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Why it is better to get on the couch than on your yoga mat when you are having stress

Forewarned is forearmed, is an old expression, but in terms of our behaviour concerning our health, arming ourselves against potential risks to our health, does not seem so easy. We know that stress makes us ill, but this knowledge often does not lead to a healthy life-work balance. When clever and successful people choose an unhealthy (sometimes fatal) level of stress for themselves, it is important to find out exactly what drives them and motivates them to cross their limits. At this point long proven findings of psychoanalysis can be helpful.

Relaxation procedures are taught in stress management courses. It is correct that relaxation helps to diminish stress hormones. But how long do good resolutions last? Does it really make sense to fill the last free minutes of an overfull day with Yoga and co.? Is the goal of meditation self-optimization and does this claim lead to even more stress? Relaxation procedures, time management, pleasure training and mindfulness work best when the user has understood what drives him or her personally to go beyond their limits. It is important to consider the symptom of stress against its biographical background. What inner desires, expectations or demands drive us? How is stress produced in us? It is important to decipher the symptom stress. Only then can free decisions lead to change. And only then can relaxation methods be used effectively.

What is actually stress?

In the first theories about stress, as put by a researcher named Seyle, the focus was on the physical reaction triggered by a stimulus or workload. Even today, numerous studies are being carried out on the subject of stress. Most of them emphasize the need for rest after periods of stress. Permanent stress can lead to chronic stress reactions that lead to illness. It has been proven that chronic stress causes, triggers or worsens cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, immunological, psychosomatic and psychological diseases.

A well-known scientist and researcher from the field of psychology, XXX Lazarus, did research on the question of why people differ on how successfully they deal with stress. He focused on the personality of the person exposed to stress. Lazarus found that the personal conscious and unconscious evaluations of an event have a large influence on the individual’s reaction. Do I have the right resources available to master this requirement? What does a task mean to me? What unconscious meaning could drive me? What coping strategies do I choose?

In order to deal successfully with stress, it is necessary to bring together the balance of demands and recovery in the work situation with the personality, attitudes, values, environment and socialisation of a person.

Illnesses linked to stress are a frequent and serious topic in today’s working conditions. According to the DAK Health Report of 2017, mental illness accounts for 16.7 percent of all days of incapacity to work. In addition, there are diseases of the musculoskeletal system and the digestive system, which can also be an expression of stress. Long-term absences from work, burnout diseases and even suicides can be the result of stress.

What makes our work environment so stressful? 

Typical factors that can contribute to stress in everyday life in the digitized work environment are an increasing workload, many interruptions due to constant accessibility, dwindling boundaries between work and leisure, high performance and deadline pressure, and multitasking due to media diversity. Research groups dealing with the topic of stress disorders emphasize that stress is increased by a lack of social support and supervision. Role conflicts at work or between work and private life are also perceived as stressful. Equally important for well-being and effective against stress is appropriate gratification and the experience of autonomy and one’s own room for manoeuvre. University professor Prof. Dr. Karasek, for example, proves that workplaces are particularly at risk being stressful when employees have little freedom to make decisions and have little influence on work processes despite high demands. A bad fit of the personal value system with the value system of the workplace also has a negative effect on well-being. In addition, modern management styles also cause high stress, such as indirect result-oriented corporate management. Meaning employees are led by individually adapted, well paid and constantly increasing targets that provoke self-exploitative behaviour. When many of the factors above come together, the likelihood of developing disease increases.

The balance between self and society

As an employee, you have to bear the tension between the described work requirements and your own needs. How much do I have to adapt and reduce my own needs? The balance between “obstinacy” and “social adaptation”, between what does me good and what I have to do, is a lifelong balancing act that has to be readjusted again and again. A failure of this “tightrope walking” can be reflected in stress-related symptoms.

Stress as a symptom of imbalance

In medicine, the symptom is the appearance of a disease that would otherwise go unnoticed. The concept of the symptom is therefore based on the distinction between visibility and invisibility. Often visible are the workload, the work disturbance, the overcrowded mailboxes, the waiting patients, unfinished customer inquiries and physical symptoms like sleep disturbances, lack of concentration, cardiovascular complaints, immune suppression and burnout syndrome. How might the invisible dynamic behind the symptom stress look like?

Concluding from the visible to the invisible

Danger recognized; danger averted. Banning has two meanings. One meaning describes the exclusion from a community “someone is banished”. The other banishment means the opposite “someone is held by a coercive force”. The viewers of a very exciting film remain mesmerized on their seats. Stress symptoms banish the affected person and force him to listen. The pain, the symptoms become so serious that one can no longer look away. In the longer term, the symptoms banish the working person from working life. Those who have become chronically ill are forced to stop. The affected person no longer has to make a decision and assert personal needs against the employee. The responsibility was reduced by the illness. The own high expectations, which are psychoanalytically called “demands of the super-ego”, do not have to be questioned, but also no longer be fulfilled. According to Freud, the superego plays inexorably the role of a judge or censor for the ego. The values of parents, society and culture are anchored here. A stress illness can therefore unconsciously be an answer to a too strong superego in the sense of an escape route from one’s own demands. The psychoanalyst Köhnlein describes the effect of these unconscious flight desires especially on people who have an inner conflict with authorities. Those who live with great unease in front of superiors and authorities also struggle with tasks and performance and tend to do tasks last minute, procrastinate or develop stress symptoms.

