What comes to mind when you hear the word “stress”? Perhaps an imagery of you worrying about meeting certain deadlines, finding means to pay off that housing rent, or cramming knowledge to do well in the upcoming exam?
As with everything else, stress can be beneficial as long as it’s present in moderation. While a certain level of stress may be necessary to provide motivation and encourage positive growth, excessive and unhealthy levels of stress may cause undesirable mental and physical health consequences. Stressors may be long-term, such as the routine stress related to the pressures of school, work, family, and other daily responsibilities, or short-term occurrences brought on by sudden changes, such as losing a job, illness, or facing dangerous situations. With that said, how can we quantify this feeling of emotion or physical tension? How do we know if the level of stress we are facing exceeds the healthy range?
Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory
In 1967, Psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe created the Social Readjustment
Rating Scale (SRRS), now commonly known as the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, a scale which aims to measure the likelihood of a stress-induced health breakdown. The inventory consists of a list of 43 life events, with each called a Life Change Unit (LCU). The events are ranked according to a “mean value”, which correlates to a weightage reflecting the severity of the life event. For instance, the death of a spouse would be worth 100 points, while minor violations of the law would be worth 11 points. The inventory takes a comprehensive approach to measuring stress, and does not solely include negative life experiences. Other processes of change can also contribute to stress, some of which may not necessarily be adversarial. The scale takes into account other events such as pregnancy, revision of personal habits, or changes in residence or a new school.
Once you have gotten through the list of life events, tally your score for the respective Life Change Units that apply to you. According to the Holmes-Rahe statistical prediction model, a total score of 150 or less would suggest a relatively low amount of life change, and a low susceptibility to stress-induced health breakdown. A score between 150 to 300 would indicate a 50% chance of health breakdown in the next 2 years, and a score of 300 or more would indicate an 80% chance of health breakdown in the next 2 years.
Navigating life stressors is of great importance – it prevents one from suffering from the far-reaching impact of a burnout, which can manifest in terms of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. Stress that comes with change is inevitable, but you can always adopt new, healthy approaches to navigating tumultuous times.
Maintain the pillars of healthy living. When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by new day-to-day adjustments, it is easy to neglect your basic needs. This includes eating well, sleeping (at regular hours), exercising and having social time. While we understand that trade-offs may be necessary, strive to maintain normalcy and avoid compromising on them as much as possible. Try sticking to your usual bedtime routine, eating balanced meals, staying hydrated, and sticking to your exercise routine. At the same time, avoid turning to unhealthy coping strategies such as increasing alcohol consumption. There is a strong correlation between your physical and mental health – by taking care of your body, finding comfort and relief amidst adversity will come with greater ease.
Rely on your social support system. Talking to your friends, family or any trusted person about your worries can take a load off your mind. At times, speaking to them can also give you some insight and advice from a 3rd person’s point of view, which may aid you in navigating through difficulties. Of course, seeking help from a mental health professional is also an option. Therapists can help you work through and process any negative emotions, and guide you through particularly stressful situations with problem-solving strategies.
Take time for self care. Self care is a practice that is often overlooked. While some people associate self care with treating themselves to luxurious meals or having a staycation, self care can be as simple as taking time to read your favourite book, or engaging in a hobby. It does not have to be long periods of time, but even a short 30 minute rest can be very helpful in relieving stress. Doing so will also help increase productivity, since you can return with a fresher state of mind.
Revise your thought patterns. When the going gets tough, it is natural that we may assume the worst, or have a bleak outlook. However, that can feed into the vicious cycle, heightening stress levels. Take time to assess your thought patterns. Practising mindfulness or other relaxation techniques can help you think more clearly, and to regain control over your spiralling thoughts. In addition, try generating positive thoughts, and affirm yourself that things will improve. Remind yourself of how you have successfully navigated past challenges, and focus on your strengths. This way, you’ll feel more empowered.
Stress is part and parcel of life, and a natural way that our minds and bodies respond to major life changes. However, we can always improve on the way we handle stress, and in a manner that is to our benefit. If you or a loved one is struggling to cope with stress or any major life events, feel free to contact us and seek help.
It is an undeniable reality that life, in general, is busy. With long work hours and bills to pay, there are so many things going on that we must and are expected to do. With the increase in pressures and demands in daily life, it is very common for people to feel exhausted and burnt out.
