It’s no secret managing stress and mental health is a major concern for every workplace today. Some of the words we use to describe todays working environments are; busy, agile, flexible, mobile, connected and 24/7. The mental load of operating in this environment is huge and when combined with the high amount of uncertainty present in many businesses as well as the increased pace of life, it’s more important than ever for individuals to have a personal understanding of stress and it’s impacts on their health and productivity.
The number 1 function of our body is to adapt to its immediate environment in order to maintain homeostasis. Keeping everything as regular as possible in the context of our surroundings. In order to do this we have a number of built in automatic response systems which run subconsciously in the background ready to be called upon at any time. The stress responses system is one example which could be described as emergency biological programming to prepare us for a demand for change. When you take this view of our stress response system, it’s really pretty amazing. It’s like our own inner steroid injection system for when we need to take our bodies up a gear. This emergency response system is our most effective performance enhancer.
It allows us to increase our physical output to run away from a threat (I won’t say sabre-tooth tiger), or focus our mind to meet an impending deadline at work. Stress helps us gain clarity when facing a new challenge and to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone which is normally the fastest way to personal growth and development. The acute physiological changes which allow this to happen take place automatically. Just amazing.
So what happens when we run this emergency programming for extended periods of time? In attempting to maintain homeostasis we might try to ignore it. Imagine your fire alarm at work went off but was faulty meaning it wouldn’t shut off. After the initial kerfuffle died down, and you got tired of hanging around after your immediate evacuation, the sound would just annoy you. They are not a pleasant tune. Eventually you might try to get on with some work, send a few emails or text messages, maybe trying to block out the noise with the help of your overpriced noise cancelling headphones (sorry that’s an in-joke with my wife). While you could block it out for a period of time, it would still be there in the background and your attention would regularly be drawn to the unbearably annoying sound while you gradually feel more restless and agitated over time.
In the same way when you are confronted by a stressor, something which causes stress, your body responds by sounding the emergency alarm and the cascading release of hormones to assist you to deal with the stressor. The main stress hormone that you might be familiar with is cortisol which is literally the steroid injection I mentioned earlier. It provides us with a whole host of benefits including increasing the availability of our stored fuel supplies (glycogen and fat), increasing our blood pressure and our increasing our sensitivity to other hormones such epinephrine to heighten our focus. All these symptoms prepare us for rapid muscular contraction and increased energy output which might required due to the stressor.
Too much of a good thing, however can be a bad thing. We like to label things as being good or bad but a lot of times these things are dose dependant. Using a nutritional example, salt and fat have been vilified for years, being labeled as body weight bad guys, when in fact they are vital nutrients that our bodies need. Just in the right amount.
In cases of chronic stress, when your stress response does not shut, you end up with elevated levels of cortisol for a longer period than is normally required. This will cause your body to try to adapt to the increased levels of cortisol circulating, leading to side effects such as reduced insulin sensitivity, irregular sleep and experiencing food cravings which can often lead to wight gain. You might not notice these symptoms at first, but your partner might when a seemingly insignificant disagreement causes a terrible-two’s-like-meltdown. This lingering, heightened stress state is now the number 1 cause of unexpected workplace absence and is literally costing organisations millions. As one of the many interwoven factors that impact on our wellbeing, it is robbing individuals of being in their optimal state of health.
As my goal is to help individuals and organisations create enduring healthy change, I see the issue of managing stress as a vital focus area. Having the self-awareness and the tools to actively manage stress could give you the best return on your effort when setting out to create a healthy change in your life. If you consider yourself to be a bit of a “stress head” it could be time to look into ways you can better manage your own stress. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing tips and tools from my workshop Driving Down Stress to help you better manage stress which may come in handy as we approach the silly season (I mean the festive season)!