Manage Stress Before it Kills You

The key to a long career in IT is in learning how to cope adaptively with stress. Matt Simmons, like many, didn't realise it applies to everyone until he was rushed to hospital with what looked to be a heart attack. It was a salutary experience. He then discovered that there are many effective ways of unwinding, and it pays to be aware of them before you get the warning-shot.

The warning-shot

My heart beat against the wall of my chest. I could feel it pounding, even over my ragged breaths. I felt like I was suffocating, even though I was pulling in twice as much air as usual. I knew I was having a heart attack, and that realization was fuel for the fire which coursed through my veins. I made a decision. I was not going to die here, laying on a bench.

“We need to go to a hospital. Now.”

 “
I made a decision.
I was not going to
die here, laying on
 a bench
                   “

The concern written on my friends’ faces told enough for me to know that I looked as bad as I felt, and with their support, I made my way to the car. Shaun drove like a madman to the nearest emergency room. Immediately I was processed and evaluated, then wheeled into a staging area where I had electrodes placed all over my body so that the doctors could read the signals my heart was putting out. Blood was drawn, I was monitored, and cold stethoscopes were used.

It didn’t take long for the results to come back. Less than an hour had passed before the nurse pulled open the curtain and stepped in.

“Mr. Simmons, we’ve determined that you’re not having a heart attack”.

I was stunned. Speechless, really. Every commercial I’d ever seen on television matched all of my symptoms. Every description I’ve seen before and since has matched the sensations I had that night. I had all of the outward signs, but none of the physical attributes of a heart attack. So what had happened?

All in the mind?

The answer, determined my cardiologist, was stress. Sure, it wasn’t an easy diagnosis, or an immediate one. I underwent multiple stress tests, including one where I was injected with radioactive dye so that the three dimensional blood flow around my heart could be monitored by a machine the size of a small room. They tried very, very hard to find something wrong with me, but it was in vain. Structurally, I was fine. Mentally, I was stressed beyond the breaking point.

How is it that something that only exists in the indefinite recesses of a few hundred million neurons in my brain could wreak havoc and incapacitate my body in such a complete manner?

Stress management

It’s because my stress management up to that point was nonexistent. My coping method  would be to shove stress out of the way. Move past it, compress it into a little bottle and ignore it. That night, it refused to be ignored and it fought back. I should consider myself fortunate. The stress attack that night, and the tests that followed it, served as a warning. My mechanisms for dealing with stress were badly out of kilter, and unchecked, it could get worse. Much worse.

To investigate how bad it can get, lets examine how stress works.

Humans, like all animals, have a fight or flight reflex, keenly evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Originally designed to protect us from physical threats, this instinct is now triggered by psychological threats as well. Anyone who has accidentally erased an entire directory’s worth of important files can attest to this.

In addition to pure fight-or-flight stress, day to day situations apply mental strain and tax our body’s resources. Work is a large source of stress, since many times we perceive our professional (and by extension, financial) statuses to be at risk. In addition, our personal lives and relationships are frequently a major cause of stress.

Stress is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. We’re designed to be able to handle a certain amount of it. In fact, we require stress to operate at peak performance. Many highly dynamic people will tell you that stress provides them the fuel they need to accomplish their goals. Not everyone functions like that, though.

Stress has three phases on the body.

  • The general phase, sometimes called the “alarm phase”, is the initial response to the stress. Flight or fight. Some muscles tense, others loosen, and adrenaline enters the blood stream. In short-term stress, this phase passes quickly and our bodies return to normal.
  • In longer-term stress, our body invokes coping mechanisms, and we start to adapt to the stress. This resistance phase taxes our body’s physical and mental reserves, and the longer it goes, the more stretched out and weary we feel.
  • The final phase is when our body is exhausted, and gives up fighting the stress. We’re no longer able to resist whatever is causing our stress, and we stop being able to deal with it. The final stage is where we experience burnout. We’re far past our peak performance and well into misery. Personally, when I get to this phase, I get irritable and hard to deal with. I snap at otherwise normal requests, I’m sullen, and generally not nice to be around. You probably know how you feel when you get to this phase, and I’m sure you don’t like it any more than I do when it happens to me.


