13 May, 2018

Stressed out!!!

Stress as a word is getting thoroughly devalued through over-use.

“I’m so stressed!!”

We hear it all the time.

People complain about it frequently and blame it for a range of problems, from mistakes at work to the breakdown of relationships, from fatigue to major health issues.

Everyone is ‘under stress’ and, as a result, there is little sympathy when someone else claims to be feeling the pressure.

Stress, however, has a massive impact on general health and wellbeing and that means it matters in business.

As a physiological concept, stress is not new.

Hans Selye first discovered what we now call stress in 1936 when he first explained the chemical reactions in the body which trigger what we tend to call the ‘fight or flight’ instinct. In essence, when sensing danger of any kind, the body releases a set of chemicals (most notably Adrenalin and Cortisol) which raise the heart rate and divert the body’s resources to parts of the body most needed for survival.

So, for example, a burst of adrenaline will make muscles work better. If you were faced with a hungry bare-toothed tiger, that would be essential so you could fight of the attack or ‘leg-it’ in the other direction!

What’s more, that physical exertion, followed by a period of calm and relaxation once the danger was passed would disperse the chemicals out of the body.

The need to fend off sabre-toothed tigers is now extinct (as, of course, is the poor animal himself!). 21st century stress is different.

The primal need to fight or flee a savage animal is now translated into fight or flee a savage e-mail…

The chemical release is the same but the levels of stimulation continue. It isn’t just one e-mail causing stress, it is an inbox of hundreds (mine, at the moment, has 3427 emails in it – I’m aiming for some kind of a record!!).

The physical exertion and relaxation doesn’t automatically follow however and, as a result the body is regularly swimming in Adrenalin and cortisol and that is harmful in the long term and it plays out in a range of ways.

  • Lying awake at night, unable to get to sleep
  • Waking suddenly during the night
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Irritability and short temper
  • Lower immunity – so susceptibility to coughs, colds and ‘flu
  • Heart disease
  • Increased risk of cancer and other serious illness
  • Wight gain (not just because you eat on the run but because the body wants to store as much fat as possible to deal with all the sabre-toothed tigers it is anticipating)

It can be massively damaging.

What’s more – and a particular reason for organisations to care – the evidence shows that stress reduced logical thinking. It makes sense, if you think about it. When faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, the body is diverting energy to allow you to run away. In those circumstances, being able to make rational and logical decisions (such as how much packaging to order or what is the best approach for the upcoming marketing campaign) really aren’t important.

That’s why, when you are really under pressure, you feel you can’t think. And the pressure goes up. A classic example of a vicious circle.

  • You are worried about a deadline
  • You can’t concentrate
  • You make a mistake that you don’t spot
  • Your boss is annoyed at the silly mistake
  • Now you have to work late to correct the error
  • You feel under pressure and worried about the now overdue deadline

And so it continues.

So what can be done about all this stress in the workplace? We can’t just halt the pace of life!

Well, here’s one fascinating fact about stress. There are some simple types of activity which are really good for us.

Exercise is particularly beneficial. It burns off the harmful chemicals and builds resilience for the body. It is a form of stress which counters all the other stresses of life.

Meditation is also something I recommend to anyone I’m working with. Even 10 minutes a day of just stopping and focusing on your breath or sounds or connection to the physical body can allow the body to recharge and distress

Getting out into the fresh air is another really important strategy. The Japanese use a technique called “tree bathing” where they go into the forests and spend time absorbing the essence of nature. It doesn’t need to be as extreme as that, though. You are just as able to benefit from getting out into the sunshine or feeling the rain on your face to allow the cares of the day to fade away for a few moments.

Or perhaps just stopping giving yourself the time to just sit and reflect properly on this article is going to help you.

What is stress doing to you? And your family and friends? And your work colleagues?

Is it time to take a step back and really look at this from a new perspective?

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