There are two types of stress and I’m sure each of you knows them from your own experience and experiences them in your everyday work – after all, the online magazine FemalExperts is aimed at business women with ambitions.
That’s why it’s worth taking today’s Occupational Health Day (April 28) as an opportunity to take a closer look at the issue of stress if we want to take good care of our mental health and prevent burnout that may be looming.
First flow experience, then eustress
First of all, there is eustress (Greek eu = good, in this sense positive stress according to Selye), which seems so appealing at first glance, when you have a lot on your plate, feel challenged to the maximum, but everything goes smoothly. Tasks are experienced as challenges that we master successfully. At first, the state resembles a flow experience, which then accelerates further, remains pleasant for a while. You think and talk faster, warmth rises to your face, possibly you feel pleasantly excited or happy. Eustress usually lasts for a short time; adrenaline junkies experience it when bungee jumping, for example. Physically, the processes are comparable to prolonged harmful stress, which according to Selye is also called distress.
Cheeks glow redNora Hille
tingling joy in me
fast it hunts, my heart
When I was gripped by eustress…
I had my most intense eustress experience of the past year on February 25. In the morning, I received an email from FemalExperts Editor-in-Chief Kinga Bartczak that my first column, titled “Mental Health: Individual and Societal Challenge,” was about to be published. And right in the afternoon.
What a great news! I was very happy, the eustress motor started to run. However, it is important to know that I have had little resilience and have been retired since 2016 due to my bipolar disorder and, accordingly, have not known a day-to-day job for six years.
Kinga Bartczak asked me to provide an e-mail address for possible reader contact. Ahhhh! Stress!!! How should I get it done so quickly?
Although I had already secured the domain www.norahille.de half a year ago, there was neither a homepage nor the e-mail address set up to go with it. And a GMX address was out of the question for me, I found that unprofessional. Fortunately, I reached my IT supervisor, who remotely set up the email address I wanted. But that was tricky and cost time, but it worked out in the end. A little later, the article went online. I was excited and happy – and spent the rest of the afternoon sending WhatsApp messages with the happy news to my friends.
… and tipped into distress
In the evening I realized how worn out I was, not to say completely finished, mentally and physically. My ears were ringing. I felt like I had worked for two days straight without a break. The previously so pleasant eustress had turned into distress.
According to the Stangl Online Dictionary of Psychology: “The extent to which stressful situations become negative stress depends, on the one hand, on the duration of the stress as well as the individual coping options and experiences from comparable situations, and, on the other hand, on the perceived coping options […].” Where positive stress helps us to achieve maximum physical performance, distress leads to a short-term physical and psychological decline in concentration and performance – in the long term it can have a lasting damaging effect.
I wondered: if publishing just one online article was stressing me out so much, how on earth was I going to feel when my book, When Light Defeats Darkness, about dealing with my bipolar disorder, was published by Palomaa Publishing in the fall of 2023?
It is possible to become more stress resistant
Fortunately, over the next few months I was able to experience that I became more stress resistant as my experience grew. In the meantime, I’m happy every time a column goes online and the trappings have become routine. And I know how to keep the distress at bay: It helps me a lot to pre-produce my articles with a long lead time. An approach that is likely to be the exception for most in a stressful day-to-day job.
First aid for permanent distress in everyday work life
If our autonomic nervous system remains permanently in alarm, the so important recovery phases are missing and we are threatened with health impairments. These can range from psychosomatic complaints to mental stress and, in the worst case, culminate, for example, in burnout, i.e. exhaustion depression.
That’s why I ask Dörthe Dehe, psychologist and expert in workplace health management, for her first aid tips to get out of the distress trap:
“For me, the most important tip for dealing favorably with distress is good self-awareness. If I perceive my stress symptoms and classify them as stress symptoms, I have created the basis to be able to react to them. Many people do not manage this well (anymore). They have either gotten out of the habit of becoming aware of their physical, mental or emotional stress signals or these stress signals have already become part of everyday life and are therefore no longer noticed as such. We should always reflect: How do I feel when I am relaxed? How does my body feel? How does my sleep function then? What thoughts do I have? What feelings do I have? If my experience differs greatly from this because I am in a stressful phase, step 2 takes effect: I may consider what I would like to change. Can I de-stress the stressful situation somewhat, or do I have no ability to influence it? Can I make my thoughts about this situation a little more favorable? For example, instead of ‘I really need to get this done’ to ‘I decided to get this done today because…’? How can I calm my nervous system and my body? For myself, the classics work very well, such as breathing exercises, meditation, exercise, regular rest.”
Mini breaks concept
Nothing brings us on our wayElizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861, English poet)
progress better than a break.
Psychologist Dörthe Dehe is in favor of fundamentally changing the alternation of tension and relaxation in everyday working life. To this end, she recommends implementing relaxation times at the workplace (e.g., through meditation) and a completely new break culture that corresponds to the human organism: “By this, I mean that most people should interrupt work every 60 to 90 minutes and explicitly relax for a short time. Mini-breaks of 3 to 5 minutes would be a good start.”
Burnout? No thanks!
