Stress Management

by Helen Whitten

The beliefs behind stress

Whether we get stressed or not depends largely on how we think and our underlying beliefs about a situation. Our thinking impacts our emotions. This impacts our behaviours – we behave differently according to whether we are stressed and/or angry or calm and relaxed.

Take a busy day and a pending deadline. If someone is thinking ‘there’s too much to do and too little time’, this will result in anxiety. Most people report that their thoughts consequently become muddled and cloudy, so that work actually ends up taking longer and being less effective.

Cognitive-behavioural strategies

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.

William James

You may already have heard about cognitive-behavioural psychology and how effective it can be in providing tools and models to help people manage situations. Below, you will see the ABCDE model, which you can apply to yourself and also share with your staff in order to help them manage their productivity. Here is an example:

  1. Activating event

This could be a delayed train, or it could be a sales meeting with a client – or both!

  1. Belief, expectation or thought about yourself, other people, the situation

This could be

  1. About self: ‘This is awful; I ought not to be late for a client meeting and it will probably result in me losing the sale.’
  2. About the other person: ‘They ought not to have an office in such an inaccessible place; they will probably think less of me for turning up late.’
  3. About the situation: ‘The train shouldn’t be late because if it is it will be awful’.
  1. Consequential emotion

Each of the thoughts listed under ‘b’ would lead a person to be either anxious or angry, and this would impact behaviour – for example, the person may arrive in a stressed state, or be less confident about how they present their product or service to the client.

  1. Dispute b – the belief, thought or expectation

It is their beliefs that are making the person stressed, so you question and challenge the thinking listed under ‘b’. You might ask

  • Is this thinking logical?
  • Would everyone think and respond the same way in this situation?
  • Is this thinking supporting me achieving my goal of a successful sale to the client?
  1. Exchange thinking

If the thinking identified under b is found to be unhelpful, this gives the person options as to how they now approach the stressful situation. For example, they could then try changing their thinking to something like ‘There is nothing I can do about the train being late, so I will relax, take a deep breath, and concentrate on preparing for the meeting. In this way, I shall arrive feeling calm and confident and focused.’

What tends to happen in stressful situations is that our thinking can run away with us, leading to a lack of perspective which does not, in the end, result in effective management of the situation.


As a manager, you can help people by exploring different ways of managing difficult situations. Show them how their thinking drives their emotions and how their emotions drive and influence their behaviours and actions. This can, in itself, be extremely empowering and constructive.

Perfectionism versus the pursuit of excellence

One of the reasons for stress is that we really would prefer things to go our way! This leads to people having a certain set of standards and expectations in their head; if those standards aren’t met, they then ‘catastrophise’ the event.

About themselves

  • ‘I should be able to get this work done in the deadline and if I don’t, I am useless.’
  • ‘I ought to have been able to get that client to buy my product, but they didn’t, so I am a failure.’
  • ‘I must get a good appraisal or I can’t stand it.’

You will notice that I have highlighted the words ‘should, must, ought to’ and that is because these words are ‘demanding’ words – in other words, demanding that things are the way the person wants them to be, with the result that if they are not, then things are awful and they can’t manage them.

And so this also relates to how people develop standards of behaviour that they expect from other people (even if they don’t always keep to them themselves!).

About other people

  • ‘Other people should do what I want them to do or they are no good.’
  • ‘I think this is the right way to do things, so my direct report ought to do it the same way’.
  • ‘Shirley must finish that report by lunchtime or I can’t stand it.’

About general situations

  • ‘The world should be a fair place or I can’t stand it.’
  • ‘The management ought to walk their talk or they are no good.’
  • ‘The transport system must improve otherwise I can’t stand it.’

Perfectionism therefore makes people stressed, because sadly the world just isn’t a perfect place. There is no perfect human being and no perfect transport system or perfect management system: what suits one person may not suit another. There may be a perfect answer to a mathematical equation, but what one person considers their ‘perfect’ report may well not be what their boss considers a perfect report.

Perfectionism and the fear of failure paralyses people and can also lead to delay and conflict, when one person expects too much or another doesn’t come up to the perceived standard. Our fallibility and the fact that we all make mistakes is part of our common humanity. By accepting this, people can learn to manage their own stress levels in an imperfect world.

This is not an excuse to lower standards: it is simply a focus on the pursuit of excellence rather than perfectionism.

What you can do

Listen out for those words ‘should, must, ought to’, and help others to develop new language patterns:

  • I would prefer it if I persuaded my client to buy the product, but I can manage it if they don’t and there are plenty of other clients out there
  • I would prefer it if I got a good appraisal, but if there are some weak points I can manage it and develop myself better for next year
  • I would prefer that my direct report did things the way I do, but if they achieve the end result then I can accept it if they don’t
  • I would prefer it if Shirley achieved her deadline, but if she is doing her very best, I can cope with it and possibly help her
  • I would prefer it if the management walked their talk, but I suppose I don’t always do that, so I can manage it if they don’t and I can give them feedback.

As you can see, there is a different emphasis in these words. The pursuit of excellence, trying to do the best one can and achieving optimal results is rational and desirable, whereas the pursuit of perfection is often irrational and subjective.