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Human Performance

What Really Causes Stress

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Numerous studies have demonstrated that it is not our circumstances that cause us stress but rather our perception of these events and our ability to adapt to them. Many people experience stress in the midst of positive situations because they’re not taking care of their needs adequately, as can happen when we go too long without eating or find ourselves with sleep deprivation. Our energy is not a limitless resource, but fortunately we can replenish it through consistent recovery strategies.

One of the primary challenges with energy management is that we fail to pay attention to our energy status throughout the day. We may receive gentle messages from our physical, mental or emotional systems telling us we’re running out of energy through symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, lack of focus, impatience, frustration or anxiety. Even when we try to be more aware, our perception can be skewed by stress hormones and artificial energy sources such as caffeine that make us feel as if we can keep going for hours without stopping to refill the tank.

So many people experience these warning signs on a regular basis that they quickly become perceived as normal, with the system experiencing internal wear and tear over longer periods of time until the signal is finally too loud to ignore. Heart attacks, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disease, digestive problems, insomnia, chronic headaches and weight gain are just a sample of consequences that occur as a result of long-term energy imbalances; all of which cause unnecessary stress to the system. But the cause of the stress wasn’t initially the illnesses or diseases but rather the original imbalance that was ignored over time.

We ignore our signals of imbalance for many reasons; more often than not because we’re doing what we believe is the right thing to do – serving our children, our co-workers, our direct reports, our bosses, our spouses, our communities. We regularly sacrifice our needs for the sake of others, justifying it by either convincing ourselves that it’s short term (until the kids grow up, the project is finished, we have enough financing to hire some help, etc) or telling ourselves the story that it’s best to sacrifice our needs for the sake of the greater good.

However, how much help can we really be to others when we have no energy left to give? As the flight attendant always says, you must put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. It’s not selfish to make sure you have oxygen – you can’t help anyone if you can’t breathe! 

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