It is possible, even if you are already in the middle of the distress trap, to escape an impending burnout. But in order to do this, you must first of all recognize for yourself the danger you are in, how much your own mental health is already threatened.
Keyword over-committed: As long as you identify strongly with your work and believe that you are irreplaceable in your job, this remains difficult, however, because your view of your own suffering can be obscured by ambition and pressure to succeed. At least that’s how I felt in my early 30s, when I was heading straight for my burnout, which would knock me out of work and everyday life for three quarters of a year. Nothing and no one could have made me give up my unhealthy way of working at that time. But there were also times when mental health was not yet a topic of social discourse. Fortunately, that has since changed, giving us all increased opportunities for reflection and self-care. I myself am pleased and grateful to be able to contribute to this development of more open talk about Mental Health with my column.
Checklist Burnout Danger
But how can we tell that we have been on the spare wheel for too long and are possibly facing burnout, I want to know from Dörthe Dehe.
The psychologist lists the following characteristics for burnout danger:
- prolonged stress
- insufficient regeneration or the impossibility to recover despite breaks, weekends or vacations
- not feeling understood by the environment
- increasing emotional exhaustion
- emotional blunting (depersonalization/cynicism)
- Subjectively perceived reduced efficiency
- Feel at the mercy of the situation and excluded in the process
- Expecting too much of yourself
- Difficulty saying “no
- Difficulty to get help
- smoldering conflicts or bullying in the workplace
- various physical symptoms such as problems with sleep and increasing irritability
The more points that apply, the more urgent it is to pull the ripcord and seek professional support if necessary. A visit to the family doctor is recommended here as a first step.
How we can strengthen our resilience
Work is becoming more and more condensed, plus there is a flood of communication on all channels. How can we deal with these challenges and stay healthy, and best of all, strengthen our resilience?
Dörthe Dehe comments: “We should learn to deal with the newly created demands of life in such a way that we can remain healthy. Mental hygiene and relaxation should be as much a part of everyday life as brushing our teeth every day. That includes daily breaks from digital communication.”
For even more info and tips worth reading about avoiding burnout and increasing resilience, check out Dörthe Dehe’s Instagram account: @doerthedehe.psychologist
The positive power of breathing exercises
I myself have had very good experience with breathing exercises to reduce stress, so I would like to introduce you to two simple methods:
I close my eyes, concentrate on my breathing and speak the following positive belief sentence to myself in my mind: “Tension and relaxation are in my hands. With each breath I relax more and more.” I repeat this sentence several times, breathing in and out slowly and consciously. The time intervals in which I repeat the sentence become longer, in the end I just repeat “With every breath I relax more and more.” Since I have internalized this exercise so much by now, I can also practice it while driving – then with my eyes open, of course.
I also experience the so-called “Deep Abdominal Breathing” as very relaxing, several times I was able to use it successfully as an aid for my difficulties in falling asleep. There are different variations, I practice it like this: I lie down comfortably on my back (can also be done sitting) with my hands on the navel area and close my eyes. Then I take one very deep breath so that the belly bulges. Then exhale as slowly as possible. (other descriptions recommend equal exhalation and inhalation of 3-4 seconds). Repeat the whole process several times.
Let breath flow gently in and gently out like ebb and flow (Nora Hille)
Severe ongoing stress at work cannot be reduced to this place, even if a change of scenery often seems helpful at first. If we are under constant stress, we automatically take it with us into our free time if we don’t have methods to let go. As a result, our autonomic nervous system does not come to rest.
Our life, our body and our mental health are always to be considered holistically, it is about balance on the outside as well as on the inside. If we learn to listen to our inner voice, which clearly tells us our needs and we take responsibility for their fulfillment, much is already gained.
Because then we say “yes” to ourselves.
 Hans Hugo Bruno Selye (also János Selye), January 26, 1907 – October 16, 1982, was an Austro-Hungarian / -Canadian physician, biochemist and hormone researcher. Source: https://de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Selye (accessed April 25, 2023). In the case of such a retirement for health reasons, it is determined that those affected can work less than three hours a day and only in phases (in the case of a full disability pension, as in my case; however, there are also disability pensions in part-time).
 Stangl, W. (2023, February 11). Distress – Online Encyclopedia of Psychology & Education.
About the author
Nora Hille was born in 1975, is happily married and has two children. She studied history, literature and media studies, worked in communications/public relations for 12 years and has now retired for health reasons. Today she writes articles on the topics of mental health and mental illness as a sufferer and experience expert. She also writes literary essays, poems (preferably haikus) and short prose. She regularly publishes her mental health column here at FemalExperts Magazine and is Editor of eXperimenta - the magazine for literature, art and society. Anti-stigma work is close to her heart: she is an encourager at Mutmachleute e.V. and is committed to Anti-Stigma-Texts against the stigmatization (exclusion) of the mentally ill in our society for more togetherness, tolerance and equality. In autumn 2023 her book "When Light Defeats Darkness" will be published by Palomaa Publishing. A book of encouragement about how to live a good and rich life despite bipolar illness - and the enormous challenge that this means every day for the inner balance of those affected.