The Science of Stress
By Uzma Afridi, Business Psychologist and NABS Career Coach
It’s National Stress Awareness Day today, and now more than ever as an industry and individuals we need to take mental health and wellbeing seriously.
In October, an absence management study by the CIPD found that two-fifths of respondents reported that stress-related absence in their organisation has increased over the past year, and less than three-fifths of organisations are taking steps to reduce stress in the workplace.
The main causes of stress were identified as high workloads, management style, difficult relationships with colleagues and job security.
To understand the reason stress affects our health, you need to understand what is actually happening in the body when stress is triggered.
Stress is the threat of an unexpected event requiring our body to react to our thought processes. The instinctive stress response for our survival of unexpected events is flight or fight. When we face a perceived threat or shock the hormone cortisol is released, which raises our heart rate and blood pressure, producing adrenaline to deliver more oxygen and blood sugar to our muscles.
This release of adrenaline clouds our thinking affecting our decision-making abilities and performance. Long periods of raised levels of cortisol can damage our immune system, stopping it from being as effective and reduce the number of brain cells, thus impairing our memory.
Our everyday life throws situations at us where our flight or fight response kicks in because it perceives a threat from situations such as a delayed tube, moving house, a difficult deadline and so on. Even when the threat appears small, it is still a threat to us. It may have a small reaction, but nonetheless the reaction still takes place, small or big, leaving us to often not notice it.. The result is a build-up of stress that leaves us overly sensitive or aggressive to situations.
Breathing from the top of your chest, a rapid heartbeat, making simple mistakes in your work that you kick yourself over, not sleeping well. These are the symptoms we have commonly heard about and to be honest we often ignore or accept as being ‘normal’.
Now consider the other common symptoms that people just don’t realise are signs of stress that we ignore; low energy, headaches, upset stomachs, nausea, muscular pain, regular colds and infections, and even loss of libido. We can do something about this, by claiming back some control.
What can we do:
1) Get organised: Recognise that we are human beings and therefore we are not perfect. We do make mistakes and fail at times. We need to train ourselves to think ahead and put the appropriate systems in place to prevent such situations from happening (or happening as frequently). Think about which situations occur regularly and cause you stress.
- Client meetings? – Plan the journey, allow extra time if it is not a journey you do every day, have an alternative route and take the client’s number with you in case of any delays.
- Have a designated place in your house for your keys, travel card, passport etc. This is your go-to place to put any items.
- Lists can be detailed but do what is right for you. Consider lists for work, for socialising, for life maintenance.
- Take photos on your phone of your receipts, where you park your car, your journey route on citymapper to get to your client meeting. Whatever makes you feel more in control, especially when under pressure.
2) Visualisation: A great way to plan for hurdles that trip us up and make us nervous and stressed. By preparing for a bad situation in advance mentally, you haveallowed your brain and body to partly experience the situation, so it is ready to react practically and less emotionally during the stressful moment.
2) Exercise: This is so you can burn off the excess adrenaline and cortisol your body has built up.
3) Food: Taking care of ourselves is vital. When presented with a stressor, the energy used for other systems such as our digestive is reduced, leaving us feeling nauseous, sick and sluggish. To counteract this, we should avoid skipping meals, consider the nutrients we need and replenish ourselves.
4) Get to know your breathing: Stop and take note of where you are breathing from. If it is the top of our chest and it is fast, take a few minutes out and take deep breaths. Reduce the chain reaction trigger sequence of stress by stopping your body from producing more cortisol and adrenaline than is required. This is where mindfulness and yoga can really support you in creating new habits to do this.
Whilst we can do our best to manage our stress, it is important that we remember that it is not just ‘all in the mind’. It’s a very real response to workplace and home-life pressure, affecting us both mentally and physically. Thankfully, advancements are being made in the area of stress management through techniques such as mindfulness and resilience. These are not just buzz words; they’re topics of utmost importance.