Protestant diligence is deeply rooted in our culture

In his book “Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus” Max Weber deals with the concept of work and the meaning we give it in our culture. He describes capitalism as the consequence of a religious attitude that developed from Protestantism through Calvinism. Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, which divided people into the chosen and the damned, motivated people to accumulate wealth and be successful in order to appear at least before their fellow human beings as chosen by God. At the same time, however, since values such as modesty, diligence, eagerness to work and asceticism prohibited people from showing their wealth, the money accumulated was reinvested in the means of production. This promoted the growth ideology of capitalism, which also finds itself in our linguistic usage as “You are what you own”.

The Protestant virtues can be found in today’s working world in altruistic workers who work overtime equipped with the values of modesty, willingness to renounce, agreeable, selflessness and compassion and at the same time an excessive work ethic. Psychological research proves a high correlation between altruistic values and stress experience, or burn-out illnesses. The fear of loneliness could prevent attempts at individuation and cause people to make themselves indispensable by sacrificing and ignoring their own needs.

The secret delight of stress

In addition, although many complain about their jobs that cause psychological and physical stress reactions, they also secretly make people proud and can be enjoyed.

According to Lacan, a French psychoanalyst, pleasure is not so much relaxation but rather – almost unbearable – delay. Athletes also enjoy being tough and being able to bear pain when their sore muscles hurt. They seek the challenge, going to their limits. Perhaps guided by the hope to expand the narrow limits set by our physical needs and to be less dependent.

In this sense, work is also a way for some people to avoid the insoluble and inscrutable demands of family life. The psychoanalyst Matthias Lohmer describes this “flight to work” especially for managers. The clear and structured requirement profile of a professional life and the reward effect of professional success can lead to the fact that the work can get a quasi “erotic occupation” and the own family then becomes less important and inwardly “objectified”.

Psychodynamic Coaching

In order to not be spellbound and motionless while watching symptoms chronify, it can be useful to seek professional help. Understanding one’s own life situation, recognising unconscious and recurring patterns, focusing on emotions, exploring one’s imagination and recognising one’s own defences are classic tasks of psychodynamic coaching. It is not enough to sketch a path from current behaviour to desired behaviour and to develop new fantasies that cannot be fulfilled. It must be possible to decipher the message of the symptom stress and also to hear the part that is not yet accessible to consciousness.

Working with Imagination Methods

In stress coaching I like to work with the method of imagination, the catathymic imaginative psychotherapy, which is used in the following in the abbreviation KIP. KIP is a psychodynamic method in which inner images and scenes are accompanied by a*r coach in a relaxed state and are then reflected in the conversation. Each KIP session begins with a relaxation procedure. Especially for very stressed people, it is important to get into a state of relaxation first, in which the gaze widens again out of the tunnel narrowed by fear. According to the neurobiologist Gerald Hüther, we are programmed in such a way that, under the influence of the anxiety hormones, we are able to follow the obvious path that has already been followed in a time-saving manner and are only able to creatively tread new paths of thought in relaxed mode.

KIP allows two levels of communication. An emotional experience level of the imagination in which inner themes and conflicts show themselves in images. The coach accompanies here by constantly staying in contact and assisting clients* inside on their journey through unconscious content. This kind of accompaniment is often a new experience of being held and trusting for clients.  Coachees have their own pictures at their disposal, they can design them creatively and share them with another person. A feeling of liveliness, inner reality and self-efficacy develops. This part of the KIP has a relaxing effect on coachees. Through the playful method the rational defense is reduced. Imaginations form a bridge between symptom and conflict as well as body and psyche.

Working with the biography

The other level is the level of conversation. Here the experienced is cognitively processed and reflected. From what has been experienced in the imagination, new paths can be designed. During conversations the coachee can establish connections between different levels: From the level of the past, family of origin and professional biography to the level of current working relationships and relationships between coach and coachee. If the coach and coachee manage to identify parallels between the different types of situations, coachees will receive important information about unconscious patterns they apply. They gain new freedom of action if they can consciously perceive and verify the appropriateness of their behavior patterns.

Instead of being “driven” by unconscious content, coachees can turn to fulfilling their wishes. They can become aware of what needs can and cannot be met through professional success.

In coping with stress, we as a whole person are in demand. If you have dealt with your topics, you will experience a more successful handling not only of stress, but of yourself.

 

Eva Weiße, B.Sc. Psychologist

 

If you are interested in stress management courses for your company or in individual coaching, please contact us. We will be happy to inform you about your possibilities.