Some months ago, Ann Marie Hourihane wrote an article (http://iti.ms/1DFLXAD) in The Irish Times Weekend Review about a device designed to help manage stress. At the end, we invited readers to participate in a small survey about stress, and within four days 96 people had contacted us. We replied to them individually, after which 38 of those people opted to take the survey; 34 completed it.
The study cannot be taken as representative of the whole population as it is based on a very small sample of self-selecting and self-rating individuals but it does tell us about these people’s experience of stress at a certain point in time.
Dr Mark Harrold, a clinical psychologist, helped to design the survey, in which we asked participants to rate 10 common causes of stress from Very stressed to Not stressed at all; some situations did not apply to some people. The causes of stress we asked about were: domestic bullying; commute; financial issues; legal problems; illness (self); illness (immediate family); sleep problems; friends; extended family; other personal/health problems. The responses were anonymised and passed in aggregate form to Harrold, who analysed the trends and presents his findings below
This survey consists exclusively of the responses that readers of The Irish Times made to a request in the newspaper to comment on their levels of stress, so it does not reflect the status of the nation.
However, the survey certainly does present some interesting findings. Perhaps the most clearcut one is confirmation that so many of us believe we are overworked and underpaid.
Volume of work and financial stress were the two most frequently cited sources of stress from the sample. And what emerges from the survey is that this combination has a significant impact on the quality of our relationships. This was the third most frequently mentioned item in the categories of Very or Quite stressed.
Of note also is the number of times the category “Other” family members was cited as a source of stress. This was the fifth most cited category when counting Very or Quite stressed scores. Issues such as caring for an elderly relative, a child with a disability or a family member with a chronic illness clearly take their toll.
We have always known that stress presents in different guises. And what can be perceived as stressful for one person is not so for another.
The fourth most cited source of stress in our survey is in the category “Other” which highlights the diverse nature of stress. Prof Ian Robertson, head of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, has described stress as “the reaction of the body, brain and mind to a situation where you feel the demands made upon you exceed your capacity to meet these demands”.
So much of our stress has to do with our perception of the circumstances which present themselves to us. Nevertheless, some consistencies emerge from the survey.
Poor sleep was cited as the sixth most frequent cause of stress. This is a good example of how stress can feed itself. We can all imagine the scenario – indeed many of us experience it daily – where the build-up of stress begins to eat into other aspects of our lives. And poor sleep is an obvious outcome of the external pressures described above.
Of course, if our sleep becomes consistently poor, this affects other aspects of our lives. We can become more irritable, less able to execute daily tasks efficiently and have a general feeling of malaise.
Another interesting result from the survey is the number of times subjects cited the daily commute as a source of their stress. This was seventh on the list when counting only Very or Quite stressed responses. This is understandable as most of us can relate to the draining and demoralising effect of a long daily commute.
And while we may be able to drag ourselves through the mire of stress each day, it eventually takes its toll as reflected in the joint eighth most cited item on the survey. Namely, illness (self).
Inevitably, the body responds to sustained stress by breaking down. The chemical most associated with the fight or flight response to stress is cortisol. While this naturally produced chemical is designed to create a heightened state of readiness in response to an immediate threat, it has a degenerative effect on the organs of the body where the perceived threat is sustained over time.
Negative equity would be an obvious example of a threat people must endure over an extended period.
Of particular concern is the other survey item that was in joint eighth place. Workplace bullying was cited as a notable source of stress by almost 7 per cent of the sample.
Given the toxic nature of this phenomenon, it is a significant finding. Stress from workplace bullying is considered to be on a par with a soldier returning from a war zone or a couple going through a divorce. The cost, both financially and personally, is enormous.
So if you thought you were alone with your stress, perhaps this survey provides some reassurance that so many of us are in similar circumstances.
The appalling recession can be blamed for much of our stress. The good news is that there are many ways we can combat stress. We will never eliminate it – indeed we need an amount of stress to get us out of bed each morning – but we can control it.
Regular exercise and a healthy diet are the obvious antidotes to stress. Yoga and/or mindfulness practice are excellent. And one of my favourite tips comes from Robertson. It is that you have to “fake it till you make it”. Even if you don’t feel confident, act in a confident way. This will trick the brain into believing you are confident and it will respond by producing “happy” chemicals in your system. Try it, it works.