Burnout is a state of exhaustion caused by chronic stress. According to the World Health Organisation, it is classified as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is characterised by 3 dimensions: Feeling exhausted or devoid of energy, being mentally detached from your job and being less efficient in work. Employee burnout in Singapore is among the highest worldwide, where work is a vital cause of high-stress levels, and where almost one in eight employees cannot cope with their stress. There are many potential causes of chronic stress in the workplace, such as having too many responsibilities, having a negative view of yourself and the world, or a perceived lack of control over your life and work. All of these factors could cause one to burn out easily.
Let us recognise the signs that indicate a burnout. Physical signs include exhaustion, change in sleep habits or diets, frequent illness and headaches; Emotional signs include lack of motivation or enjoyment towards life events and feeling negative emotions such as anger, anxiety or depression; Behavioural signs include adverse coping mechanisms such as overconsumption of alcohol, withdrawal from responsibilities, taking out your frustration on others and reduced work performance. If you are currently experiencing these symptoms, then it is very possible that you may be burning out from work.
Now, you may ask, if busyness in work is inevitable, then how do we overcome this seemingly unmanageable stress? Below are 4 tips that could help you manage stress and prevent burnout:
Turn to other people
It is extremely beneficial to have a social circle or support network, such that there are people that you can rely on for support, encouragement and a listening ear. Friends or family members can recognise maladaptive patterns in your behaviour, identify your burnout signs, and offer you constructive feedback or advice. Through doing that, you can work towards overcoming burnouts. Likewise, if your loved one is going through a burnout, engage her in a conversation and let her open up about what she is going through, while staying patient and understanding. Confiding in and spending time with loved ones would serve to reduce stress and strengthen your relationship with them as well.
If it is possible, try befriending your colleagues. With a similar job scope, your colleagues can better understand your stress at work and everyone can draw support and motivation from one another. Additionally, good relationships with your colleagues enable you to work faster and better while reducing your work’s monotony. Thus, a more positive work environment keeps you energised and productive, countering the effects of burnout.
Live a healthy lifestyle
Healthy lifestyle habits such as sleeping, exercising and healthy eating can have a huge impact on your mood and energy, helping to reduce stress and prevent burnouts. Exhaustion or a lack of rest often worsens burnout through causing you to think irrationally, and can take a toll on your energy and emotional balance. Thus, getting a good night’s sleep energises you and improves your mental state, ultimately improving your productivity at work.
What you consume can greatly impact neural circuits in your body that control emotion, mood and motivation. As such, eat food that can elevate your energy and mood such as fruits, vegetables and food that is rich in whole grains; and reduce consumption of food with lots of caffeine, sugar, chemical preservatives and hormones.
Exercising also enables stress relief. While engaging in exercise, you can focus on your body rather than your thoughts, and how your body feels as you move (feeling the sensation of the wind against your cheek can be strangely calming!). However short or simple, any form of rhythmic exercise is beneficial as it can increase your energy while simultaneously relaxing your mind and body. Ultimately, a healthy lifestyle does wonders to your wellbeing.
Find ways to relax and unplug from work
We often burnout due to lack of time for ourselves. Thus, give yourself a chance to slow down, rest and heal. Set time aside for activities that are not work-related and do activities that make you happy and relaxed. This includes your personal hobbies, interests or a passion project such as photography, baking or exercising. Doing these activities can make you feel rejuvenated and accomplished, and helps you rediscover joy and meaning in your life outside of work.
Additionally, reserve some time to disconnect from technology. In today’s day and age, smartphones cause us to “carry an office in our pocket”, and make us psychologically connected to our work all the time. Hence, it is a good idea to limit your phone time after work, to prevent yourself from checking your emails or calling your office; such that you can spend quality time with yourself and your loved ones. Through these regular breaks, you are given an opportunity to restock your mental energy and engage in self-care, which can increase your happiness and quality of life.
Re-evaluate priorities and set boundaries
Lastly, reflect on the cause of your burn out and consider what makes you feel stressed and anxious. Ask yourself, Is my work making me stressed? Exactly what aspects of work are making me stressed? Do I spend enough time for myself? Through this self-reflection, you can find ways to reduce this burnout. A good solution is to set boundaries for yourself and re-evaluate priorities, such as knowing how much time to allocate to work and relaxation (possibly placing more importance on rest and less importance on work) and learning how to say “no” to tasks. Do not stretch yourself beyond what you can handle or commit to. If you struggle with this, remind yourself that saying “no” enables you to say “yes” to tasks that you find more fulfilling. Through re-prioritising your commitments and tasks, you are able to find balance in your life and focus on parts of life that bring you joy, meaning and satisfaction (even beyond your job).
