Work-related stress most often is cited as the most negative stress that we experience on a regular basis, followed closely by the stress associated with unfamiliar experiences and locations. The latter commonly is confused with fear, the former with former with job dissatisfaction. Both have in common the element of control, or, more specifically, a lack of control.
Job dissatisfaction occurs, however, when we our abilities are not exercised, or where the work environment itself is “toxic.” Stress becomes involved when we are faced with challenges for which we are not prepared, or situations that have proven to be problematic in the past. Indeed, anticipation of a stressful situation or experience creates its own stress. Job dissatisfaction feeds that stress, but often is not stressful in itself.
The stress of unfamiliar experiences can be both positive and negative. Equate, if you will, excitement with unfamiliar stress, and imagine those athletes that participate in extreme sports (such as helicopter skiing). These extremely athletic individuals savour the excitement and the stress of the moment. However, what we fail to factor into these experiences is that each of the participants have spent a great deal of time preparing for the sport, and manage their risks well. Certainly, there are those that do leap in, unprepared, but they are the exception, and often mask or submerge their stress by mentally blocking the risk factors.
What separates the good stress of athletic competition from the bad stress of the job, or facing the unknown? The simple answer is “preparation.” Soldiers are trained and disciplined for many weeks before being thrust into unknown, challenging environments. They repeat and repeat and repeat drills. They simulate the confrontations and challenges that they will face, until they almost instinctively react to the unknown, by categorizing it with familiar rituals that they have practised.
Exam stress is a prime example of the benefit of practice and preparation. Psychological studies have shown that learning the material thoroughly is the best remedy to avert exam stress. Yet, that is nothing more than preparation and practice! A second dimension of exam stress reduction, though, is the principle of state-dependent learning. As a parent, I used to simulate the exam room at home by setting up desks for my children, at which they studied, and insisted that they do homework in this setting, regularly. However, I would also provide practical applications for the topics that they were learning, so that they could relate the learned material to a “real-life” experience. This extra element provided a level of intimate understanding of the material, while the desk environment helped them to recall materials in the test environment as if they were at their desks at home. They were prepared.
One of my great stressors was the doctor’s office, and, specifically, needles. Such was my panic at medical exam time that I actually passed out while having my blood pressure taken, and, three times, while having a blood test. Yet, I have had twenty-seven broken bones and severe injuries requiring medical intervention, have been involved in more than 1,600 fights, and have even eschewed having a broken wrist set and cast, because I had too much work to do! Clearly, pain was not my problem. It was a fear of the unknown: specifically, what might be in the needle, and what control was I relinquishing in the situation. Ultimately, I chose to donate blood, reasoning that I had no right to be selfish, when a simple blood donation was needed by others with medical emergencies. In other words, I shamed myself into overcoming my fear of needles. It was my version of preparation. Having donated blood multiple times, I not longer fear the process (but still don’t particularly care for it).
By preparing for and understanding circumstances and events, we can reduce or eliminate stress. Lowered stress does not mean lower enjoyment, but it does allow you to more smoothly engage with situations that may otherwise prove too chaotic or disturbing. In short, organize your chaos, and you will eliminate many of your potentially stressful experiences,.