Stress: what it is and how to deal with it

Tuesday 06 April 2021
A deep dive into everything you need to know about understanding and coping with stress
Person with head in their hands surrounded by blurred people walking

There are many day-to-day situations that can make you feel stressed. At work, tasks may pile up; preparing for a presentation may seem as if it's taking forever; you may be feeling harassed or bullied; or having problems with other people. At home, you may have fallen out with partners, brothers or sisters, friends or children.

April 2021 is Stress Awareness Month, so we thought it would be useful to share some of the most useful CMI resources to help you out.

Here’s everything you need to know to identify, understand, and manage stress.

1. Understanding stress in beginner’s terms

Stress is your body's way of responding to any kind of demand. It can be caused by both good and bad experiences. When people feel stressed by something going on around them, their bodies react by releasing hormones into the blood. These chemicals give the body more energy and strength, which can be a good thing, if their stress is caused by physical danger. Beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships, and ultimately, quality of life.

“Think of stress like a set of scales: on one side are real or imagined pressures and on the other is how we cope with those pressures. If those scales tip because the pressure is more than we can cope with, then we become overwhelmed in the longer term,” says Dr Lynda Shaw, a neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist. She explains the two biological pathways that mediate our stress response:

  • The Sympathetic-Adrena-medullar (SAM) axis is the first pathway to respond and is very quick. The sympathetic nervous system activates the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline and noradrenalin. This causes stress symptoms such as our heart rate increasing, blood pressure going up and getting a boost of energy and, consequently, our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. This is tolerable in the short term and we recover once the perceived threat has passed.
  • The second biological reaction to stress involves the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, which is slower to respond and is triggered by signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. We need the right amount of cortisol to survive and it enhances our brain’s use of glucose as fuel or energy, and also helps us repair tissue – but cortisol can become toxic if allowed to continue for long. Persistent overreaction of these stress systems can be detrimental to our health.

“We need the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) to take over from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to feel calm, but still alert enough to function well. The parasympathetic nervous system takes over to calm everything down and our blood pressure, respiratory and heart rates slow,” Lynda explains.

Log in and take our quiz to find out how well you currently cope with pressure and discover some hints and tips to be able to deal better with it at work.


2. Many different things can cause stress

These triggers range from the physical (such as fear of something dangerous) to the emotional (such as worry over your family or job.) Identifying what may be causing you stress is often the first step in learning how to deal with it. Some of the most common sources of stress are:

  • Fatigue and overwork. This kind of stress builds up over a period of time and can take its toll on your body. It can be caused by working too much or too hard at your job or at home. It can also be caused by not knowing how to manage your time well or how to take time out for rest and relaxation. This can be one of the hardest kinds of stress to avoid because many people feel this is out of their control.
  • Environment. Things around you can cause stress, such as noise, crowding, and pressure from work or family. Identifying these environmental stresses and learning to avoid them or deal with them will help lower your stress level.
  • Survival instinct. This is the "fight or flight" response to danger in all people and animals. Although it is primarily a response to physical danger. The same instinct can be recreated in the workplace for example, when you have a confrontation with someone or if you make a mistake and the repercussions are potentially serious. Your body naturally responds with a burst of energy so that you will be better able to survive the dangerous situation (fight) or escape it all together (flight).
  • Internal stress. This is one of the most important kinds of stress to understand and manage. It often happens when we worry about things we can't control or put ourselves in situations we know will cause us stress. Some people become addicted to the hurried, tense, lifestyle that results from being under stress and even look for stressful situations. Others become stressed because they are not in control of all aspects of the situation.
If your mental health has been negatively affected specifically by lockdown and the pandemic, you may find our webinar with Simon Blake OBE, CEO of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, useful.


Top tip

Uncover what causes you stress by looking back on stressful times and reflecting on the circumstances: what was happening and how did you respond? Keep track of these instances and look for patterns to identify your key stressors. 


3. Can stress ever be a good thing?

Good stress is what makes you focus, get things done, up your game, swim or run faster, give it the ‘X’ factor and remember things. When your body senses danger the hypothalamus triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol and the fight or flight instinct. Extra oxygen floods your brain and body, increasing alertness, sharpening senses and galvanising your limbs. In short, you temporarily become superhuman.

People that experience this level of stress feel energised and ready - a bit like after an aerobic workout. They also get the right balance of the two key neurochemicals, dopamine and noradrenaline in the ‘executive functioning’ part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, so the ability to plan, remember and control emotion is optimised.

Research has shown that reframing your stress is critical to controlling it and making it work for you. Consider that the butterflies in your stomach just mean you are ready to do that presentation; your nerves just mean you are excited. Your body is stronger, your mind is more alert. When you remove the negative associations with stress your performance goes up.

Watch Julia Gardner explain how to cope with stress in today’s ever-challenging and fast-moving world of work. Log in to watch Coping with Stress and Pressure.


