We don't 'get used' to stress, we get worse


People often ask me if we can build up a tolerance to stress. They reason that if we can subject ourselves to high levels of stress as much as possible, then we should be able to perform better under high stress situations because we become immune to it. The answer is no. But here are three things that can at least make it better.



If we are talking about extreme levels of stress - situations that are high intensity, long duration, and uncontrollable - then unfortunately we don't become immune. In fact the opposite can actually happen and we become hyper-sensitive.

When we are repeatedly subject to a situation or stimulus, we find that generally there are two physiological options: the reaction either becomes desensitized to the stimulus or it becomes habituated.

If you go and live in a warm climate for a number of months, then usually what you find is that you desensitize to the temperature. What felt hot when you arrived three months ago doesn't actually feel that bad now.

Habituation works the opposite way. If you took a job in a call centre, and every time the phone rang you had to push two buttons to take the call, after a year, we would find that this response hadn't dulled, but in fact would have become more automatic. You might even find that if you are sitting at home and the phone rings you have this automatic response to to push the two buttons. The reaction has habituated.

In many cases the response to prolonged, high intensity, uncontrollable stress does exactly that - it habituates. The stress response becomes so ingrained and so well trained that it becomes triggered by even the smallest resemblance of a stressful situation. Just like the ringing of the phone puts the 'push a button' response into action, the slightest hint of stress can put the stress response into action.

The most famous example of this is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in soldiers who have returned from duty. The unpredictable, high intensity, long duration of stress on the battlefield has so well trained their stress response that it only takes a car backfiring or a bad dream to put that stress reaction into full action.

The equivalent in the workplace is that people under intense stress for a long period of time cannot perform. Like the PTSD soldier, they make mistakes, they become incredibly risk-averse and they resort to 'survival' behaviours. We also put thru health at extreme risk if stress related illness, they lose focus and become de-motivated and possibly depressed.


If you are managing your people through a period of uncertainty and high stress (lets face it, who isnt?) Then here are some things to remember:

Controllable stress is not the same as controllable stress

Even though there are things that people have no control over at all, the main thing to realize is that it's perception of control that really matters. Make sure that people have clear plans for how to succeed in the current environment - plans give us a great sense of control. Also give people autonomy where possible - even autonomy over small things makes a difference.


Social Support is critical

It may sound like whining, but people do need an outlier to talk about hoe frustrated they are and sometimes how hard it is. Create bonds within your team and allow the team to vent every now and then. Follow this up with some action planning to show people that there are things they can be doing to make it better.


Consistency combats insecurity

Try to find things that you can consistently do or focus on. In uncertain times, people look for consistency wherever they can get it. Keep your goals consistent and make some actions and behaviours consistent as well.

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