Good and Adverse Effects of Stress
by Surgeon C J Stoot (Royal Navy) -- Source: PIA Air Safety Publication
Let's be honest, there is a lot of
nonsense talked about stress these
days and the subject needs to be kept
in perspective. We all work for a
military organization and much of
what we do and are training to do is
to function effectively in high stress
environments. That is what going to
war is all about, is it not? This
article will examine how and why
stress may be good for you and how
it may have an adverse effect.
What is Stress?
There are as many definitions
of stress as there are causes. Most
people think of stress in the negative
assuming that it is a "bad" thing.
Stress may be physical or mental /
psychological. On the physical side
it may be due to such things as
acceleration, heat / cold, vibration,
etc. These will not be discussed in
this article. On the mental / psychological side it could be anything from problems at work to problems
at home. A useful working definition
The way in which psychological or environmental factors
threaten an individual's physical or psychological state of well being
Why Do We Need Stress?
There are two reasons why we
need stress. The first is that unless
we have some stress, we do not
function as effectively as we would
otherwise, i.e. some stress is good
for us. For many of you who have
done aviation medicine training, this
will be familiar. It is represented by
what is called the Yerkes-Dodson
As you can see from the
diagram, at low stress levels we are,
if not asleep, at a low alert state and
our performance and operating
efficiency is equally low. As stress
levels increase so does our performance until we reach peak efficiency.
From then on, however, it is downhill until we reach the stage of panic
where we have confused thought and
cannot operate properly. Therefore,
the right amount of stress is good;
too much or too little most probably
not being a good thing.
Of course where we are on the
graph will depend on many factors,
e.g. character, past experiences, the
nature of the stress concerned,
training and experience. And it is the
latter which must be an important
consideration in training.
Therefore, the second reason is
that unless training is able to achieve
its aim, i.e. to train us for what we
are supposed to do (which we may
consider to be functioning effectively
in high stress environments), then it
has failed. Hence, by definition we
must achieve high stress levels
during training. How else could we
ever be prepared for active operations?
So there, in a nutshell, are
some reasons why stress is "good for
us" - but of course it is not all good
news. You only have to ask any
PMO and he will tell you that his
department has a number of what
might be termed "stress cases" every
year. Many cases do not even reach
the sickbay; it is not always appropriate.
There is a dosage of stress,
both short and long-term, with which
we are able to cope. This dosage is
related to the type of stress as well
as the amount. The dosage is individual or personal. The amount of stress which we are able to cope
with will depend on many factors
including an individual's personality,
past experiences including training,
expectations, personal circumstances
All of us are able to exceed this
dosage for short periods without
there being any adverse effects.
However, if the dosage is acute and
extreme we will not cope and this is
when panic occurs. If the stress is
longer term then the signs and
symptoms may develop further.
It is also important to realize
that one cannot separate what
stresses there are at home with what
there are at work. They all contribute to the same dosage.
The Adverse Effects of Stress
Factors causing stress are:
Demands: These may be
derived from things like high workload, too much responsibility short
deadlines and interpersonal demands
- from bosses, colleagues and
subordinates. Whilst we do concentrate on, say, excessive levels of work, don't forget that too little to do
can be equally as stressful. Whilst it
may at times sound attractive,
boredom is a dangerous thing!
Supports: Even if we are
having a difficult time from one
direction, our overall dosage can be
reduced by support from other areas.
For instance, if workload and
deadline demands are high but your
peer colleagues and subordinates are
supportive, this support can go a
long way to minimizing the effects of
the stress. Remember the most
important factor in stress reduction:
"everyone functions better and is
more resistant to stress if they are
part of a cohesive team". That is
something the FAA does well.
Family / Social Factors:
As mentioned earlier, when it comes to
stress you can never separate what
goes on at home with what goes on
at work. Both areas may contribute
to the "overall dosage". It has
certainly been the case that many
patients suffering from excessive
stresses at home have "presented" as
cases of deteriorating flying performance.
Warning Signs or Strain Symptoms
So what are the warning signs
of the stress dosage being exceeded?
They may be listed as below:
Defensiveness, sensitivity to criticism.
Acute or chronic interpersonal problems... at work... at
Financial problems which may be the result of stress or
the cause of it.
Excesses in routine habits e.g. smoking, eating, drinking.
Retreat from normal social activities e.g. crew room banter.
Fatigue for no particular reason e.g. despite having a
good night's sleep.
Deteriorating or poor flying performance.
Increased risk taking.
If these are happening to you or those around you, you are
If stress does become truly
chronic, then it is possible for actual
disease to develop e.g. early heart
attacks, raised blood pressure, early
strokes and even many cancers.
Sounds pretty alarming, but just
remember that the stress has to be
severe and present for a long time
for these to develop.
As the saying goes, prevention
is better than cure. So what can we
do to minimize the potential effects
of excessive stress? Nothing works
better than sorting out the root
cause, not always that easy. However, there is much we can do
ourselves to make us more resistant
to stress. Some examples are:
Organization - organize
your life so that you avoid any unnecessary stresses and do
not create any new ones by your action.
Health - those who are physically fit and in good health are far more resistant to stress. So keep fit by taking regular exercise and eat a good and balanced diet.
Relaxation - is vitally important. You need to have a form of relaxation to recover from the stresses of the day.
Laugh - Laughter is a good cure all, releasing tension caused from stress.
Spend time with friends and enjoy other people's company.
What I do not want to do is
create a problem which does not in
reality exist. If you are worried in
any way, though, remember that a
problem shared is a problem halved.
Don't keep things bottled up, doing
that will only create more stress.
Talk to someone, whoever you feel
most at ease with... and remember,
the Sickbay is always there and is
prepared to help you out.