If possible, you can also identify or consider which aspects of your job you enjoy and find the most fulfilling. After doing so, you could ask your supervisor if you can focus on these tasks as they are more aligned with your responsibilities and strengths. Doing this helps you find value and regain a sense of control in your work, giving you a positive outlook and attitude towards your tasks.
Healing from a burnout definitely is not easy, and takes lots of time and commitment to overcome, but it is possible. Take the effort and steps necessary to manage your time and reduce stress, and keep to it. It may be difficult to adjust and keep to these new changes, but ultimately, it will prove effective in preventing burnouts and will improve your physical, emotional and mental well-being.
Have you met Michael recently? He’s the bright, young, dynamic person at our office… I always thought of him as the person who’s the life of the party, and he genuinely seems to care for his colleagues… Aah, yes, the same person who unfortunately missed out a promotion this year… I heard his boss say that he definitely had the potential, but it wasn’t showing up in his work. He would initiate tasks with enthusiasm but would lose interest quickly; turned up late for meetings, or even forgot about them, and frequently misplaced important files as his table was often cluttered.
Does this seem familiar? Do you recognise similar signs in yourself or someone else you know? These issues might be due to something known as Executive functioning deficits or disorder (EFD). Though symptoms start in early childhood, the challenges might have been seen as the individual’s behaviour problems and not as a syndrome. Even as adults, many of those with EFD aren’t aware they have it — they just know that even everyday tasks can be challenging.
What is EFD?
Executive functions are the set of higher-order mental skills that allow us to analyse, plan, organise, make suitable decisions, manage time, focus attention and execute the plan. No matter how smart or talented one is, not much will get done well without these key capabilities. The human brain comprises of two systems: the automatic and the executive. While the automatic system guides 80 to 90% of our activities every single day, the executive system guides the remaining 10 to 20% and requires purposeful, regulatory effort.1
What causes EFD?
Experts don’t know exactly what causes this and a 2008 study found that differences in these skills are “almost entirely genetic in origin due to differences in brain chemicals” 2
People who have executive functioning deficits might have problems with many of these functions:
starting, organising, planning, or completing tasks on deadline.
listening or paying attention
remembering tasks or details
controlling emotions or impulses
But it is important to note that EFD is not associated with low IQ.
Almost everyone has some symptoms similar to EFD at some point in their lives but It isn’t EFD if the difficulties being faced are recent or occurred only occasionally or intermittently in the past. If you’re curious to know if you do have EFD, you could take the test given below.
Even if you’re not sure if EFD is indeed the cause of the problems experienced, or, if you do not want to give it a label, you could still use the tips/ strategies given below to enhance your general skills and productivity at work.
One surprising way found to improve executive function in adults is aerobic exercise. Many research journals have published that regular aerobic exercise in older adults can boost the executive functions that typically deteriorate with age, including the ability to pay focused attention, to switch among tasks, and to hold multiple items in working memory.3
If you think that the feeling of the constant deluge at the office is largely the result of so many things clamouring for attention at once, a tool like Stephen Covey’s Quadrants can be used. Each quadrant (Q) has a different property and is designed to help prioritise tasks and responsibilities. These are:
Q 1 – Urgent and important
Q 2 – Not urgent but important
Q 3 – Urgent but not important
Q 4 – Not urgent and not important
Another useful technique is the Pomodoro technique of time management developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It uses a timer to break down work into 25-minute intervals, separated by 5-minute breaks. This method not only helps you remove distractions and enhance focus on your task, but it also factors in time to take a short breather.
Those who are tech-savvy can find these as smartphone apps. Other technology tools that can help are File-sharing software like Dropbox to keep notes handy, digital sticky notes or reminders, and password manager software to keep track of passwords. Those who are not comfortable with technology can compensate for working memory deficits by making information external — using cards, signs, symbols, sticky notes, lists, journals, clocks and timers.4
Other simple workable strategies are:
Break large tasks into smaller individual tasks and put them into a linear order or flow chart. This helps provide clarity and allows you to monitor your progress
Keep a routine
Know yourself and get your best work done according to your own biorhythms
Give it a positive twist – make the activity a ‘want to do’ instead of ‘should do’.
