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Let’s talk about stress

Talking about emotions is an interesting thing. Some people don't want to talk about them at all….' I don't do emotions,' they often say. Others 'do' emotions, but they tend to have 'go-to words'. For example: sad, anxious, stressed, and worried. Others go for it and wear their heart on their sleeve, and the emotions flow. 

It can be difficult for us to talk about emotions, and we humans also find it hard at times to ask about how other people are feeling. It's as if there is a fear of opening pandora's box and something scary might happen. I see this quite a lot, particularly when working with line managers. They can feel worried about asking how their colleagues are feeling for fear of upsetting them, making the situation worse or being seen as nosey. However, not acknowledging the 'emotion in the room' can cause a tension of its own.    

Typically, when I've asked managers what their fear is either for themselves or others of confronting emotions, there is a fear of unravelling, breaking down, or crying. Which indeed does sound daunting. Best not ask at all, right? But I think the opposite. Ask away. This fear needs addressing and discussing to avoid perpetuation. 

So, let's start now. 

If you are a manager, read the following paragraphs and reflect on them from your own perspective and how you might begin to help your colleagues.    

Emotions are a core part of the human condition. Our emotional experience is on a continuum, and we have a vast range of them. To hit this point home, we must not jump to the conclusion that just because someone happens to be in tears one day that they are suffering from mental ill-health. Understanding this is important, particularly if you support colleagues.   

As a starting point, ask 'are you OK' and then ask again about their needs. You'd be amazed how this small tool can pay dividends. Often we are quick to say we are OK, but actually, we aren't. You might find your colleague says they are feeling stressed, but they may well also be feeling: angry, mad, bitter, let down, numb annoyed and jealous. Do you see what I mean about continuum and range? 

Developing emotional awareness or 'intelligence' is something that we can all do. It will help us understand our own experiences and responses to situations and then be able to explain them more clearly to others. Again this is important if you are a line manager as increasing your own self-awareness will improve your empathy towards others. Let me give you an example. If we always use the word 'stressed', for example, to label our emotional experience, we are putting a one size fits all label on how we feel at the time. This catch-all word may describe how you feel overall, but if you were to use a tool such as an 'emotions wheel', (originally developed by Robert Plutchik in 1980(1)), you may be surprised to notice that you are probably feeling so much more than 'stressed'. For example, you could be feeling anxious, scared, frightened, angry and hurt. This tool gives you so much more knowledge about what you are experiencing and gives you a starting point for problem-solving: what's making me angry? Why am I hurt? This process works if you are applying this to yourself or others. A greater understanding leads to more targeted problem solving and a better outcome.  

Here's an idea – Try looking at the wheel when you feel stressed, and not only notice the emotions associated with the word stressed, but instead look at all the emotions on the wheel. Then, expand your focus to other aspects of your life, right here and now. What emotions are you feeling in those areas? Whilst you might feel stressed at work, you may feel contented, excited and curious in your private life? Broadening your emotional language and the places and spaces in your life where you might experience them is essential in developing your emotional awareness.  

Knowing that we can be experiencing a range of emotions at one time, both positive and negative, can enable us to move into a zone of 'growth' rather than 'survival'. When we think of the good things going on in our lives, however small, for that moment, we are not in a 'threat stance', and our bodies are not in fight or flight mode. Instead, we find ourselves temporarily soothed, our breathing slows, and our heart rate decreases whilst we think of our lives' more pleasurable, happy aspects. When managing people, consider whether your team members function from growth or a survival mindset. Is there lots of firefighting going on in your department? Are your team looking frazzled? How often are you helping your team members to identify their strengths, where they feel comfortable and when they are most productive? Is the word stressed used to such an extent that it has become part of the wallpaper?   

So, my key takeaway for you is to find more words that better describe your emotions. Understand yourself from this perspective and what you need that will help you. Reach out to others and explain it to them too. Accept any help they may have to offer. When you've done this, notice how you feel. More reassured? More free? More hopeful? Just think, if you apply the same approach to your colleagues, what difference do you think it will make for them? Surely, more reassured, more free, more hopeful?   

Julie Denning
Working to Wellbeing


Plutchik, R. (1980). A general psychoevolutionary theory of emotion. In R. Plutchik & H. Kellerman (Eds.), Emotion: Theory, research, and experience: Vol. 1. Theories of emotion (pp. 3-33). New York: Academic.


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