Extended periods of stress
can do a lot more than strain
personal relationships
                                ”

Extended periods of stress can do a lot more than strain personal relationships. It increases blood pressure, and over time, high blood pressure damages walls in blood vessels. When the walls heal, scar tissue is left, and these stresses cause blockages similar to cholesterol build-up. This is a very bad thing, because it can eventually cause a real heart attack. Fortunately, even the hard chargers and workaholics among us can lower their stress levels and live healthier (and longer) lives.

James Manktelow, author of “Manage Stress”, advocates starting and maintaining a stress diary. A spreadsheet would be ideal for this: in the first column, rank your stress from one, being the least stressful, to ten, being the most stressful. Record what the stress was in the next column, and beside it, enter how the stress made you feel. Make a column for the number of times you feel that particular stress, and increase the number each time you experience it. In the far right column, record how you deal with that stress.

Sort your stress diary by the number of times you have experienced each situation, and make a note of the top entry. This line represents your most frequent source of stress, and gives you a target to focus
on when removing stress from your life.

After recording your most frequent stressor, sort your diary by how stressful you rated each situation. When complete, the top entry will be that stressor which causes you the greatest trauma. Elimination
of its source will also provide you the single greatest relief.

You should make it a priority to eliminate these two top sources of stress from your life. They cause the majority of damage to your health, and by eliminating them you will improve your overall stress level and well-being. Take action and use one of these three methods of dealing with them:

  • Action oriented – Confront the root source head on. If your stress is work related, deal with it directly. Discuss the problem with your supervisor, explain how you feel, and be honest about it. Ultimately, if your employer is unable or unwilling to improve your conditions, leave. Your health is too precious to squander for a job that – in all likelihood – you don’t like anyway.
  • Emotion oriented – Attempt to change how you feel about the source of the stress. Personal relationships cause a lot of stress, but lots of problems can be effectively dealt with by trying to change how you feel about the problem, rather than changing the problem itself. Examine it from a different perspective, try to understand the underlying causes and tolerate their effects. Attempt to be flexible in your outlook.
  • Acceptance oriented – When all else fails, and you can’t change the problem or how you feel, accept the source of the stress. Focus on surviving by building buffers between yourself and the source of the stress. Cope any way you can until you can improve the situation.

Stress is powerful, for good or ill, and effectively managing it is key to maintaining a healthy life. If you are having problems with stress in your own life, please contact a local stress counsellor or the human resources department of your company. Help is available for people who need it. You are able to defend yourself against the stresses of life. You only have to make the first step.

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  • Anonymous

    Manage Stress Before it Kills You
    Although I am fortunate never to have suffered from a stress attack, the symptoms and “phases” you mention above are only too familiar to me.

    I can attest to the success of the ‘stress diary’ technique. It’s really quite enlightening. It was suggested to me by my psychologist when I was referred to her by my doctor for stress and anxiety counselling.

    One of the effects of stress that catches me time and again, even with the stress diary, is how dehabilitating it can be. Sometimes writing how stressed I feel, what caused it and what actions I took to over come it often doesn’t happen until I have sat for an hour at least letting the red mist disappear from in front of my eyes. It can sometimes completely paralyse me to the point of a total lack of inertia.

    Knowing the extent to which stress can damage the body has made me take as much notice of it as I would any other illness with pervasive and sometimes constant symptoms.

    Thanks for a very factual and relevant article.

  • Matt Simmons

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Anonymous
    It sounds like you’re working toward reducing your stress in healthy ways. I’m glad you went to see a professional, because as you said, this can be a very debilitating condition.

    Good luck, and thank you for the kind words.

  • Rachel Clements

    Stress and its Effects
    A very well written article which really brings home how bad stress can get to you.

    In Matt’s case it could have been a lot worse, though the body is good at sending out signals to warn us when we are too stressed (in this case quite severely). Stress is invisible and can creep up on you without you quite realising it.

    I know from personal experience how important it is to firstly recognise the symptoms that occur when stress is getting to a level that is too high, and secondly to try to manage the source of stress.

    The latter isn’t always easy to achieve when you have a pressing project, deadlines, moving house or a personal issue etc.

    When under a lot of stress, I try to increase my exercise levels to burn off the adrenaline, avoid processed food (in particular salt and sugars) and keep my coffee intake to a minimum. And a hobby that totally involves your brain to give yourself a rest is always a bonus, be it video games, sport or spending time with friends.