Games can help to improve executive function skills. Games like Checkers, Monopoly, and Clue use planning, sustained attention, response inhibition, working memory and metacognition. Games like Zelda and SimCity help with problem-solving and goal-directed persistence. Managing fantasy sports teams also use executive skills like task initiation and time management while having fun.4
Positive emotions reduce the impact of stressful events on the self and help build resilience. They make us more flexible, allowing us to be more open to options of problem-solving. Studies show that people feel and do their best when they have at least three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions.5 It is, therefore, most important that you periodically reward yourself when you have met the goals you have set. Equally important is positive self-talk which is a powerful tool for increasing your self-confidence and strengthening your resolve to make these healthy new habits a part of your personal and working life.
When to seek help?
Diagnosis of EFD can be difficult because certain symptoms are similar to those caused by other conditions, such as ADHD, LD, depression, anxiety, mood disorders or OCD. If any of the symptoms listed above continually disrupt your life, talk to a mental health professional. There is a variety of strategies recommended by experts to help strengthen the areas of weakness that EFD creates. Treatment options could be medications and therapy such as occupational or speech therapy, Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Are you feeling tired most of the time despite having a good night’s sleep? Are you constantly feeling low energy and unproductive? These are just a few of the typical symptoms pointing towards unhealthy levels of stress. Constantly feeling worn out could be an alarm that your body is sounding – a message that it is overwhelmed and unable to keep up. Undeniably, we often put ourselves in a constant heightened state of alertness, especially in such a fast-paced society. Our sources of stress may differ, from high-pressure jobs to challenging and taxing relationships. Stress affects everybody – even if you may not be physically attending to any particular concern, allowing it to occupy your mind frequently and fretting over it can contribute to chronic stress. Without proper management and control, chronic stress puts pressure on the body and will ultimately wreak havoc on your physical and mental health.
As a natural biological response to demanding circumstances or situations, our body releases hormones such as cortisol, a stress hormone. Alongside adrenaline, cortisol helps to fuel your body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ instinct whenever a crisis surfaces. A stressor may be a long term one, such as the routine stress related to the pressures of school, work, family, and other daily responsibilities, or short-term occurrence brought about by a sudden change, such as losing a job, illness, or facing dangerous situations. In an ideal situation, when an individual faces a trigger, the adrenal glands in the body secrete cortisol and a complex hormonal cascade ensues, preparing the body for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Following that, cortisol inhibits the production of insulin in order to increase the uptake and usage of glucose so that more energy is made available to the surrounding muscles. Arteries will also be narrowed, increasing the heart rate and forcing blood to be pumped harder and faster around the body to help you confront the immediate threat. Once the individual resolves and addresses the situation, negative feedback kicks in and hormonal levels will then fall back to the norm.
With this said, when we are constantly under high levels of stress, our alarm system doesn’t turn off. This means that our body is continually in high-gear and cortisol levels will remain high, to the point where it becomes harmful. Small doses of cortisol are safe, and in fact, is important for your health as it also serves to regulate your metabolism and blood sugar level amidst other key functions. However, in the case of chronic stress, constantly high levels of cortisol take a toll on your body’s resources, leaving you exhausted. Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems. Hence, there is a need for us to tackle the root of the problem and ensure that we manage our stress levels to reduce the risk of negative health effects.
You might have been advised to change your lifestyle for the better at least once in your life by a family member or a friend – and we cannot stress this enough. It is essential that you learn to live a healthier lifestyle, which includes stress reduction and learning to manage your hectic schedule. If you continue to live an overly-demanding way of life, it is highly likely that you may succumb to chronic stress or worse, other mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Moreover, can you imagine how hard your adrenal glands will have to work in order to continue producing sufficient stress hormones? Needless to say, the high cortisol levels will also impact your physical health and lead to other conditions such as digestive problems, high blood pressure or sleep issues. This results in a vicious cycle – with less sleep, the more exhausted you feel.
Working on stress reduction can be as easy as doing deep abdominal breathing exercises, and incorporating meditation. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities. They are simple, cost-effective, and are readily available. In this highly technological age, there are many applications available on your devices to further assist you in such activities as well. On the contrary, if you feel that you aren’t quite the kind to sit down and meditate, you can also opt to do some physical exercise to help boost your mood and improve your health. Organising activities with your friends such as playing a game of badminton or volleyball can help you to keep your mind off things, and at the same time, seek the social support you need when necessary. Of course, exercising alone is perfectly fine too, the main point is that exercising produces endorphins – chemicals in the brain that help alleviate stress by acting as natural painkillers.
