Defining and discussing stress
What is stress? One of the things you want to do in a stress-management workshop is help people understand what stress is. You might want to ask how participants would define it, and then give your definition. Visual illustrations and stories may help. Here are some stories and examples you might find useful.
An illustration from physics
Balance a thin piece of wood between two chairs and put weights on it. Discuss how a little stress can make us stronger, but too much stress can cause us to ‘break’.
If the group members are well-educated, you might illustrate stress with a graph showing amount of stress against performance (see the Stress Curve handout for an example).
Stories about stress
Three stories trainers might find useful are included below, about a frog, a saw, and some donkeys.
Story of the boiling frog
People in some countries cook and eat frog. One chef took a frog and put it in boiling water but it jumped out. So the next time he put the frog in a pan of cold water and very slowly increased the heat. What do you think happened? It got used to the warmth, and thought to itself, ‘It’s OK, I don’t mind warm water’. The water got slowly warmer and hotter and the frog kept thinking, ‘I’m OK, I don’t mind the warmth … I’m comfortable, I’ll stay here’. It didn’t notice how hot it was getting, and slowly it boiled to death.
What does this have to do with stress? We tend to get used to things that slowly get more and more stressful. Instead of taking action and jumping out, we slowly suffer until we are ‘cooked’!
Story of the donkeys
There were two noisy donkeys. A man was disturbed by the noise and said ‘I am going to bury these donkeys alive because I hate the noise!’ So he dug a big hole. He pushed the donkeys down the hole – they were completely under the ground.
Then the man started to push earth back into the hole, to bury the donkeys. He shovelled spade after spade of earth into the hole. But when he had finished, there was one of the donkeys, standing on top of the pile of dirt! ‘What happened?’ he asked an onlooker. The onlooker replied, ‘Every time you put more earth on top of the donkeys, this donkey just shook it off himself and stood on top of it. The other donkey didn’t pay any attention; he just stood there and kept making noise until the dirt covered his head’.
What does this have to do with stress? We can either let stress engulf us by not paying attention to it as it comes to us, or we can look for a way out – which is easier if we face it bit by bit!
Story of the saw
A man wanted wood for his fire. He needed to saw the wood up so it could be stored in the dry, before the rain came and the wood was spoiled. So he took his saw and tried to saw the wood as quickly as he could. But it took a long time to saw up even one log. People kept passing him and saying, ‘You need to sharpen your saw – it’s blunt, and you will be much quicker if you sharpen your saw’. But the man said ‘No, no, I don’t have time to stop’, and he kept going very, very slowly. When the rain started he had very little wood cut up.
What does this have to do with stress? Often when we are stressed we think we don’t have time to stop. But we might need to stop to rest, or to learn a new way to do things, in order to work more effectively and feel less stressed.
Tips for stories
One way to introduce these stress stories is by playing a game of Pictionary. Ask for three volunteers who like drawing and give them instructions the other participants cannot hear. Ask one to draw on a flip-chart a frog, then another one to draw a saw, and then the third to draw a donkey. Ask the rest of the group to guess what they are drawing. Follow each drawing with the relevant story. Offer prizes to encourage participation – to the artist, the first person who guesses what each drawing is, and to people who link the stories to stress or offer another story.
Talking about stress in different cultures
Here are some suggestions for talking about stress in different cultures.
How to talk about stress when words are lacking
In some cultures mental health problems may be perceived as a sign of personal weakness, or as hereditary flaws that bring shame on the whole family. Some languages do not have words for ‘depression’, ‘stress’, or ‘guilt’. Instead, people may talk about physical symptoms, such as headaches, backaches, stomach pain, or feeling hot or out of breath. Such symptoms may be an indication of emotional distress (although it is also possible for such symptoms to have a physical cause). Clues that the cause might be emotional are:
- The symptoms are vague (e.g. general ‘pain everywhere’);
- There are multiple symptoms (e.g. headache some days, back pain other days);
- The symptoms first appeared (or got worse) soon after a distressing event; and
- The symptoms go away after several minutes or when all is safe.
Find a role model to talk about their own stress
It is very helpful if an influential person (such as a senior manager or community leader), who is respected by this group, can come and talk to the group about how they have had signs of stress. Perhaps the group leader can share from their own experience. Or perhaps you can play a video or audio clip to the group. (For example, www.glasgowsteps.com/downloads/audio.jsp includes a series of conversations about stress and mental health with different spiritual leaders including Christian protestant, Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Sikh). Encourage and thank participants who open up and give their own examples of stress, without embarrassing them.
When talking about problems is rare in the culture
You could give an example of a pot of water boiling. What happens if you keep the lid on tightly? Eventually the water boils away and the steam can’t get out and the pot ‘explodes’. Our emotions are like this. If we keep the ‘lid’ pushed down and never lift the lid, we might ‘explode’.
You could also tell a story about what happens When emotions come knocking.
Where crying is not culturally acceptable
It can be especially difficult for people in some cultures to admit to crying. For example, in Burundi there is a proverb which says ‘A man’s tears flow on the inside’. When you are working in a culture where crying is seen as shameful or weak, and you want to talk about crying, try:
- Finding a respected local person who is willing to talk honestly about times when they have cried and found it helpful;
- Giving examples from your own culture about the drawbacks of not crying (e.g. a British trainer could mention how the historical British reputation for a “stiff upper lip” is now often seen as a sign of cold emotional repression);
- Sharing evidence that crying can be helpful (e.g. when tears are analyzed under a microscope, we find that emotional tears are different from the tears which are caused by having dirt in your eye or peeling an onion. Emotional tears contain a stress hormone.6 Crying helps you get this toxin out of your body. And crying helps people feel better emotionally too); and
- Sharing examples from literature about people the group is likely to respect. For example you can ask what their holy books say about crying.
Make clear that you are not saying their culture is wrong, or your way is better, or that people have to cry. You are just saying that it is normal and OK to cry in times of loss or stress and that people need not feel bad if they cry.
Stop and Think
- What words do your national staff use to talk about stress?
- What words do you use?
- What differences are there in the meanings of your words and theirs?
- What has each culture to learn from the other about the different ways stress is described?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of showing signs of stress in the culture of your staff?
- Which of your staff would find it hardest to show or share their stress? What risks do they face in doing this?
- Which of these suggestions would encourage them to express their feelings more? What other suggestions can you think of?
Next: Identifying sources and symptoms of stress