Conquer Conflict At Work/workplace bullying/Does Stress Change Who You Are?

Friday, June 23, 2023

Does Stress Change Who You Are?

Brief stress compared to chronic stress and how stress can change your physical, emotional, social, and career trajectory

Impact of Stress on Performance

Stress. We have all experience it, and we all need it in small doses.

Many times stress acts as a catalyst for enhanced performance such as working on a project with deadlines (hello my fellow procrastinators), giving your first presentation at work or interviewing for a new job.

Stress, therefore, can be a good thing as it improves our motivation to do a good job.

Impact of Stress on Performance

A life without stress isn't necessarily the goal, nor a good thing.

Kristen Nunez wrote in Healthline (2023) shares a relatable example to support the need for some stress in our lives, when it comes to performance at least. If your job becomes routine than boredom sets in and this can lead to a feeling that the work you do is meaningless - so you do the bare minimum.

Your motivation and performance needs a little stress to energize you and push you towards your potential. The Yerkes-Dodson law demonstrates that your peak level of performance is reached with an intermediate level of stress.

Too little or too much arousal results in poorer performance.

But what happens when the stress is prolonged and becomes chronic?

Workplace Bullying and Stress

Workplace bullying is abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger, and it is often of a persistent and chronic nature. It can include offensive behaviors such as backstabbing, criticism, nonverbal gestures, undermining activities, personal attacks, humiliation, belittling, sabotage and exclusion.

According to a survey by the World Health Organization, 58% of healthcare workers experience verbal abuse in the workplace as the most common form of non-physical violence. Targets of workplace bullying experience job action 3x more often than bullies (Joint Commission 2021)

Workplace bullying is a major contributor to chronic workplace stress and has a negative impact on the health and well-being of employees.

Signs of Chronic Stress

There are many signs of chronic stress, and you may be noticing that you are not yourself lately, and you may also notice yourself rationalizing your symptoms as responses to other workplace situations such as being short staffed, tight deadlines, budget constraints.

When you are exposed to stressful situations over a longer period of time it can lead to unfavourable changes to your emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial health.

Initial symptoms may include an increasing awareness around lack of concentration and focus that lead to more errors at work and interpersonal problems.

Because stress triggers the fear center of the brain, when we are under chronic stress, the fear center is constantly activated resulting in elevated Cortisol levels which can eventually begin to cause digestive upset, sleeping problems, and increasing illness due to the impact on immunity.

Four Ways Chronic Stress Changes Who You Are

Symptoms often go unnoticed at first but when you notice they are lingering around longer than 4 weeks, you might be suffering from chronic stress and it is recommend your check in with your healthcare team (there are also other reasons for these symptoms, so connecting with your healthcare team will be an important step to creating a recovery plan)

Physical Changes

  • ​Aches and pains
  • ​Headaches
  • ​Insomnia or sleepiness
  • ​Low energy
  • ​Change in appetite / weight loss or gain
  • ​High blood pressure
  • ​Ulcers

Mental Health Changes

Research suggests long term stress changes the structure of the brain and may play a role in the percentage of white and grey matter.

  • ​Unfocused or cloudy thinking
  • ​Impairs memory making it more challenging to create short term memory and recall (ever walk into a room and wonder why you walked in there?)
  • ​Increased risk for mental illness such as anxiety, panic, depression
  • ​Brain shrinks, in particular research finds it happening in those areas responsible for emotions, metabolism, and memory
  • ​Stress actually kills brain cells. Research suggest that chronic stress can kill new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus and any new neurons produced during periods of stress are more likely to die within a week.

Social / Emotional Changes

  • Change in emotional responses to others (hypervigilant, hyporesponsive)
  • ​Emotional withdrawal
  • ​A change in social behavior, such as staying in often, cancelling plans
  • ​Increased alcohol or drug use


COVID is an example of prolonged stress and was recently the topic of a 2022 research paper exploring the connection between stress levels on performance and found that as stress levels increased, work performance decreased

  • Increasing errors at work
  • ​Difficulty making decisions
  • ​Increasing absenteeism and presentism
  • ​Loss of income due to job loss and job action
  • ​Loss of self esteem, doubting one's ability to perform

Next Steps

It is important to be able to recognize the signs of chronic stress, especially in a worksite where workplace bullying is ongoing so that you can take action to protect yourself.

If you feel you may be suffering from chronic stress, talk to your healthcare team today and access the resources available to you such as your employee assistance program, a therapist, psychologist, or a specialized coach who understands the dynamics of workplace bullying.

Organizations can also take steps to reduce bullying by normalizing difficult conversations, leadership training and development and putting an emphases on communication skills for the whole team.

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