (draining). Acute stress behavior is a survival mechanism that psychologists term as a fight or flight reaction, which was useful to our ancestors should they come upon a saber-toothed tiger.

Endogenous doping

If you encounter a “dangerous” situation such as an angry boss at the door or a dissatisfied customer on the phone, what happens inside your body is likely this: All bodily functions switch to flight or attack. Through the vegetative nervous system, the brain sends out a message for stress hormones to be released. Cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline help the organism do what it otherwise would not have been able to. Endogenous doping increases breathing, pulse, blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tone, and improves reaction times and concentration. Normally, tension, namely a stressful situation, is followed by a relaxation phase. Nowadays, though, we find that tension is followed by tension is followed by tension – the balance has gone kaput.

Not just one cause

Stress, though, is not equal to stress. All conditions and reactions that trigger a stress reaction can be divided into three groups. Physical stressors are sound, sensory overload, pain, cold, heat, the ringing of a telephone, hunger or too little sleep. Sensory events include fear of losing one’s job, financial woes, too much responsibility, pressure of deadlines, fear of failure, too little time, loss of power, and being overchallenged or underchallenged. Under social stressors, experts include conflicts with colleagues, the boss or in the family, isolation, bullying, competition or even losing trusted people.

People react very differently to stressors. Stress is therefore very individualized and even dependent on one’s form on that day. Many manage labor-intensive and wearying periods of life quite easily, while others become extremely irritable and short-tempered. Who feels stressed out when and how much depends on personal experience and individual assessment of states of tension that are supposedly unpleasant.

Tracking down your stressors

Two questions need to be borne in mind when assessing stress: 1. Do I see a threat in the stress trigger? If your answer is “no”, there is no stress reaction, and nothing happens. If you answer “yes”, then the next question is: Can I deal with the threat? If you think that your furious boss will calm down again, in other words, that you’ll be able to deal with the situation, there definitely is no stress reaction and you bide your time calmly. But if you fear that you might lose your job, and therefore answer “no”, your endogenous alarm system kicks into action and your ability to think rationally takes a hit.

Therefore, spend some time retracing your stress: In which situations do you feel the most stressed and why? Which stressors affect you the most? How do you react? Is your reaction always the same or are there differences? Personally, what increases your stress? These could include perfectionism, impatience, over-helpfulness, a tendency to over-challenge yourself or difficulties in limiting oneself and “saying no”. Ideally, write down your personal stressors and your behavior in a daily diary. In the next task, we’ll look at strategies to help you retain your composure and defuse stressful situations.