We live in frantic times. We must meet deadlines, reconcile working and family life, and always be one step ahead of every project we undertake. It’s not only demanding, but also tiresome. Living under pressure became synonymous to living under constant influence of stress. Yet, is stress really such a vicious thing? And if, how can we cope when it seems to be so inevitable?
Good guy stress
Stress is nothing else as the body’s reaction to a difficult situation. We recognize that something may cause harm and so a whole chain of physiological processes is triggered to shape us up and get us ready to cope, whether it is fighting the problem or simply running away. So what does this really happen? An alarmed brain sends signals to our body and activates the sympathetic system – a system responsible for switching us on if there’s a need for a quick reaction. Adrenal glands start rushing adrenaline into to the blood stream, our heart beats faster pushing blood into muscles, heart rate and pulse rise, senses get sharper, and we are ready to go.
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Imagine a hypothetical situation. You get a call from your boss that a very important meeting with some very important people will take place sooner than you expected (or you just messed up your agenda). You are in shambles, but at the back in your head you know you can manage. And then is when good guy stress (or eustress) kicks in:
- your attention span gets narrowed so you focus on a particular task
- your energy level gets a boost
- you feel excited and motivated to cope with the challenge
- your performance improves
All in all, it turns out that the stress reaction is adaptive. However, you have to keep in mind that the parts of your brain that are in control of the processes depicted above are pretty old and not really aware of the fact that we are no longer fighting for survival hunting wild animals. Our body simply had no chance to catch up with the cultural and technological evolution. This means that a stress reaction can do a good job when the threat is an ad hoc situation, but was not designed to deal with long-term challenges. To put it in a job context – we are pretty well equipped to deal with a single stressful task, not an entire project.
The bad news is that that the positive effects of stress will last for approximately 30 minutes. After that time, it starts to wreak our internal organs, immune and nervous systems. The reason behind this is obvious – keeping us alert requires a lot of energy, so our body cannot take care of itself like it would in a normal situation. The processes responsible for building up our organism shut down, digestive organs slow down, immune system stops fighting down viruses, bacteria, or other intruders. And if stress is prolonged, we head straight for exhaustion. There’s no time for regeneration, when you are on a survival mode.
What can bad stress (distress) do to your body:
- muscle tension
- digestive problems
- loss of appetite
- susceptibility to infections
- heart attacks
Our primitive brain acting out
Stress takes a toil on our cognitive system as well. While at work we cannot do without our brain cells. So you may find it pretty disturbing that stress can actually lead to the shrinkage of gray matter. Most prone to damage is our prefrontal cortex – the part that takes over higher brain functions, such as reasoning, decision making, planning, and problem solving. That needs some time to happen of course.
Mind that, however, when under stress, your prefrontal lobes will not be able to do its job properly. The more primitive, yet quicker, brain parts will be in charge. In consequence, available coping strategies may become limited to basic and not always adaptive routines. You may be more prompt to throw tantrums, get aggressive, uncooperative, or withdrawn. Moreover, stress lowers serotonin levesl that can lead to depression and obsessive compulsive behavior.
Stress can heavily affect your emotions and reasoning in various ways. You may expect:
- attention shifting and inability to focus
- intrusive thoughts
- worse understating of your (and others) emotional state
- sense of losing control
- blank mind
What is even more important, long-term stress can become a problem itself. You focus more on the very fact that you are stressed out than on your job responsibilities. Tasks keep pilling up and the vicious circle gets tighter. Worst of all, your survival brain will look for shortcuts to deal with the problem – chocolate bar instead of a nourishing meal to restore energy level, alcohol or other substances to calm you down, or other destructive behaviors just to let the steam off.
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This is all a little gloomy isn’t it? So what can we do? We’ve got a few things to help you change your stressful ways!
Work stress busters
Let’s be honest – even the best work environment imagined cannot shelter you from being stressed. As I have mentioned previously, stress is a natural (or even neutral) reaction. All you can do is to learn how to cope with the mechanism before it turns against your mind and body.
1. Learn to detect stress symptoms
The sooner you spot that stress starts to affect your general well-being, the better. You have to observe your body reactions and learn when you turn from enthusiastic into frantic. Try to detect when and why an adrenaline rush brings confusion that disorganizes your work. It may happen that stressful situations are linked with each other. Only when you understand the whole mechanism, will you be able to launch your personal stress prevention program.
2. Work out the stress pattern
Breaking your daily work routine into smaller chunks may help you to get a better view of what actually happens when stress kicks in. Analyze step by step your behavior, circumstances, and people involved. The key here is to find out at which point you are more prone to suffer from stress and when you can relax and let the steam off. Then have a closer look at your coping strategies. Do you have any? Are they actually helpful? What are their costs? Can you change your behavior to become more efficient? Are you actually in force to improve your situation? Where can you seek support?
3. Get support
Talk with your supervisor about the difficulties you have to tackle. Discuss together your workload and whether your tasks are in the scope of your capabilities. Don’t be afraid to be honest about your feelings and doubts.
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However, stay as constructive as possible. Complaining won’t help at all. This also applies to your fellow workers. Don’t brood on how hard you’ve got it, but ask for specific advice. And at all times avoid taking out your anger on others. You will quickly realize that what goes around comes around.
4. Ease up on perfectionism
Excessive perfectionism is an easy way to exhaustion. Rethink the quality of your job and stay with the good enough level. Taking the extra mile each time you have a project to deliver is simply impossible. Setting unrealistic goals will not only bring your nerves to the edge, but will also result in losing sense of control and lowering your self-esteem.
5. Balance your work and private life
Don’t make yourself be available 24 hours a day – you need some work-free space to get your mind and body balanced. And I am not talking about over-hours you do in the evenings to catch up with your work. That is something that comes down to the point I have discussed above. To clean your mind, you will have to shelter yourself from all the factors that remind you of work.
Stay away from your work by not checking your mobile all the time. Its very presence may keep your sympathetic system going on, so you will not be able to relax. Moreover, it may be pretty difficult to resist the temptation to browse your mailbox, when the phone lies on your dinner table. Get yourself busy with other activities instead. Find some time for your social life, get involved in an interesting hobby, do anything you like that can effectively draw your attention from your work life.
Here’s a useful study that examines a critical aspect of our private lives – sleep – and how it’s seen by different employee groups (e.g. freelancers, entrepreneurs, employees).
6. Look after your body
A hungry man is an angry man, and a hungry body is a stressed body! Do not feed your stress by skipping meals or gorging on whatever comes to your hand. Plan your meals ahead. Have a nourishing breakfast, find time for lunch (preferably not in front of the computer screen) and keep healthy snacks nearby.
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Stress likes a sedentary lifestyle as well, so try doing sports. A dash of endorphins after a mild workout will keep your body and mind less vulnerable. However, if you need an instant relief after a hard workday – work out till you drop. When you are a bundle of nerves, a moderate activity will only higher your heart rate and your body will keep you on your fight or flight mode.
To sum it up
Stress is in the eye of the beholder – while putting in carbs will do no or little harm. The general recipe is quite simple: listen to your body, understand its reaction, and make more conscious decisions while coping with difficult time. Be your best and happiest self at home AND work! What are your strategies when stress kicks in? Share in the comments below!