Is stress poison or medicine? Only the dosage decides. (Paracelsus)

We all need stress to cope with our challenges. However, too much stress can become risk, not only for ourselves, but also for the quality of our work.

«Stress ensures that we are capable of high performance in a wide variety of environments.» Clemens Kirschbaum

«The reason we have our stress response is not to get sick, but to be able to change.» Gerald Hüther

From Christian Bachmann

We all need a certain level of stress to cope with our demanding tasks. The human biological stress response system leads to physical activation and the mobilization of energy through the release of cortisol and adrenaline. As a result, blood flow to the brain is increased and sensory perception is directed outward.

In terms of evolutionary biology, the stress response of man is highly meaningful: It allows the body to undergo a lightning-fast transformation that prepares it for any imminent physical confrontation with a wide variety of dangers. Therefore, the acute stress reaction in itself is not a health risk.

The "medicine" of the stress reaction is nicely summarized in the quotes by Kirschbaum and Hüther. The research on the connection between activation and performance led to the realization that this connection is not linear, but rather an inverted u-shape. The highly simplified graph shows that performance increases with growing activation. The maximum performance level is reached at medium activation.

After that, the performance decreases again. The main reason for this is that the focus of attention narrows with increasing activation. "Tunnel vision" helps in a deep activation phase to concentrate only on the essentials.

However, if the activation exceeds “the right dosage”, task-relevant stimuli and information are blanked out when coping with complex challenges, causing performance to drop again. In addition, strong activation can lead to emotional and cognitive symptoms of stimulation that distract from engagement with the essential task (feelings such as fear, anger or rage and/or disturbing thoughts, e.g., about possible failure).

The art of personal stress management thus lies in being able to appropriately regulate the current level of activation in relation to the requirements of the task at hand. In practice, this often means reducing personal activation whenever possible.

Using the stress traffic light, Gert Kaluza (Stress Management, 2018) divides individual stress competence into three levels (Figure). Stressors are all external demands, as a result of which a stress reaction is triggered in the individual. In professional work, this often comes from tight deadlines and performance pressure, "multi-tasking," social conflicts or disruptions and interruptions that tear one out of concentration.

Personal stress amplifiers intensify the stress experience

People always have their own share in stress events, too: personal stress amplifiers. Wanting to be indispensable, perfectionism, not being able or not wanting to be helped, as well as overtaxing oneself in one's own demands all contribute to intensifying the effect of the original stressors on us.

Each stressor ultimately leads to a stress reaction. This includes the physical and psychological responses of the body to stress. People who are exposed to stress-induced strains on a long-term basis (chronic stress) may experience exhaustion or illness. Stress affects all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems, as described in the Article of American Psychological Association.

Instrumental stress competence now aims to enable individuals to develop specific strategies to reduce personal stress activation. Figure

At the stressor level, the demands themselves are actively addressed. Here, all aspects of self-management and personal work techniques are helpful. The skills of personal communication and conflict management are also very beneficial here, as is cultivating personal networks and making room for personal development in general.

Mental stress competence is based on the ability to self-reflect: to be able to observe oneself in one's thoughts and actions and from this to constantly develop new and useful attitudes to the current situation.

The regenerative stress competence works on the level of the stress reaction and includes sport, relaxation, enjoyment and breaks to reduce the stress hormones in the body again.

All stress competencies must be developed for targeted stress regulation

What is important now in developing our stress skills is that we don't just do one thing. For example, don't just do sports to relieve stress, because this means that the external stressors remain and the personal attitude towards them is not reflected upon. But only reflecting on one’s personal attitude over and over again and practicing "affected calmness" is also not enough in the long run.

Every now and then we need to be able to directly address a stressor, e.g. in the form of a social conflict, in order to arrive at a situation that is once again bearable for us (e.g. clarifying roles in a project or negotiating expectations with superiors). The more stress reduction skills we can develop on the three levels, the better we can regulate our personal stress activation again and again and find the "healthy dosage" so that stress is more medicine than poison.

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