The 2008 Stress in America
survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that nearly half of Americans report that their stress level has increased over the past year. Thirty percent of the respondents rated their average stress levels as extreme (8, 9, or 10 on a 10-point scale). Most of the respondents believed that they were managing their stress effectively (81%), but the facts indicated otherwise. Most were experiencing negative effects of stress on their physical health, emotional health, relationships, and work productivity. This suggests that the sedentary activities most people reported using to manage their stress are not effective. Insurance adjusters might be doing even worse.
Times are Tough
There is every indication that the days ahead will prove to be just as tough, if not tougher. Employment as a property and casualty claims adjuster provides a steady supply of stress-producing situations under the best of times. Working and living at the site of a large loss claim following hurricanes, floods, and large fires multiplies the stress level. That is especially true if one’s own family has been affected by the disaster. The worldwide economic recession ensures greater stress, too, as employees demand more production from fewer employers and customers are desperate for quick settlements.
Build Your Resilience
Most adjusters can stay happy, healthy, and productive even while living at the site of a major disaster. Whether you will be one of those fortunate ones will be decided by the choices you make today. Resilience in a high stress environment results from a healthy lifestyle over days, weeks, and months, not implementing a list of quick-fix tips the day after one is deployed to the field to handle a large loss claim. Key steps are recognizing your stress signals, avoiding quick fixes that cause long-term pain, thinking right, eating right, aerobic exercise, frequent breaks, and healthy relationships.
Recognize Your Stress Signals
People experience stress in different ways. Thriving in a high stress environment requires rapidly recognizing and responding to your personal signs of stress. If you can’t listen to your own body, you’ll be in no shape to listen to the complaints of angry, agitated claimants.
Men in particular have difficulty recognizing and accepting signs of stress in themselves. Ask for help. Chances are your coworkers, spouse, children, and friends already know how you experience stress. Ask them what they see. Listen to their answers. You probably won’t like what you hear, but it will help you succeed in being the tough guy that you thought you were all along.
Common Signs of Stress
- Muscle tension
- Neck pain
- Back pain
- Upset stomach
- Dry mouth
- Chest pains
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Loss of appetite
- Overeating “comfort foods”
- Increased frequency of colds
- Lack of concentration
- Short temper
Short Term Gain, Long Term Pain
The 2008 APA survey found that almost half of Americans (48%) report overeating or eating unhealthy foods to manage stress. Women were more likely than men to report unhealthy behaviors to manage stress, like eating poorly (56% versus 40%), shopping (25% versus 11%), or napping (43% versus 32%). Almost one-fifth of the respondents reported drinking alcohol to manage their stress (18%). These activities are quick, easy, affordable, and available, and they are effective—but only briefly. They do not provide the relief that your mind and body require to sustain lasting employment as an adjuster in a high stress environment.
Change your beliefs and you will change how you feel. Your feelings are involuntary responses that are largely outside of your control, but you can change the thoughts that produce your unpleasant feelings.
4 Common Classes of Cognitive Distortions
- Dogmatic Demands—I, they, the world, must, have to, ought, can’t be a certain way
- Low Frustration Tolerance—I can’t stand it!
- Awfulizing—This is terrible, horrible, unbearable
- Self/Other Ratings—I am worthless or he/she/they are worthless
Change your feelings by changing how you think about things. For example, the Dogmatic Demand “I must complete every claim file correctly” becomes “The fewer mistakes I make, the easier my day will go.” Beliefs about working in a disaster zone can change from “I can’t stand another week in this hell hole!” to “This place is hot, damp, and filthy, but I’ve endured it for two weeks and can make it another week even if I hate it.” The new belief increases your frustration tolerance while recognizing your misery. Most importantly, rate the effectiveness of your actions and the actions of others rather than rating yourself. For example, “I keep forgetting to ask about XYZ” suggests a solvable problem, whereas “I’m a hopeless failure” will lead only to despair.