4. Stress, work, and you

A healthy amount of stress is expected in any job: you want to be challenged, to try new things and learn new skills – but when it starts to become overwhelming and the pace unmanageable, that’s when you need to employ stress-management techniques. For help managing a stressful workload and feeling under pressure from deadlines, check out the advice in our webinar you want it by when?! with CMI’s resident skills expert, David McLaughlin CMgr FCMI ChMC.

Check out some of our recorded webinars to find helpful wellbeing tips that could help you when your workload becomes overwhelming: We’re all in this together features self-care and self-preservation tips, and sustaining wellbeing and productivity dives into which aspects of flexible and remote working can work to your advantage when it comes to remote working.

Having mental resilience is crucial to managing stress. By building routines into our days,  like socialising - when possible - laying off excessive alcohol or junk food, exercising or getting outdoors, we top up our wellbeing. Without these coping mechanisms, we run the risk of having poor wellbeing and stress can completely deplete our reserves.

“When we lack resilience, our adrenal glands struggle to cope with the pressure we’re under,” say Patricia Peyton and Clare Dale, authors of Physical Intelligence: Harness Your Body's Untapped Intelligence to Achieve More, Stress Less and Live More Happily. “They keep us going at pace, but if we operate too long in overdrive and don’t give our adrenals enough recovery time or too few resources, toxins build up in our brains and bodies and put us at risk of burnout. In 2019, the World Health Organisation officially named burnout a syndrome described as ‘the ineffective management of workplace stress’.

“In today’s challenging work environment, too many people spend long periods of time in overdrive, with their foot flat on the accelerator, draining their adrenals – and their resilience. Think of it this way: if you drive by flooring the accelerator and slamming the brakes, the car will break down faster than if you operate smoothly and service the car regularly. The same theory applies to our adrenal glands.

“When we need to perform, our adrenal glands produce cortisol so that we can rise to the occasion with confidence. To recover quickly, they then need relaxation. Without that, cortisol levels remain too high for too long – leading to adrenal fatigue (burnout). At its most serious, burnout can be life-threatening. Thankfully, most of us only ever experience mild burnout, an increasingly common condition given today’s increased pace of change at work and home. Keep an eye out for early warning signs of low resilience: high blood pressure, low level anxiety, mood swings, inability to cope well with change, feeling regularly fatigued, going into overdrive, obsessing over things, and being short-tempered. At the first sign of even one of these, intensify your use of resilience techniques.”

Watch our fantastic digital event with Liz Hoskin (whose job title is ‘chief radiator’ because of her surplus of energy). She explores how your mindset affects your life, and offers mood-boosting and stress-busting tips.


Top tip

Talking to someone about your stressful day can help you release some of the pressure you may be feeling: try fiends, family, mentors, managers. With the latter especially, it’s important not to just vent through; bring up some suggestions which could help everyone involved.


5. What’s expected of a manager

Managers are subject to a huge range of pressures both in the workplace and outside it. Following a period of economic difficulty and recession, the need to deliver in full, on time and within budget has never been greater, plus you need to be on the lookout for your team and their wellbeing. The pace of change continues unabated, driven by factors such as the globalisation of business and ongoing technological developments. While offering considerable benefits, twenty four hours a day connectivity and accessibility have added to the problem. Coping with and adapting to these pressures can be an immense challenge for managers.

In this checklist, we outline steps managers can look after their own mental health.

When thinking about looking after the mental health of your team, reducing workplace stress is not something a manager can do single-handedly. However good of a manager you are, it usually requires wider organisational involvement. That said, there are a couple of small things you can do to promote a healthy working environment.

  • It’s important that workers make space during the day to recharge and zone out from all the noise. Short, regular breaks away from the computer screen give the mind a chance to declutter and will keep people feeling fresh. Try to set an example by creating designated ‘time-outs’ for yourself – and be vocal about it!
  • While being careful not to slip into David Brent/Michael Scott territory, sharing the odd joke or funny video can help ease the tension and inject some much-needed levity into the working day. Just make sure anything you do is in good taste and that you’re not offending anyone.
  • As you search around for that perfect stress-relieving formula, the main thing is to lead by example. Happiness and wellbeing are contagious, and the more relaxed you feel in yourself the sooner others are likely to follow suit. That also means practising what you preach - keep an open mind and throw yourself whole-heartedly into new activities and techniques.

Potential Pitfalls of stress management

Managers should avoid:

  • Thinking that experiencing stress is a sign of weakness - this will not help you to manage stress effectively
  • Keeping your difficulties to yourself - this can be detrimental to your health as ignoring problems and hoping they will sort themselves out will solve nothing
  • Coming to a complete halt - this will only give you more time to think and worry. Doing something which you enjoy will be far more therapeutic.
  • Taking the effects of personal stress out on your colleagues.

Log in and see more in CMI’s checklist –  Stress management: self first.

You may also want to check out these managerial no-nos in order to keep their team’s blood pressures down and morale up.


Our Mental Health and Wellbeing page offers more resources to help support you and your team.

You may be interested in reading more around the subject - check out these CMI Insights articles:

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