  • MAS

    Manage Stress Before It Kills you
    That’s a fact it can kill you, If you left your self to be effected by it.

    But sometimes talking is easier than taking an action specially when it catch you.
    Does any one noticed that every thing is stressful this days? even if you plan for relaxing vecation 🙂

  • Patrick

    Eat Healthy
    You need to eat healthy,exercise and reduce your stress.

  • mack

    Financial Stress
    Thanks for sharing such great post, due to recession there are many people who are undergoing financial crisis, they have stress of managing their funds effectively and fear of loosing job. For more details on financial stress refer http://www.prime-targeting.com/ways-to-manage-financial-stress-effectively/

  • aaargh

    Employers know about it.
    Stress has been a regular part of my working career. Every previous Employer as well as the current one knows about it and invariably they do little about it. I work in an admin team that used to number 8 staff, now there are only two of us. The management seem keener to go into blame mode and cite cost-management as the reason they won’t augment our team. We have absolutely no wriggle-room. If I could get another job, I would, but there are none out there.

  • Get the Union involved

    Employers – Duty of Care
    Heah ‘Aaargh’ (i like that) we had a similiar experience losing staff that just had enough through the stress caused from restructing the IT team and brought in our union officials who were magnificant and in the end the restructure was canned!

    Life is more important than work but unfortunately we rely on work to live….

  • Joss

    There are other ways to deal with stress
    Your symptoms sound like mine. I ignored them for four months. I blamed it on the soda I was drinking. Thought it was indigestion. I, too, had my “I don’t want to die here” moment, but I tossed it aside after the feeling went away.

    I’d been a hard charger for over 25 years. I was known for taking combat assignments and 60 hour weeks.

    One night, after playing with my daughter on the floor, that mortal fear struck again. I confessed to my wife that I thought I was having chest pains. She rushed me to the ER. I really was having chest pains. I had 7 heart surgeries including stents, radiation, more stents, medicated stents and, finally, a very expensive MIDCAB (minimally invasive direct coronary bypass). I was 50 years old and a heart patient. I’ve had two more heart catheterizations since.

    Stress was a huge part of the problem. My cardiologist put me on beta blockers. The change in my life was quick and dramatic. Stress hasn’t landed on me since. I just don’t feel it. Fight or flight is no longer part of the equation.

    I used to be an aggressive, pain in the ass driver. I used to hate to fly because of fear. All of that is gone.

    Some of us are just more prone to the effects of stress than others and it manifests itself in physical ways.

    I don’t recommend that you let your life get to where mine got to. Five years post bypass, my regrets are many. It really impacts your life. I was seen as a “cripple” at work afterwards. They were hesitant to give me any projects that were of year durations.

    Ask your physician about beta blockers if you think stress is dictating your life or if you get to the point where the physical manifestations are seriously hindering your health.

  • Jose Chavez

    Same experience
    After reading this article, I felt that I’m not the only one who had the same experience (lot of times), and I think that sharing my history would be very important for other people. Two years ago, I was developing an application, 12 am, three cups of cofee and 4 cigarretes. At that moment, I felt the worst sensation of my life, My heart stops for about 2 seconds, and then started to work again but four times faster than normal. After that, I was thinking “…Oh God, this is the begining of a heart attack…”. I called my wife, told her that I’m going to ER, and say good bye (now I laugh about that, but at that moment, the only thought that I had was ” You’re going to die”). After I reached the ER, and received all the tests, the Dr came and said…”Calm down, you’re not going to die, what you have are “Extrasistoles” (I don’t know the translation for that word, sorry) and they’re created by your brain, not by your heart, so, what you’re having is a PANIC ATTACK, so, calm down, try to relax and enjoy your life (He encouraged me to have a “lover” because that helped him, not a solution for me, love you Carmelita!). After that episode, I went to the Cardiology Dr, did a lot of tests to check my heart, and the results were “Your heart is perfectly fine, you have an athletic heart”.
    But (always a “But”) my brain didn’t want to accept that I was (am) perfectly fine.
    Now, I’m fighting against tha anxiety and sometimes panic, and I realized that I’m my worst enemy and the only person who can save me at the same time.
    But the best part is, that I accepted those “attacks” are not going to kill me, they’re just sensations.
    Off course, I changed a lot of things in my life, specially quit smoking, eat healthy and (the most difficult) quit drinking coke!
    Have a great life, and remember, you need to stay healthy for you and your family, not for your employer.