Watching what you ingest is also equally important. For example, for heavy coffee drinkers, try to cut down on caffeine. Although the threshold for caffeine might differ for every individual if you notice that your excessive caffeine intake is making you jittery or on the edge, consider cutting down on it. Instead, you may want to replace it with other beverages that have a calming effect, such as chamomile, lavender or peppermint tea. Drinking a cup of warm milk before bed can help you get a better night’s sleep too. In addition, you might want to consider eating foods such as avocados, which are known to offer omega-3 fatty acids that can help reduce stress and anxiety. However, we should always remember that everything should be consumed in moderation.
Last but not least, learn to say no, and only commit to responsibilities that you can cope with! Although not all stressors in your life are within your control, some of them are. It is crucial that we manage what we have on our plates, and not bite off more than we can chew. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do. Juggling many responsibilities at once can leave you feeling disheartened and overwhelmed, and this increases your stress levels unnecessarily.
At its most elemental level, people avoid the risk of failure for one simple reason – it hurts. Every single person has experienced failure. If you were to interpret failure by its definition in the dictionary, “the neglect or omission of expected or required action”, wouldn’t you, as a child, have stumbled along the way to achieving those long strident steps you take when strutting along the sidewalk? Yet, nobody feels ashamed of failing to learn to walk as a toddler. Why’s that? You could say that no-one in the right mind would expect that of a human child – we aren’t deer, or gazelles that need to shake off the afterbirth and walk – or risk predation. Our success as a species which put us at the top of the food chain negates that need. Fear is a function of the amygdala, yet failure isn’t. There’s a distinction here that we need to be mindful of. If you’re a parent or have access to YouTube, you’ve probably noticed that there’s an innocence in children that can be quite uplifting to watch, as they try multiple times to succeed at a simple task. They don’t puff their cheeks out and sigh in despair, or bury their heads in their hands. At most, they demonstrate frustration.
Shame is learned behaviour that children integrate into their developing moralities, either from being taught or through observation. Studies done on athletes have shown that perceived parental pressure (or pressure from authority figures) have deleterious effects on how sportspeople experience and interpret failure. Simply put, the fear of failure is a construct of how societies function. For some people, the avoidance of shame that failure brings weighs too heavily on them, and that is the crippling fear of failure. Dr Guy Finch puts this rather more succinctly: “fear of failure is essentially a fear of shame”. How then, do we begin to become more self-aware in the face of these deeply ingrained avoidance mechanisms to start building our best selves?
After all, overcoming fear of failure is all about reversing negative thought patterns, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is designed to help you identify the underlying belief that causes a negative automatic thought (which in turn guides the feelings that come with it).
With the help of a qualified mental health professional, which can be anyone from a trained psychologist, psychotherapist or even psychiatrist, you can be empowered to break the circuit of the pervasive vicious cycle of negativity that prevents the unfettering of fear of failure’s heavy chains.
For instance, think of each deeply held criticism that you can’t let go of as a block in a Jenga game with your friends and the tower represents your thought life as a whole. Even though you’ve suffered through failure after failure, you can’t seem to jettison them from your psyche. Can you imagine a game of Jenga that doesn’t end in peals of laughter? It seems that some re-evaluation is needed to turn the way you handle each soul-sucking gut-punching failure from the darkness of your room. The grip of negativity steadying your trembling hand, an extension of your mind, putting each block up on autopilot because you believe you are not good enough. Instead, we suggest turning the lights on, invite someone you trust into your sanctum of despair, to play the game of Jenga with you. As you ease into their presence, you’ll begin to notice that the tower doesn’t look so intimidating anymore. It’s no longer just a congealed mess of all your shortcomings and toxic thinking, but a simpler thing that can be deconstructed. If each block represents a negative conviction you have about yourself that is too painful to touch, reach for the piece that looks more well-shorn and polished (which represents a perceived positive character trait or accomplishment that you hold dear). Put it back on top of your tower. It is yours, isn’t it? Or perhaps let your confidant handle that splintery block.
Of course, we all know that Jenga isn’t all laughter and grand gestures. There’s physical tension and the cogitation of making the right choice so the tower doesn’t crumble prematurely. Maybe you aren’t too good at Jenga. That’s fine. But if you start thinking of this special game of Jenga as a collaborative effort instead of a competitive one, you’ll start getting the picture. Who would you like to invite to collaboratively play a game of Jenga?
Sagar, S and Stoeber, J. Perfectionism, Fear of Failure, and Affective Responses to Success and Failure: The Central Role of Fear of Experiencing Shame and Embarrassment. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2009, 31, pp 602-627.