Of the four common classes of cognitive distortions, dogmatic demands are the most common, but self/other ratings are the most destructive. Many times, an inspirational quote can help keep your thinking on track. See if any of the following are helpful for you:
Quotes to Help You Avoid Self/Other Ratings
- “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” — Jean Giraudoux
- "The truth is that there is nothing noble in being superior to somebody else. The only real nobility is in being superior to your former self." — Whitney Young
- “It’s a good thing when you're being criticized. It means what you are doing matters and someone cares how well you do. Be worried when you're doing poorly and no one cares because they have given up on you.” — source unknown
The key to thinking right is not simply to think positively. Adjusters commonly confront situations in which a positive outlook would be irrational. The key is to convert inflexible demands into preferences and probabilities. It means recognizing that, usually, when we tell ourselves that we can’t stand a situation, we are in fact standing it at that moment and simply strongly dislike it. It means that calling unpleasant circumstances awful actually worsens our experience of them. It means recognizing that the inherent and unchangeable worth in yourself and every other person cannot be changed by actions or inactions.
Frequent Small Breaks
Develop the habit of taking frequent small breaks throughout your workday. These can keep stress from building to an overwhelming level and can increase your endurance greatly. The simplest strategy is to pause and count four deep breaths in and four deep breaths out. This works well upon getting into your car and upon arriving at a destination before interacting with an insured. It’s free, easy, always available, and surprisingly effective.
The effectiveness of deep breathing can be enhanced by a few minutes of stretching. While standing, reach as high as you can above your head. Next, pull your shoulders up towards your ears then behind you while arching your back as if you’re being suspended by your shoulder blades. Lower your chin to your chest, then rotate it up and as far left and right as is comfortable. If you can, remove your shoes, arch your toes up, then rotate your foot around your ankle. Repeat these stretches and the deep breathing multiple times throughout the day.
If you do only one thing to help yourself cope with stress, make it aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise includes things like brisk walking, running, dancing, swimming, and playing basketball. Changing your lifestyle to increase your resilience to stress also requires activities to strengthen your muscles, like push-ups and lifting weights.
Stress affects the immune system in ways that lead to aging conditions such as frailty, functional decline, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, inflammatory arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Exercise reduces the physical impact of stress by reducing cortisol production, and it causes the release of endorphins which relieve pain and produce a natural high.
In the 2008 APA stress study, less than half of the respondents (47%) said they exercise or walk to manage stress, yet no other single step is more effective. The federal government has issued its first-ever Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
. The guidelines describe the types and amounts of physical activity that offer substantial health benefits. You can obtain your copy at www.health.gov/paguidelines
. The Web site also includes a guide on how you can fit physical activity into your life your way.
Simple dietary changes can increase your resilience to stress greatly. Reduce your intake of simple carbohydrates (e.g., soda, fruit juice, alcohol, white bread, etc.). Increase your intake of complex carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains, whole fruits, and vegetables). Maintain healthy eating habits. For example, always eat from a plate rather than straight from the can, bag, or box of food. Make eating your primary focus (e.g., no TV, no reading). When in a disaster area with few nutritional options, you likely will benefit from using nutritional supplements. A key nutrient for a stressed adjuster is omega-3 fatty acids, which you can obtain easily from fish oil capsules or flax seed oil capsules. Vitamins D, B6, and B12 along with folic acid also are helpful and are easily and inexpensively obtained from over-the-counter multivitamins.
A recent study in the online version of the British Medical Journal was the first to demonstrate that emotion is contagious. Researchers analyzed data compiled from nearly 5,000 interconnected people over a 20-year period. They concluded that happiness is about as contagious as the flu and can spread to people three degrees away from the original mood shifter. A happy person not only makes his or her associates happier, but also the associates’ friends. “Catching” an emotion requires more physical proximity than adopting a behavioral norm. The research indicated that we are more likely to adopt the happiness of people with whom we have frequent face-to-face contact, not merely those who live nearby or under similar circumstances.
Where do you meet these happy people so you can pick up these happy “germs”? Probably not at the hotel bar. Look for happy people wherever people are exercising. This can include fitness trails, gyms, and community dances. Attending religious services is another option.
You can create happy people yourself. Become genuinely interested in other people and ask them to tell you about themselves. Memorize and share a few clean jokes. Smile. Act as if you already are happy and it will tend to make you happy. At a disaster site, invite colleagues to join you in watching a comedy movie on your laptop. Be liberal with your encouragement. Provide frequent, specific, genuine praise. Express honest appreciation to those who help you (e.g., colleagues, waitresses, hotel staff, etc.). Try to see the opportunity in every difficulty and share your vision with others. These steps will increase your happiness and that of those around you.