  • Rod

    Bad advice
    “Ask your physician about beta blockers if you think stress is dictating your life or if you get to the point where the physical manifestations are seriously hindering your health.”

    Wrong!

    This is a reactive “solution” to the underlying problem. The answer is not in drugs that dull down your body’s natural reaction to life.

    How about changing your lifestyle! Chemical warfare has always been a bad idea.

  • Joss

    Reactive Solution
    “Chemical Warfare”?

    If you are prone to the effects of stress, you are a lousy candidate for controlling it.

    Best of luck “Self Helping” your way out of a heart attack.

  • Steve

    My solution
    Having had a stroke last year, I can attest to the power of stress as I had no other indicators to suggest that I was a candidate for a stroke – I’ve never smoked, my diet was good but boy, was I stressed. (I do suspect genetics played a part but I’m not sure.)

    Firstly, start exercising. When working up a sweat it’s difficult to ponder all of life’s dificulties and become stressed.

    Secondly, put yourself first. If you don’t look after yourself, you can’t look after anyone else. It’s not being selfish to say you need some Me time.

    Thirdly, slow down at work. You can get more done by going slower and not rushing. (Obviously within reason.)

    I’ve also become a vegan but it’s not for everyone.

  • CV

    You Only Think You Are Bulletproof Until You Get Shot…
    There is no simple solution to stress. We are diverse creatures with different approaches and reactions to stressful situations. A bout with cancer made me take a pause. A pleasant side effect was the medication provided to ‘take the edge off’ the stress of this condition. It allowed me to focus and see the life changes required for healthy physical and spiritual living.

    There is not simple formula. We as “IT People” look for nicely packaged or immensely complex “uber solutions” to fix a problem; however, we are human beings and it does not work that way.

    My approach is this:
    1. Professional Health Care – Work with your doctor(s) for a plan and stick with it. Document results and modify as necessary. (Waterfall methodology?)
    2. Family – Reengage your family and love them.
    3. Friends – Reengage your extended family and friends – Facebook is great for this.
    4. Exercise – Start exercising as soon as you can. Work up a physical sweat. I like to run but anything that works up a sweat will work. Wii Fit or Wi Sports are great for the indoor Olympian. Check with you doctor first!
    5. Diet – Eat more fruit and veggies, complex carbs; less sugar, fatty meats, processed or fast foods and dairy. Stop drinking soda of any kind. Drink more water and alcohol in moderation.
    6. Faith – Renew your relationship with God and pray for His guidance and fellowship. Your first reaction to stress should be prayer. This step is actually my number one step in this list, but I wanted you to read them all.

    Try these things. Try other things. Do them with others. Do not live in a vacuum. You are responsible for your health; not your doctor, your boss, your significant other, your family and friends, your clients and not the government. You are responsible. It is illogical to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. After all is said and done, you may need to find another job or career. Don’t discount this idea!

    Encounters with stress are not always your choice, but how YOU react is ALWAYS your choice.

  • Matt Simmons

    Thank you, everyone!
    I really appreciate everyone sharing their stories and their experiences in this area. I think that voicing our problems is key to helping ourselves understand that we’re not alone in this, and that others have improved themselves.

    It means a lot to me that everyone feels this strongly. Thank you all again.

  • Anonymous

    regarding “rod’s” claims beta blockers are “bad advice”
    No, rod, YOU’RE the one who’s wrong, totally wrong. You’re not an expert on beta blockers, you probably don’t even know under what circumstances they’re prescribed or for what conditions. Beta blockers basically control spikes in blood pressure, and sometimes lower it a bit. They’re given to people who will probably die without them. They do not control “emotional responses.” You seem to have this mental image that beta blockers are like Prozac or marijuana something, and that “meditating” or sniffing lavender or taking nice summer walks should replace them. That’s not what beta blockers are.

    “Ask your physician about beta blockers if you think stress is dictating your life or if you get to the point where the physical manifestations are seriously hindering your health.”

    Wrong!

    This is a reactive “solution” to the underlying problem. The answer is not in drugs that dull down your body’s natural reaction to life.

    How about changing your lifestyle! Chemical warfare has always been a bad idea.

  • Anonymous

    Another advise from another anxiety attack’s victim
    Try yoga.

