Stress is pressure in our lives. A little pressure can be a good thing – it can help us perform better and make us stronger. Too much pressure, however, can make us feel as if we’re under strain, or even breaking
Your support network – A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against life’s stressors. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated you are, the greater your vulnerability to stress.
Your sense of control – If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride. People who are vulnerable to stress tend to feel like things are out of their control.
Your attitude and outlook – Stress-hardy people have an optimistic attitude. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, accept that change is a part of life, and believe in a higher power or purpose.
Your ability to deal with your emotions . You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or afraid. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity.
Your knowledge and preparation – The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.
These are all normal signs, found among many people who experience stress. They do not mean that you are weak or unable to cope. However, if you feel your stress symptoms are very severe, or significantly interfering with your life, consider getting help.
Finally, as stress accumulates and stays at high levels for long periods of time, humanitarian workers are at increased risk of experiencing burnout. Burnout is a type of stress reaction linked to long-term exposure to work-related stressors.
Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.
Burnout reduces your productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.
You may be on the road to burnout if:
Every day is a bad day.
Caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy.
You’re exhausted all the time.
The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.
You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.
The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life – including your home and social life. Burnout can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu. Because of its many consequences, it’s important to deal with burnout right away.
Changing the way you deal with stress (how the load is spread out on the bridge)
Changing the way you look after yourself (making the bridge stronger through healthy supports)
Even when the situation cannot be changed, there are things you can do to help yourself feel less stressed. Although working to reduce or manage your symptoms of stress may not change whatever caused you to feel stressed in the first place, it can help you feel better and work more effectively.
Just like stress can effect us physically, emotionally, behaviourally, thought patterns and spiritually, we can address all of these areas to deal with stress
Specify the problem accurately. Try to break it down into its different parts. What exactly is causing the problem?
‘ Brainstorm’ solutions. This means listing as many ideas as possible, without dismissing any that you think would not work. At this stage don’t consider whether they are good or bad ideas, just list them all. Sometimes listing a silly or impossible idea triggers us to think of one which is possible.
List the advantages and disadvantages of each solution.
Choose the best solution or combination of solutions.
Try out the solution.
Review the problem-solving process. How well did the solution work? If it did not work well, consider what you could do differently another time.
Many people have a negative view of assertiveness and think that it means demanding that you get your own way. This is especially true in certain cultures and faith groups where people believe that it is good to be modest and deferential and never say ‘no’ to the requests of other people.
In fact, assertiveness is related to:
Respecting and valuing other people and yourself;
Listening to other people;
Communicating honestly and clearly about your views and needs;
Being able to politely say ‘no’ to requests when you want to.
When you are assertive you clearly and honestly communicate your views and needs without anger or aggression, and also listen to and respect other people’s point of view.
Good communication can help to resolve problems and reduce stress at work, just as it can help a marriage or relationships with family and friends. This is especially true when working in a multicultural team where misunderstandings are common and can lead to tension. Having greater understanding about what is going on around you tends to help you feel more in control, and less stressed and frustrated.
Good communication can help you understand more about what’s going on around you. This can help you feel more in control and less frustrated.
In a work setting, good communication is something that every team member is responsible for. Communication usually works best when it is two-way, so a good place to start with the topic of communication is thinking about how you are communicating with others. How are you helping other people understand your thoughts, actions, and intentions?
Remember, the actual meaning of your message is what is received and understood, not necessarily what is given
Asking questions is also a part of good communicating. Some of the time (especially in multicultural teams) other people won’t communicate what we need or want to know in a way we can understand it. That’s why asking questions when you would like an explanation or when you do not understand a decision is such an important part of good communication
Different people need different techniques to reduce their signs of stress, so it is important that you find the ones which work for you. Try some strategies from every domain – physical, emotional, thinking, behaviour, and spiritual.
Be self-aware, and spot when you have symptoms of stress. Use this as a warning sign to encourage you to take stock and look after yourself.
Physical exercise enhances mood and helps to relieve tension. Find an activity you enjoy (e.g. walking, swimming, running, cycling, playing sport, an aerobic video, gardening, or chopping wood).
Eat a balanced diet with plenty of vitamins. Ensure you are eating enough (for energy), but don’t overeat. Drink plenty of water.
Relaxation exercises can help your body feel more relaxed and take away aches and pains. Try tensing and relaxing your muscle groups (e.g. your hands, then your eyes, mouth, stomach, toes etc). Reduce your alcohol and caffeine intake, as these tend to magnify feelings of stress or depression.
Get enough sleep. Stress is tiring, so you may need to sleep for longer than usual. Having a banana or cup of milk before bed may help.
Write a journal, including your thoughts and feelings. Or, if you prefer, write emails or letters, or tape record your thoughts, or talk to someone about them. This helps you process your experiences, and stops them going round and round in your head.
Talk to friends, family, and/or colleagues about your experiences.
Allow yourself to cry if you want to. Emotional tears contain a stress hormone, so crying helps people feel better.
Smiling and laughing can help you feel better. Try watching a funny movie, reading something amusing, or having a laugh with friends.
If you feel very distressed, consider seeking help.
Realize it is normal to feel low or have symptoms of stress when involved in humanitarian work. Don’t blame yourself – most people have such symptoms. It is not a sign of weakness, and does not mean that you are ‘not coping’.
Remember that these feelings will likely pass, and you will feel better.
Lower your expectations of yourself. You don’t have to do everything perfectly.
Don’t become too introspective, or spend long periods of time just thinking about your worries.
If you have negative thoughts (e.g. ‘I’m really bad at this job’), try to speak to someone else to get an objective, external perspective. Negative thoughts may be a sign of stress or depression, rather than reality.
Remind yourself of times you have coped with stress before, and what helped you then. ‘Success breeds success’ – remembering past times of coping helps you to cope again.
1. Action Without Borders/Idealist.org (2004). Website with resources on stress management for aid workers, managers and workers’ families. http://www.psychosocial.org
2. Antares Foundation (2005). Managing Stress in Humanitarian Workers. Guidelines for Good Practice . Amsterdam: Antares Foundation. www.antaresfoundation.org
3. Headington Institute (2005). Various resources and free online training modules on understanding and coping with the stress associated with humanitarian work. http://www.headington-institute.org
4. McFarlane C. (2004). ‘Adjustment of humanitarian aid workers’. Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies . ISSN: 1174-4707, Volume 2004-1. http://www.massey.ac.nz/~trauma/issues/2004-1/mcfarlane.htm
5. National Child Traumatic Stress Network and National Center for PTSD (2006). Psychological First Aid: Field Operations Guide (Second edition). http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/ncmain/ncdocs/manuals/PFA_
6. People in Aid (2003). Code of Good Practice in the Management and Support of Aid Personnel. http://www.peopleinaid.org/pool/files/code/code-en.pdf