It's a fact that we all experience both pressure and stress in our working and personal lives. However, research conducted by CABA indicates that stress is a growing area of concern for both ACA students and qualified ICAEW chartered accountants alike, with poor work-life balance, exam stress and career management highlighted as particularly challenging issues.
'There's a lot of work which needs to be done and life balance is difficult with exams and work added to the usual home life'
'I really enjoy my current job, but I feel I should move on to make sure I'm progressing and taking all the opportunities I can.'
Let's be clear. No one performs better under stress or pressure. Both negatively affect our judgement, our ability to make good decisions, our focus and, most importantly, our wellbeing both physical and mental.
What's the difference between pressure and stress?
One useful definition is, 'As long as you perceive you have the ability and resources, both internal and external, to cope with the demands being placed on you, you are subject to pressure and not stress'.
Pressure is what we feel when something is important to us, when we need to perform or deliver something. We experience stress when we feel there are too many demands on us, when we feel overwhelmed and unable to respond appropriately or cope with whatever it is we're dealing with.
Stress is your brain's way of responding to what it perceives as a threat, whether it's real or imagined. It causes your brain and body to move into a 'fight, flight or freeze' response, in which your muscles tense, your heart beats faster, your breathing quickens and you become more aware of your surroundings. All of which helps you to fight or run away. This, of course, can be a good thing. It's what has helped us to adapt, evolve and survive. But, too much, too often can, and frequently does, lead to serious physical and psychological health problems.
The thing about stress is that it creeps up on you. It becomes part of your daily life. You accept it and stop noticing the detrimental effects it's having on you. Something called Hebb's Law states that 'Neurons that fire together, wire together'. The opposite side of this is, 'Neurons that fire apart, wire apart'. What this means is that if you accept stress as part of your life, it will become embedded as thoughts and behaviours. And, any of the good you may have practiced in the past to help you cope gets lost because you no longer use it.
Too much stress can lead to anxiety. Anxiety is stress that continues after the stressor is gone, and is an illness, which can be both emotional and physical.
What are your triggers?
It's important to be able to recognise what triggers your stress response. Once you know what your triggers are, you can begin building effective strategies to help you become more resilient.
How do you know if you're feeling stressed?
Each of us will react differently to pressure and stress. Not everybody will have the same physical or emotional reactions at the same time. But once you or someone else has noticed the warning signs then you need to do something about it, immediately.
Common signs include (but are not limited to):
- Headaches, muscle tension, neck or back pain
- Stomach upsets
- Trouble sleeping, falling asleep, staying asleep or both
- Constantly tired
- Poor memory
- Short temper/irritable
- Trouble concentrating, being easily distracted by negative thoughts and worries
- Chest pains, rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure
- Low sex drive/loss of libido
- Poor appetite - undereating or overeating/comfort eating
- Frequency of opportunistic infections, colds bugs etc.
There's a lot you can do to help yourself (and others). One of the most effective things you can do is talk to someone you can trust. If you're finding it difficult to talk to friends and family, you can always talk to CABA, in complete confidence. We're here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Finally, remember there's nothing weak or foolish about feeling stressed. It's something we all experience from time to time. By taking a few simple, practical steps, you can prevent it from having a negative impact on your health and wellbeing. A good place to start your journey towards good mental wellbeing is to read How to manage stress from Mind.
This article was written for CABA by Behavioural Psychologist, Richard Jenkins
For more tips, tools and resources to help you take care of your mental wellbeing and empower others to do the same, visit cabamentalwellbeing.org.uk