  • Anonymous

    Another advise from another anxiety attack’s victim
    Try yoga.

  • JB, Memphis

    Thanks for a great article
    It’s very good to see an article that reminds IT people that we’re really quite different from the technology we use and that we neglect the human side of us (what other side is there really?) at our peril. Of course it’s also part of the human side of us (like ego and fear of not being good enough) that can cause us to neglect the things that are most important for our overall health and happiness. Hopefully reading this will cause some people to care more about themselves before things get as bad as they did for you (and for me too in their own way).

    I definitely find that my efficiency is indirectly proportional to the stress I’m feeling, to the point of near paralysis when things come to a head. A calm mind is certainly the most effective mind in my experience. I’m currently exploring meditation as a way of slowing my mind down enough to help me give proper attention to each task and have a happy life at the same time. Thanks again for your honesty and for taking the time to write this.

  • JB, Memphis

    Thanks for a great article
    It’s very good to see an article that reminds IT people that we’re really quite different from the technology we use and that we neglect the human side of us (what other side is there really?) at our peril. Of course it’s also part of the human side of us (like ego and fear of not being good enough) that can cause us to neglect the things that are most important for our overall health and happiness. Hopefully reading this will cause some people to care more about themselves before things get as bad as they did for you (and for me too in their own way).

    I definitely find that my efficiency is indirectly proportional to the stress I’m feeling, to the point of near paralysis when things come to a head. A calm mind is certainly the most effective mind in my experience. I’m currently exploring meditation as a way of slowing my mind down enough to help me give proper attention to each task and have a happy life at the same time. Thanks again for your honesty and for taking the time to write this.

  • BeTrueSeekTruth

    Stress
    Recognizing that mainstream society has been engineered to create stress is an unpleasant but first step in actually mitigating stress. Eating an all organic diet that excludes alcohol, caffeine and both pharmaceutical and street drugs is essential as step 2. Step 3 involves exercise. This is especially important for sedentary IT jobs. Getting into a form of yoga that involves meditation is probably the best way to to bring clarity to your mind and allow yourself to experience deep relaxation. This will also instill the correct breathing techniques that you can use at work.
    As the article says, some stress can be good, but only for those who have a well developed nervous system. This will come from practicing the above steps. You need to remember that peace of mind IS a birthright, to quote Ravi Singh. Be mindful that health IS wealth, and that extended periods of stress, no matter how they are justified monetarily, will extract their toll from the your well being.

  • Anonymous

    Stress
    Being a consultant I visit many different IT departments and am constantly amazed at the stress levels of a lot of workers.
    Try to make a point of realising that everyone is human, not a machine which are the tools of our trade, so we are all liable to make mistakes from time to time.
    Gaining perspective on your job and where it sits in your life I think is what a lot of IT workers fail to do. Most likely because their passion became their career. When this happens it helps to find another passion to bring back the balance outside of work.

  • Anonymous

    Stress management
    Stress can be very bad for health, the chronic stress causes harm in longer run, it can cause diseases like hypertension, anxiety attacks etc.

    Free guided meditation audio can be tried at:

    http://www.clicktomeditate.com

    It had the mindfulness based meditations:

    http://www.clicktomeditate.com/mindfulness_meditation.html

  • Anonymous

    Stress management
    Stress can be very bad for health, the chronic stress causes harm in longer run, it can cause diseases like hypertension, anxiety attacks etc.

    Free guided meditation audio can be tried at:

    http://www.clicktomeditate.com

    It had the mindfulness based meditations:

    http://www.clicktomeditate.com/mindfulness_meditation.html

  • Anonymous

    the people factor
    agreed with many of the statements, especially regarding exercise, but on the job, the best way to mitigate stress is to choose to not work for a**holes, who are unreasonable, even unhuman, the same project can be great or it can be hell depending on the people.

  • mousefly

    cannot will not eliminate
    What happens when the wife is the top stressor?

  • timothyrcullen

    Great refresher course for us…
    Great refresher course, Matt. This subject is one we should be reminded of often since life comes at us fast. Before working in the IT field I was a Paramedic and feel the stress of this career is more healthy than the EMS stress. I am actually one of those people who is like the phrase “Find a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. But your article made me reflect on my current situation and perform a mini sanity check to make sure all is well. My wife, however, does not agree with the results of my sanity check! Thanks again-TC